In his farewell address, President George Washington warned: “However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”

Despite this impassioned warning, the United States has developed a strong two-party system in the past two centuries, which has allowed our Founding Father’s grim vision to take hold. In fact, the last time a third-party candidate won any state’s electoral college vote for president was in 1968. Americans are ultimately given a choice between only two candidates on the day of the general election.

What makes matters worse is that a substantial number of Americans are barred from voting to decide on who those final two choices will be. According to the organization Open Primaries, thirteen states and DC hold closed primaries for presidential primaries (laws vary for congressional and states primaries.) The National Conference of State Legislatures explains that in closed primaries, “a voter seeking to vote … must first be a registered party member…. Independent or unaffiliated voters, by definition, are excluded from participating in the party nomination contests.”

In addition, other states have less strict rules but still bar certain voters from participating. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures:

Partially closed primaries: “Permits political parties to choose whether to allow unaffiliated voters or voters not registered with the party to participate in their nominating contests before each election cycle”;

Partially open primaries: “Permits voters to cross party lines, but they must either publicly declare their ballot choice or their ballot selection may be regarded as a form of registration with the corresponding party”;

Open to unaffiliated voter primaries: “Allows only unaffiliated voters to participate in any party primary they choose, but do not allow voters who are registered with one party to vote in another party’s primary.”

The only primaries that allow for total participation from all voters in the state are open primaries. There are 16 open primary states.

The map below shows which states have Closed, Mixed, or Open Primaries for presidential elections:


Open and Closed Primaries


According to Gallup, a little under half (46%) of Americans do not identify with a political party. Only a quarter (25%) identify as Republican, and 27% identify as Democrat. This means voters are either forced to choose between a political party they may not fully identify with or they are barred from participating in many state primary elections.

If we want to consider ourselves a democracy, we should allow all of our citizens to participate fully in choosing who leads our country. Otherwise, the votes these people are allowed to cast on election day could be practically meaningless.