Motive and opportunity

by Ted on October 14, 2004

Re: the alleged voter fraud in Nevada

Is there any rational reason why new voters should be asked to declare their party when they register? Voter registration drives are the healthy by-products of political campaigns. The registrars are likely to be enthusiastic partisans, and the tempation to toss out new voters for the other guy will always be there.

Not every state makes new voters declare a party when they register. I know from experience that Washington and Texas don’t do it. In Texas, you effectively declare your party by voting in one primary or the other. Your party affiliation doesn’t appear on your registration form or your voter card. I’ve done some voter registration for, and for all I know, I did nothing but register Republicans. I had no opportunity to throw out Republicans, because I didn’t know who they were. It seems like a good system.

Am I missing something obvious?



nihil obstet 10.14.04 at 8:56 pm

On North Carolina state income tax returns, the filer can check off a $1 donation for campaign financing. The overall amount checked off is divided among the parties based on registration. Thus, the party registration does have practical consequences.


lemuel pitkin 10.14.04 at 9:01 pm

Most states have closed primaries in which only people registered in the party may vote. This is generally a good thing, but it means party affiliation has to be part of the registration process.


lemuel pitkin 10.14.04 at 9:04 pm

As a matter of fact, Washington State just switched to the closed primary system, so I assume voter registration cards there now do (or will soon) ask for party.


Ted Barlow 10.14.04 at 9:07 pm

Lemuel, that’s a good answer. But Texas effectively has closed primaries as well- you can’t vote in both.

I suppose that I could decide in any election that my desire to wreak havok in the other party’s primary is greater than my desire to vote in my own, and our system makes that a little easier. I could do so without officially changing my party registration. But this seems like a pretty small benefit, compared with the threat of partisan fraud in registration.


aphrael 10.14.04 at 9:12 pm

Lemuel – you know Washington State switched because the Supreme Court told it to, right? California’s int he same boat.


paperwight 10.14.04 at 9:14 pm

Ted, that’s not a closed primary. That’s an “limited open” primary system. A primary in which you can vote for anyone of any party is called a “blanket” or “open” primary.

Truly closed primaries require that you have declared your party in advance, and it’s on that basis that you receive a ballot.


JRoth 10.14.04 at 9:17 pm

Clearly, Ted is not thinking creatively. All he needed to do was to dress preppy (not ironic preppy – real preppy) and register people at the local affluent mall. He could then have been assured of registering mostly Republicans, and he could confidently shred the docs with little fear of having disenfranchised Dems.

Or was this not his point?


lemuel pitkin 10.14.04 at 9:24 pm

I respectfully disagree. It’s very common for one party to have a contested primary for an office while the other does not, so large numbers of people crossing party lines to vote seems quite likely.

And the issue isn’t wreaking havoc, but simply a genuine preference for one or the other candidate. if primaries are open to all voters, you’ve effectively moved to a system of nonpartisan elections, IMHO a very bad thing — but that would be anotehr discussion.

Anyway, if the question is “why is it done this way” and not “why should it be done this way” I think party primaries are the main reason.


lemuel pitkin 10.14.04 at 9:28 pm

Aprael – yep, well aware. My understanding of the decision is that the Court found it was unconstitutional for the state to require open primaries, and that it was the decision of the aprties themselves to take the opportunity to move to closed primaries.

The California case is different, IIRC — they currently have closed primaries but prop. 42, on the ballot this fall, would effectively move to a non-partisan system.


GMT 10.14.04 at 9:34 pm

And why, in Florida, should party affiliation be printed on the outside of the envelope for the absentee ballots?


Mike Jones 10.14.04 at 9:36 pm

I strongly suspect that the parties prefer to have it this way; they can get a list of everyone who has registered in the party immediately after the registration deadline for the election and target them for donations/mailings/GOTV.


GMT 10.14.04 at 9:36 pm

And why, in Florida, should party affiliation be printed on the outside of the envelope for the absentee ballots?


Dr. Weevil 10.14.04 at 9:39 pm

I don’t know why Ted is so dubious about the likelihood of malicious crossover voting. I’ve done it myself. The next paragraph is recycled from a post two years ago (10/5/02) on my site:

“When I lived in Alabama in 1992, I asked for a Democratic primary ballot and voted for Jerry Brown. Alabama voted quite late in the primary season, and it was obvious by then that Buchanan and Brown had no chance of beating the front-runners, Bush and Clinton. (All the rest had already fallen by the wayside.) I voted for Brown just to make Clinton’s primary victory that tiny bit less impressive, which I thought would have a minuscule but still useful effect in making him less likely to be elected once he was nominated. If I had been a Democrat, I would have asked for a Republican ballot and voted for Buchanan for the same reason. If I had been a Perot voter, I would have had to decide whether I despised Bush or Clinton more, since Alabamans are allowed to vote in either primary, but not both. Rightly or wrongly, I thought that decreasing Clinton’s margin of victory would be more effective than increasing Bush’s. (I wonder what a statistician or political scientist would say about that?)”

