Americans: Registering to Vote.

Help lift the veil of WTF from my eyes regarding this, please.

You “register as” a Democrat, Republican, etc?

What does this actually mean? Is it something to do with a symbolic show of support for a party, or actually a type of membership? In Australia, registering to vote is an apolitical thing, just like registering a car or a dog. You register your name, you go to the polling place, you get your name crossed off the list, and then go and do your secret ballot. So please explain to me the US connection between the registration process and the party affiliation.

One effect it has is that in most states the primary elections are held by the parties themselves, and only party registrants can vote.

For example, in early 2008 I’ll be living in Louisiana. If I register as a Republican I’ll get to vote for which of the Republican candidates I think the Republican party should run in the general election in November. Similarly, if I register as a Democrat I’ll get to vote for which of the Democratic candidates I think the Democratic party should run in the general election. Since I’ll likely register as neither party, I won’t get to vote at all in the primary elections.

Like you always hear, it is a 50 state system and there are many differences between states. There isn’t any national party “membership”. If you say you are a Democrat then you are and that’s it for example. The main difference comes in states that have a primary election system. That allows voters who are registered to a given parties to get a preliminary vote on who the final party candidate will be in the main election. Some states like my home state of Louisiana don’t even don’t have typical primary elections so voter affiliation doesn’t mean much.

Of course, party selection for voting is always optional and the main party in many place is “Independent”.

I stand corrected. I suppose there are things I should read up on before I move there from a “normal” state.

Our posts are strangely similar in examples but you may want to check on the Louisiana election thing. Louisiana tends to differ from the other states on most things because of the French and Spanish influence on the legal system. Louisiana uses a run-off election system in which all candidates are grouped together in the primary election and everyone votes on them. If nobody gets a majority in the primary election which is typical, the top two vote getters go to the main election and all voters get to choose among those two. It is common for both of the final candidates to be from the same political party so that is why I said it doesn’t mean much there.

In Virginia, you can’t register as a Democrat or Republican; it just isn’t an option on the registration form. However, you can only vote in one primary, because they are always held on the same day, and you can only get one ballot.

Can you register as both a democrat and a republican? If not, is it just a case of “you’re not supposed to do that”, or do they actually check that you’re not both (would that make you a republicrat? :smiley: )?

Oh yes you should. I love Louisiana with all my heart but it never pretends to be normal or follow what other states do. Where are you moving From/To?

Does the same principle apply in Presidential elections in Louisiana? can there be more than one candidate for Prez from the same party? is there a potential for a run-off if no presidential candidate gets 50% of the vote?

Aah. I think I’m starting to get it.

These “preliminary votes” are like what we know here as “preselection”. Under our system, the preselection of a candidate is an internal party matter. The public doesn’t vote on it.

These “run offs” sound much like our preferential system, so I think I get that part of it (apart from the part about the top two candidates being from the same party).

One term you hear in connection with US states is whether they have “open primaries”. The exact details vary from state to state, but the term generally means states in which the primary elections for the various parties are open to voters other than those actually registered as party members. States with open primaries usually have a far higher percentage of independent voters, for obvious reasons. CO was an open primary state when I was there, and I was registered independent. For primaries, you just said which party’s primary you wanted to vote in at the door. CA can’t seem to get this instituted correctly. If they did, I would drop my party registration like a hot potato.

CA’s fling with open primaries, and the current weird “modified closed” primary:

In states like CA, where there’s likely to be referenda on the ballot in the primary election (as well as the general), you still vote on those as an independent.

That ties into the idea that parties are rather arbitrary in some places. A Louisiana Democrat probably doesn’t have much in common with a New York Democrat. Candidates often assign themselves to a party because it is shorthand to voters about what they stand for even though it may not be that accurate for a given candidate. Louisiana runoffs acknowledge this fact and let the public select the top two out of everyone and then the better of those two in the general election. The system largely ignores the fact that listed party affiliations have much meaning except indirectly. It acknowledges the fact that the two best candidates may come from the same party and they should compete head to head in the general election.

