How to Vote in a Primary

Tomorrow—Super Tuesday to you!—my home state of Massachusetts will hold both its Republican and Democratic presidential primaries.  Just a few days ago, I made a rather amazing discovery:  I am eligible to vote in them.

When I say “them,” I mean exactly that.  Since registering to vote at age 18, I have identified as politically independent—i.e. unaffiliated with any political party—which Massachusetts formally classifies as “unenrolled.”  In this state (as in many others) registered Democrats vote in the Democratic primary and registered Republicans vote in the Republican primary, but unenrolled voters get to choose one or the other when they walk through the front door:  At check-in, the lady at the desk simply asks you which party’s ballot you’d like to fill out.  The rest is up to you.

All of that was unbeknownst to me until last week (I assumed independents couldn’t vote in any primary).  Now that it’s beknownst, I certainly have no excuse to skip out on this great civic duty.  However, I am left with a question that has been gnawing at me for quite some time:

Why should I be allowed to vote in a presidential primary?

I have no institutional loyalties to one party or the other.  I don’t pay any dues, subscribe to any newsletters or attend any secret party meetings.  Yes, I tend mostly to support candidates of one party more than the other, but I make a quite deliberate effort not to give my vote away in advance—hence “unenrolled.”  So I wonder whether it’s in the best interest of the party system to let us independents into the clubhouse on primary day.  After all, how do they know we’re not up to something shady?

Like what, you ask?  Well, suppose a large gaggle of Democratic-leading independents determines that Donald Trump would be the easiest Republican candidate to defeat in November, and so they conspire to draw Republican primary ballots and cast votes for Trump, hoping that it ensures his nomination and an eventual Democratic victory?  What if a sizable group of conservative independents votes for Bernie Sanders based on the exact same premise?

If that sort of conspiracy sounds vaguely familiar, it’s probably because there have been rumors of such shenanigans following virtually every open primary in recent history.  It’s a phenomenon alternately known as “crossover voting,” “raiding” or “party crashing” (ahem) and any primary system that allows unenrolled voters to participate is leaving itself vulnerable to what amounts to a cheeky form of voter fraud.

In general, it’s probably safe to assume that such a dishonest strategy would rarely, if ever, be so prevalent as to actually affect the final results.  Or it would be, if a version of this practice had not just been openly encouraged by the largest and most influential newspaper in New England, the Boston Globe.

“Stopping Donald J. Trump is imperative—and not just for his fellow Republicans,” the paper wrote in a February 22 editorial.  “The Globe has endorsed John Kasich, the highly qualified governor of Ohio, and urges unenrolled voters to cast a Republican ballot for him instead of voting in the Democratic primary on the same day.”  (The paper endorsed Hillary Clinton for the latter.)

The editorial made clear that it was not recommending the tomfoolery I outlined earlier, saying that “cast[ing] a mischievous vote for [Trump] on Tuesday, seeking to help the eventual Democratic nominee” amounts to “playing with fire” and should be avoided at all costs.  “The best way to stop Trump,” the Globe concluded, “is to stop Trump now.”

The logic of this is sound as far as it goes:  If peeling votes from the Donald is more essential than supporting anyone else, then maybe it does make sense for a Democratic-leaning independent to hawk a Republican ballot this time around.  There is always an argument to be made for coolheaded, wily strategery.

However, I will not be doing that when I step into the booth on Tuesday.  Instead, I will be voting for the person I actually want to be president, without regard for how that person might fare in the general election or any other practical considerations.

Why?  Because life is short.

Yes, in a general election, you force yourself to face the world as it actually is.  But if you can’t vote for your one true love in a primary election, then why bother having a democracy at all?

Last December marked four years since the death of Christopher Hitchens.  While I’ve missed his presence in the national dialogue on a regular basis, I am especially tickled by what he would’ve made of the 2016 campaign—particularly because of his longstanding association, in the 1980s and 1990s, with democratic socialism.

Indeed, Hitchens’ political radicalism in the twilight of the 20th century was so peculiar among intellectuals of his ilk that every time he appeared on C-SPAN, host Brian Lamb would half-jokingly ask, “Are you still a socialist?”  And every time—at least for a solid 15 or 20 years—Hitchens would respond with a resounding “Yes.”

I can’t say for sure that Hitchens would vote for Bernie Sanders today.  In 1984, he would’ve auditioned to be his campaign manager, but the world has changed quite a bit since then, and so did he.  (For Pete’s sake, he even endorsed George W. Bush in 2004.)

Here’s what I do know for sure:  Whenever Hitchens threw his support behind a particular candidate, he didn’t give a flying fudgsicle what the odds were or whether the rest of the country was with him.  He viewed elections more personally than that:  To him, either you voted for the individual whose worldview you most agreed with, or you were wasting your goddamned time.

Throughout the 1990s, there was no end to Hitchens’ ire toward his fellow liberals for their perceived sellout to Democratic Party principles by supporting Bill Clinton—a political moderate whose policies on crime, welfare and civil rights were far to the right of most liberal voters’, but whose knack for winning elections seemed to trump all other considerations.  Better to play it safe with someone you mostly agree with than to roll the dice with a big fat wildcard, right?

Sorry to say, I don’t think we’ll ever answer that question once and for all.  It’s largely a function of timing and the national mood.  Historically, opting for the most ideologically “pure” candidate during the primaries has produced disastrous results in the fall—except when it hasn’t.  Yes, certified “extremists” like Barry Goldwater and George McGovern were tarred and feathered in their time.  And yet, equally out-there candidates like Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama ended up doing pretty well for themselves, didn’t they?  (Admittedly, Obama’s views weren’t actually extreme so much as they were portrayed as such by the GOP.)

Call me naïve, but I still think the best way to create the society you desire is to vote for candidates who see things the way you do.  You might be surprised how many other voters feel the exact same way, if only they had the nerve to act accordingly.  Every now and again, they do.

But even if they don’t—even if your preferred nominee goes down in the first round and you are left to compromise 15 percent of your principles in November for the greater good of heading off a President Trump—you will still get the consolation prize of waking up on November 9th with your dignity fully intact.  While the rest of America disappoints you with its moderation, its half-measures and its so-called wisdom, you can look yourself in the eye and say, “At least I stood behind my real favorite when I had the chance.”

In a world increasingly devoid of idealism or any real hope for institutional change, that stubborn conviction can be counted as something resembling a victory.


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