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Nonpartisan Primaries

New UA Institute Report: Key Learnings about “Excluded Independents”

A new report examines the problem with closed partisan primaries: Namely, that 27 million voters across 22 closed primary states do not have the right to participate in presidential primaries.

Carlo Macomber
Research Manager
February 13, 2024

The Topline: A new report by the Unite America Institute examines the problem with closed partisan primaries: Namely, that 27 million voters across 22 closed primary states do not have the right to participate in presidential primaries. New polling sheds light on the growing constituency of “Excluded Independents,” what they believe about the political system and the two major parties, and where they stand on key issues (including election reform). 

The Unite America Institute released a new report on “Excluded Independents” — registered independent voters from closed primary states who lack a right to vote in taxpayer-funded primary elections. Because of the “Primary Problem,” these voters are frequently disenfranchised from the only congressional elections that matter, and they have effectively no voice in who represents them. In presidential primaries, Excluded Independents lack a voice in determining who the two viable candidates are that they — and all voters — have to choose from in November. 

Through an analysis of voter registration data, the report first defines the extent of the problem with closed primaries. It highlights the number of registered voters (over 27 million!) who are unable to participate in primary elections and notes how this number has grown considerably over the past decade. Next, through an analysis of findings from a first-of-its-kind poll of Excluded Independents, 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. The report also finds evidence that most “Excluded Independents” are not just “weak” or “closet” partisans. 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. Key takeaways from each section are summarized below.

The Scale of the Problem

Fifteen states hold closed primary elections for state and congressional offices, and 22 do so for their presidential primaries or caucuses (check out these explainers for more information on primary classifications).

Across the 15 states with closed congressional and state primaries, 17.6 million registered voters lack a right to vote in primary elections. This includes over 15.7 million registered independents, and more than 1.8 million voters registered with a minor party. 

In the 22 states with closed presidential primaries, just over 27 million registered voters lack the right to have a voice in who wins the major party nominations. This includes about 23.5 million registered independents and 3.5 million minor party voters. 

The 27 million voters locked out of presidential primaries or caucuses represent 28.8% of all registered voters from closed presidential primary states. This share has grown by 20% since 2010. During the last 14 years, the share of voters without a right to vote in primaries has increased In 16 of the 20 states that hold closed presidential primaries or caucuses and report partisan voter registration data. In four states (MD, NV, OK, OR), the share of locked out voters has increased by over 60%.

Who are the Excluded Independents, and What Do They Believe?

In partnership with Change Research, the Unite America Institute conducted a poll of registered independent voters who reside in states with closed presidential primaries or caucuses. Change Research also conducted an analysis of the voter files in closed primary states in order to better understand the demographics of Excluded Independents. The report notes the following about Excluded Independents’ demographics based on these two data sources:

Men and women make up nearly equal shares of Excluded Independents.
  • Overall, 50.8% are men and 49.2% are women.
Excluded independents are whiter than registered Democrats in closed primary states but less white than registered Republicans. 
  • Across all closed primary states, 49% of Democrats are white, 82% of Republicans are white, and 60% of Independents are white.
Just like all independents nationally, Excluded Independents skew young.
  • Across all closed primary states, 59% are under 50, and just 18% are over 65.
Veterans are overrepresented among Excluded Independents, meaning that they are more likely to be locked out of primaries.
  • According to our poll, 16% of Excluded Independents are veterans, while just 6% of all American adults served.

The report also describes why Excluded Independents identify as independent and reports on their beliefs about contemporary politics, the political system, and potential reforms.

Excluded independents are independent thinkers. 
  • Seventy percent say they register as independent because they “prefer to assess each candidate individually, rather than by their party affiliation.”
Excluded Independents’ policy preferences do not align with the Democratic or Republican platforms.
  • On some issues, like immigration, the economy, and public safety, they have more trust in the Republican Party. But, on others, like education, healthcare, and climate change, they have more trust in the Democratic Party.
  • Nearly 70% said they agree with Democrats on some issues and Republicans on others.
Excluded independents believe the political system is broken, and are disillusioned with the two major parties. 
  • Sixty-five percent agreed with the statement, “I believe the political system is corrupt and needs significant reform.”
  • Ninety-one percent agreed that “Both major parties care more about serving their special interests than people like me.”
  • Only 22% of Excluded Independents have a favorable view of the Republican Party, and 21% have a favorable opinion of the Democratic Party. 
  • Seventy percent agree that both major parties are too ideologically extreme.
  • Nearly half (48%) of Excluded Independents are “pure independents” — they do not lean toward either party, while 27% lean toward the Democratic Party and 25% lean Republican.
  • However, even those who lean toward a party are not strong supporters: About two–thirds of leaning independents agreed that both parties are too ideologically extreme.
Excluded independents are concerned about our democracy and support structural reform. 
  • Eighty-six percent of respondents believe that “Our democracy is under threat and at risk for future generations.”
  • Eighty-seven percent support opening partisan primaries to allow independent voters to participate. 
  • Over 80% support nonpartisan primaries, like those used in Alaska, California, and Washington State.
Excluded Independents hold negative views of both major party presidential candidates, and they are persuadable about who they will support in November.
  • Seventy percent hold unfavorable views of President Biden, while 60% hold unfavorable views of former President Trump.
  • As of now, 30% of Excluded Independents said they would vote for former President Trump, 23% would vote for President Biden, while 27% would vote for an Independent or third-party candidate and 19% wouldn’t vote for any of the current choices. However, just 55% of Excluded Independents are “very confident” in who they will vote for, indicating that nearly half are persuadable.  

Solutions to Closed Primaries

The report concludes by offering policy solutions that closed primary states can implement to ensure independent voters can participate in all elections. They include (i) amending party rules to permit independent participation in primaries, (ii) adopting open partisan primaries to allow all voters to participate in the primary of their choice, and (iii) adopting nonpartisan primaries to allow all voters to vote for any candidate for all offices. These are used by 35 states for state and congressional primaries and 28 states for presidential primaries or caucuses.

While these policies vary in impact, viability, and permanence, which the report briefly describes for each, they all achieve the main goal of ensuring independents can participate in primary elections.