It seems to me that this is confusing internal party matters–the selection of a candidate for President–with the general election, in which one gets to choose among the presidential candidates for which one will assume the office. Do these two elections take place at the same time?

No. Several months apart. That’s the point. You get to vote in the primary, then the chosen candidates in each party campaign for the general election. BTW, one chooses party candidates for other offices in the primary, too, not just the president.

As I never tire of explaining to non-Americans (and also to Americans who don’t realize how unique we are in this regard), in the United States party nominations are determined by state-run elections conducted under state law at state expense. It’s very strange. Therefore, when you register you are registering to vote in primary elections as well as general elections, and if state law allows and/or requires primary voting to be restricted to persons who declare a preference for a particular party, then the time to declare that preference is when you register.

On primary dates - a recent trend has been states pushing their primaries earlier and earlier. The ones with later dates have felt cheated in recent presidential years when the candidates were already pretty much settled by the time they had their primary. CA is moving theirs from June to February in 2008, for instance. You may have hear the term “Super Tuesday”. This refers to a Tuesday in March when many states happen to have their primaries. These dates will give you some feel for the interval between primaries and the general election, which is in November.

For presidential races, the candidates will actually be chosen (in theory) at “conventions” held by the parties. For 2008, the Democratic convention is in late August, the Republican in early September. In practice, the state primary elections have settled the candidates before the convention for the last few decades. Not all states have primary elections which bind party delegates for the convention, but most do. In the old days, candidates were much more likely to be chosen at the convention.


One proposal one sometimes hears is to have a single national primary date to stop this jockeying of primary dates by the states.

I’ve never understood states which allow for open party primaries.

There’s little point at all to having a party affiliation these days except for what one would think was the most basic right of all: the right to get to select which candidates represent your party in the election.

Party affiliation was once more meaningful. In the days when the party “machines” controlled states and cities, patronage jobs were handed out by the tens of thousands to party members. Whole families were party members and it became generational, because being with the winning party might literally make the difference between eating and not eating. Switching back and forth wasn’t an option, because disloyalty was punished.

Today, patronage jobs are far fewer and most of them are so high-level that ordinary voters will never see one.

About the only thing a party registration gets you is the ability to vote in primary elections. And perhaps those outside the US don’t realize how many political positions these are and how many primaries occur besides those for the presidency. School boards, city (or town or village) councils, county boards, judges, the two houses of each state legislature (except for unicameral Nebraska); the two houses of Congress, governors, attorneys general, sheriffs, and probably a hundred others as each state has a different set of elected officials. Party affiliation means - or should mean - the right to vote on hundreds of possible candidates at all levels of government.

Independents shouldn’t have the ability to choose the candidates for any of the parties. (Yes, there are more than two party primaries in many states. New York usually has at least a half dozen parties on the ballot for any given primary.) If they wanted that ability they should choose a party and register.

But that wouldn’t give them the ability to gripe about who the parties choose, now would it? :smiley:

Do any states have the option were you can just vote for all the candidates on the ballot from one party with just one vote?

In California, you can’t register as “independent”. We call it “decline to state.” Out here, all offices below the state level are nonpartisan. All county and municipal elections are nonpartisan. There is one statewide office which is nonpartisan, the Superintendent of Public Instruction and I would describe that as “nominally nonpartisan.” That job has been highly partisan in California for decades.

Yes, that’s called a “straight ticket”.

I dislike closed primaries since I don’t decide who I vote for based on the party’s assumed ideals, but the stance by the individual candidate. Also, in very local elections, a party affiliation may not mean much even tho they exist (in Wisconsin, at least). What would be the difference in how a Democratic Registrar of Deeds acts compared to a Republican? Some positions aren’t political; just jobs. But in a closed primary, you can’t cross party lines.

The question I’m asking is why you think you should have the right to. Why should you have the right to select candidates for several different parties without being a member of them? You can vote for any of them, certainly: that’s not in dispute. But selecting them? That’s a party function.