I didn’t mention it in my post, but I also recommended negative voting to any of my then-students at the University of Alabama who were (a) Democrats unenthusiastic about Clinton, (b) Republicans unenthusiastic about Bush, or (c) Perot voters. No reason why any of them should have to stay home on Primary Day. Of course, I carefully concealed which of these groups included me. I don’t know how many took up the suggestion, though I was told “that’s really cold” by one uncynical youth.


rea 10.14.04 at 10:16 pm

“I don’t know why Ted is so dubious about the likelihood of malicious crossover voting. I’ve done it myself.”

Maybe the most famous example of this was George Wallace’s win in the 1972 Michigan Democratic primary, with the enthusiastic support of large numbers of people who were Republicans any day but primary day.

The only way to avoid this type of dirty trick, short of doing away with primaries, is to require registration by party.


P.D. 10.14.04 at 10:53 pm

For what it’s worth, requiring voters to declare a party when registering does not squelch all crossover voting. In 2000, I reregistered as a Republican so I could vote for McCain over Bush. This was not an attempt at sabotage. I reasoned: Since the Republican candidate would have some chance of winning, I had an interest in who the candidate was. I was trying to hedge my bets: McCain would have made a better president than Bush.


Chris Corrigan 10.14.04 at 10:57 pm

Are you missing something obvious you ask? Well, try as I might, I can’t fathom why the American voter registration process is so difficult. Why there isn’t one office that oversees the registration of voters and runs federal elections. Even the idea that there are different kinds of voting machines in each poll seems strange to me.

Up here, this whole process is handled . For me that’s the biggest hang up about the American system: the involvement of political parties in what should be an independant process.

(Although here in Canada, political canvassers can facilitate registration, there’s no declaration of party affiliation or anything like that)


Rich 10.14.04 at 11:01 pm

“The only way to avoid this type of dirty trick, short of doing away with primaries, is to require registration by party.”

But, seeing as you can register as the opposition party with no problem, registration prevents nothing.


Rich 10.14.04 at 11:02 pm

“The only way to avoid this type of dirty trick, short of doing away with primaries, is to require registration by party.”

But, seeing as you can register as the opposition party with no problem, registration prevents nothing.


Rich 10.14.04 at 11:03 pm

“The only way to avoid this type of dirty trick, short of doing away with primaries, is to require registration by party.”

But, seeing as you can register as the opposition party with no problem, registration prevents nothing.


Chris Corrigan 10.14.04 at 11:11 pm

Sorry…screwy link actually goes to the Elections Canada website.


lemuel pitkin 10.14.04 at 11:13 pm

But, seeing as you can register as the opposition party with no problem, registration prevents nothing.

In states with closed primaries, there is typically a rather long interval (sometimes as muchas a year, I think, certainly several months) between the time you register as a member of a party and the time you become eligible to vote in its primaries. So it actually does prevent the kind of situations Rea described, since it’s unlikely the candiddates in the primary will be known that far in advance.


Erik 10.14.04 at 11:45 pm

Ted’s absolutely right. This is a practice that ought to be done away with as it obviously creates opportunities for fraud. If parties desperately want to hold primaries, there are pretty straightforward solutions for that.


barrisj 10.15.04 at 1:21 am

The situation in WA now requires that voters in primaries select one of several ballots, which reflects either the party for which the voter wishes to cast his/her candidate votes, or “non-partisan”, which permits voting only for candidates for offices having no party designation (and disallows voting for partisan candidates). Voter registration requires no statement of party affiliation.


Chris Lawrence 10.15.04 at 5:06 am

Chris: The short answer is: operating elections is a reserved power of the states.

And there’s nothing “difficult” about it: go here, fill out the form, and mail it in. It works in 48 of 50 states (ND doesn’t have voter registration, and WY and NH don’t accept it for various reasons).


Chris Corrigan 10.15.04 at 5:54 am

Thanks Chris…I went and had a look.

Phew! Here in Canada you can show up on election day with two pieces of ID and vote. Or you can register by ticking a box on your tax return and your info is forwarded to Elections Canada.

At any rate, I noticed on the US form that several states ask for your race or ethnic group. The hair on my neck stood up when I saw that. It reminds me of my wife’s South African birth certificate that identifies her as “white.”

What on earth is that information used for? demographics I suppose. Although it seems that a preponderance of southern states request this while others instruct you to leave it blank.



Mary Kay 10.15.04 at 7:04 am

Chris C: It says in the instructions area of that national voter reg thing that some states request race to administer the Federal Voting Rights Act. It would make some sense that Southern states would be the ones most likely to have problems in this area requiring monitoring. I’m sorry you find ways of doing things that differ from your expectations creepy. There are huge differences in the way the US political system and parliamentary systems worked which are often disguised by the fact that both are referred to as democratic.

