February 2024

Not Invited to the Party Primary: Independent Voters and the Problem with Closed Primaries

In 2024, 22 states will hold closed presidential primaries or caucuses, denying over 27 million voters not registered with a major party the right to participate fully in our democracy. A new report from the Unite America Institute sheds light on these voters who we call “Excluded Independents”. 

The report first defines the extent of the problem with closed primaries through an analysis of voter registration data. Next, through an analysis of findings from a first-of-its-kind poll of Excluded Independents conducted by Change Research, the report defines who these voters are demographically, shares why they register as independents, and examines Excluded Independents’ political beliefs in order to illustrate the perspectives that are left out of closed primaries. Finally, the report offers a menu of policy solutions — already in use across dozens of states — that closed primary states could implement to allow independents to participate in all elections, while giving all voters more voice and more choice.

See the executive summary below and read the full report here. For more information on the poll, see the summary of topline findings and a memo from Change Research.

Executive Summary

More Americans than ever before — 43% —  identify as independent voters. Meanwhile, only 27% each identify as Republicans and Democrats.
In 2024, over 23.5 million registered independent voters across 22 states are disenfranchised by closed presidential primaries or caucuses. 
  • Another 3.5M voters registered with a minor party are also unable to participate in consequential partisan primaries — for a total of 27 million disenfranchised voters; 
  • This problem is accelerating: In the states with closed presidential primaries, the share of voters not registered with a major party has increased by nearly 20% since 2010;
  • These voters are disproportionately younger and more likely to be veterans than the broader voting population;
  • The latest estimate, from 2016, found that closed presidential primaries cost taxpayers $287,806,312.

Independent voters excluded from primaries (“Excluded Independents”) hold a diversity of political beliefs from across the ideological spectrum. Their perspectives call into question long-held beliefs that most independents are merely “weak partisans.”
  • 48% of Excluded Independents say they do not lean toward one party;
  • 46% of Excluded Independents have always been registered as such; 26% were previously Democrats, and 27% were previously Republicans;
  • 70% of Excluded Independents believe both parties are too extreme;
  • 60% of Excluded Independents think of themselves as moderates, while 6% identify as very conservative, 19% as conservative, 9% as liberal, and 6% as very liberal; 
  • Excluded Independents are much more likely to trust Democrats on healthcare, abortion, and climate policy and Republicans on immigration, the economy, crime, and gun rights.

Independents believe their exclusion from primaries is unfair, support reforming the primary system, and would participate in primaries if allowed to do so.
  • 77% of Excluded Independents consider the fact they are not allowed to vote in partisan primaries to be unfair, and 74% say it is a violation of voting rights; 
  • 87% of Excluded Independents support opening primaries to independent voters, while 81% support nonpartisan primaries in which all candidates compete on the same primary election ballot;
  • 82% of Excluded Independents want the ability to vote in Democratic or Republican primaries for president in 2024;
  • 58% of Excluded Independents said they would be more likely to vote for a party if that party supported allowing them to participate in partisan primaries.

Excluded Independents hold very unfavorable views of both major parties’ presidential candidates but are slightly more inclined to support former President Trump. However, they remain swing voters open to being persuaded. 
  • Excluded Independents have very unfavorable views of President Biden (21% favorable, 70% unfavorable) and former President Trump (33% favorable, 60% unfavorable);
  • If the election were held today, 30% of Excluded Independents would support Trump and 23% would support Biden, while 27% would vote for an Independent or third-party candidate and 19% wouldn’t vote for any of the current choices;
  • Just 55% of Excluded Independents are “very confident” in who they will vote for.

To solve the problem of closed primaries, states and parties can pursue one of three paths to ensure that all eligible voters can participate in every taxpayer-funded election:

1. Amend party rules to permit independent voter participation;

2. Adopt open partisan primaries to allow independents to choose to participate in either major party’s primary; 

3. Adopt nonpartisan primaries to allow all voters to vote for any candidate, regardless of party, for all offices.

Read full report here

Other research