High school teacher Kari Bluff, 28, of Monterey County, Calif., is looking forward to voting in the Feb. 5 "Super-duper Tuesday" presidential primary, but she thinks it's odd that - as an independent - she can cast her ballot for a Democrat but not a Republican.
"If I didn't like any of the candidates on the Democratic ticket, I wouldn't hesitate to choose a Republican candidate. However, I'm not allowed that option," said Bluff between English classes at King City High School. "I'm glad the Dems at least allow me that privilege."
Bluff, a lifelong independent, at least will have half a chance to weigh in on nominations in the most wide-open presidential contest in 56 years. But some 4.5 million independent voters in six states (Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Oklahoma and Utah) will be completely locked out of their states' presidential primaries Feb. 5 because they have "closed" primaries, in which only a voter registered with the party can help choose its nominee. Most of those voters come from New York where nearly 2.4 million independent voters reside.
Variations in state and party rules mean independent voters aren't treated equally in the nomination process. And independent voters this year are shaping up as key to determining whether it's Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton heading the Democratic ticket, and on the GOP side, John McCain, Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee.
Obama and McCain are seen as drawing the most benefit from independent voters. In the Jan. 8 New Hampshire primary and South Carolina's balloting on Jan. 19 and 26, "undeclared" voters were credited with helping McCain and Obama victories on their respective party ballots. "Open" primaries in South Carolina meant independent voters were able to cast ballots in either party's primary.
On Feb. 5, five states have open primaries and four states have "semi-open" primaries, which generally allow independent voters to cast ballots for either party although in some states, they must register with the party on Election Day. Nine states have party caucuses or conventions. In all, primaries and caucuses in 24 states on Feb. 5 could make or break some presidential hopes in what is the earliest - and maybe the most confusing - nominating process in history.
Overall, during this presidential primary season, 16 states have closed primaries that exclude independents and 13 states have open primaries, according to the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS). The remaining states, including California, run somewhere in the middle, with varying degrees of restrictions commonly known as "semi-open" primary systems.
[Click here for the NASS 2008 presidential primary/caucus information sheet, including voter registration deadlines and delegation allocation.]
In delegate-rich California, it was state political parties - not state lawmakers - that set the rules for how "decline-to-state," or independent, voters can participate.
"This is the first time such a system is being used in California," said Conny McCormack, former registrar of voters and the county clerk for Los Angeles County. She said she feared some voters might be confused by the arrangement. Nearly 3 million voters, or 19 percent of California's electorate, are registered as independents, she said. At stake are 441 delegates for the Democrats and 173 for the GOP.
California decided in 2000 that "unaffiliated" or "decline-to-state" voters could participate in primary elections if the parties allowed it. While the California Democratic Party opted to let "declare-to-state" voters participate in its primary, state GOP leaders in a controversial decision decided to bar independents from their presidential primary.
Hector Barajas, a spokesman for the California Republican Party, said the decision was a close one. The state GOP leadership board voted 11-9 to prohibit independents from casting ballots, a move Republican California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger criticized. Barajas said the party decided it was best for Republican voters to choose the Republican nominee and the party's delegates for the Republican National Convention.
Democrats in California have no complaints. "In California, every independent who votes will be voting in the Democratic primary. That's good for us," said Bob Mulholland, campaign advisor for the California Democratic Party, expecting it will bring more independents to the Democrats' side.
Independent California voters must be careful to ask for a Democratic ballot. Otherwise they automatically will be given a nonpartisan slate, allowing them to vote only for nonpartisan offices and ballot measures.
Florida's Feb. 29 primary was the first of the 2008 campaign to be completely closed to independent voters. Florida's estimated 2.2 million independents were free to weigh in on the controversial property-tax measure that was approved, but were barred from voting for a presidential candidate. While his campaign was concerned that independents couldn't vote in Florida, McCain won there anyway. The results of the Democratic primary are less telling because the party failed to bless the primary and candidates didn't fully compete there.
Curtis Gans, director of American University's Center for the Study of the American Electorate in Washington, D.C., said the system is unusual and may seem odd to some voters. But Gans said, "There's nothing fishy. The parties have the right to set their own rules."
The way Gans sees the situation in California is that, "Democrats essentially want to maximize participation in the primary, and the Republican Party, which is currently controlled by the more conservative elements, want to ensure that the delegates represent those elements."