Political parties function very differently. In many races they do not select the candidates, that’s what the primaries do. Frankly I prefer a system in which only people registered as a particular party can vote in that party’s primaries. The way Washington state did it this year, where you didn’t declare a party on registering, but when you decided what section of the ballot to fill out, makes a certain amount of sense, but many people found it very confusing.



jif 10.15.04 at 3:06 pm

I’ve registered in three locations- Massachusetts, New York and Washington DC- and all three ask you to check off a party or as an independent. (You can be a green in DC!) But being an independent usually meant that you couldn’t vote in any of the primaries. But switching is okay- my father switched to Rep. in Mass. to vote for McCain in the 2000 primaries, and then switched back to Dem. As a result he has received a dozen “signed” photographs of GeeDubya and Laura this year. We take comfort that he is doing his small part to empty the GOP coffers. He shows them off at the MoveOn events my mom hosts.


Jonathan 10.15.04 at 6:42 pm

I’ve never understood why the party system is so built into the governmental election system in the United States. I grew up in Canada, and it always struck me as ridiculous that in the US the government has a role in choosing the candidates that the parties will run. Besides being unnecessary governmental intrusion, it allows the parties to slough off the cost of their primaries onto the taxpayers.

In Canada, where the party system is broken in quite different ways than it is in the US, the government runs only the actual elections. The parties themselves are responsible for choosing their candidates and leaders, by whatever means they choose. If you are a member of the party (which is something you and the party sort out, and usually involves paying some small annual fee, just enough to discourage people from signing up on a lark to muck with them) then you have some sort of voice in who gets selected, through methods of varying degrees of democracy.

This sort of system has at least two advantages. One I’ve mentioned already, having the parties pay for their own damn primaries. The other is more significant — by not registering as part of a given party, the ability to craft exquisitely gerrymandered districts is greatly reduced. One of the few things I agree with the Economist about w/rt US politics is that gerrymandered districts is doing real damage to democracy.


lemuel pitkin 10.15.04 at 6:59 pm

Jonathan, you make some good points.

Laws around internal party procedures, including the requirement to hold primaries, date mostly from the Progressive era. The goal was to prevent party leaders from handpicking candidates. In this it has succeeded, tho I would not argue that the replacement of support from party leadership with money & cleberity as key factors in getting on the ballot is an advance for democracy.


Jim Miller 10.15.04 at 7:04 pm

Well you left out the apology, although I must commend your candor. Not everyone would want to admit working for MoveOn.

By the way, those interested in another possibility on this story should look at my latest post.


Chris Lawrence 10.15.04 at 8:44 pm

A related issue is that the party nomination process in America is subject to state and federal regulation based on civil rights concerns–in the early 20th century, only whites could vote in the Democratic party primaries in the South, and since the South was a one-party region this effectively disenfranchised blacks (even beyond poll taxes and literacy tests). Open and semi-open primaries were designed and adopted in part to counter this phenomenon.

This coopting of parties into the formal system–the “public utility” model, as it has been dubbed by political scientists–has led to the further entrenchment of the existing parties, along with other institutional advantages (most notably preferred ballot status or lower qualifying petition requirements and/or fees in many states).


Another Damned Medievalist 10.15.04 at 8:49 pm

WA may not keep its new system — the WA Grange are supporting the very bogus Louisiana system — top two in the primary, no matter what party, go on to general election.

I’ve voted in WA, GA, and CA — there’s really nothing in any of the three (Georgia and WA are pretty much the same — choose your party ballot at the primary door) to keep crossover voting from happening. I did it against Reagan in California for the primary and then re-registered as a Dem (it doesn’t matter for the general election, but matters for money) the next day. What the current WA system does do is prevent a person from being able to vote negatively and positively at the same time, while not having to be affiliated with any one party past that election.

BTW — I got a signed card from W and Laura, too, and I have no idea why — I’ve never been registered Republican at my address, I’m college faculty, belong to a union, and donate to Amnesty International, public radio, and a couple of conservation groups. What mailing list did they buy?


Glen 10.15.04 at 10:23 pm

Why declare a party? I’ll bet that the SOBs who ran the scam “persuaded” the victims that they had to.


niq 10.15.04 at 10:47 pm

The people who want party identification are the parties themselves. If the parties know which voters are identified as Democrats or Republicans, they can be more accurate (and therefore cost effective) than if they don’t. So there is in fact a justification for good-government types that party ID is valuable information.


digamma 10.16.04 at 5:51 pm

But when you’re forced to declare a party, “Independent” or “Non-Partisan” are still legitimate parties, right? That’s how it is in Pennsylvania, I think.

The fun thing is working at the polls during a hotly contested closed primary and explaining to people who registered Independent why they can’t vote.


Rebecca Allen, PhD 10.18.04 at 4:50 am

We’re now required to declare a party to vote in the primary in Washington, unfortunately (due to a court decision).

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