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Independents and Democratic Primaries

Last night, as soon as the polls in Virginia closed, Barack Obama was instantly declared the winner. For the people on the news, independent voters immediately became the first topic for discussion.

Thirteen states have open primaries, and Virginia is one of them. When voters in the Commonwealth show up at the polls, they are simply asked to declare which party's ballot they'd like to cast. Once they vote, they put a card indicating their party preference in a basket on the way out the door.

Last night, according to the exit polls, Independents made up 22 percent of the Democratic voters in Virginia, and Obama won 69 percent of them.

But in a lot of states, calculating Independent support just isn't that simple.

The networks projected Obama to win the Maryland primary just seconds after the polls in that state closed as well. But Maryland's primary is completely different -- it is closed, and you must be a registered Democrat to get a Democratic ballot. That said, the exit polls still have 13 percent of the Democratic voters describing themselves as Independents, and once again, Obama won that demographic--62/27. What's with the discrepancy?

In every state that has a primary, there's a question of whether it's open or closed. Most states are like Maryland and hold closed primaries that require that you be registered with a party to get that party's ballot.

Even if a state does allow independents to vote in the primary, there's a question of whether the primary is actually open -- like Virginia -- or open with party registration. In Iowa, for example, Independents and Republicans are welcome to vote in the Democratic caucus, but to do so, they must switch their party registration on site.

Finally, we get to the situation last night. In Maryland, as in most states, there is an important difference between registered Independents and self-described independents.

Registered Independents are unaffiliated with both the GOP or the Democratic party, and in a closed primary, they're only given a ballot for any nonpartisan races that happen to be contested.

Self-described independents are people who register with a party, but for whatever reason, don't think of themselves as Republicans or Democrats.

My Dad, for instance, has been a registered Democrat his entire life. He's a regular primary voter. But in the general election, he's not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter or a Democratic senatorial candidate since Terry Sanford. The reason he doesn't bite the bullet and switch parties? Because in our part of North Carolina, nearly every local elected office is held by a Democrat, and most of the state elected offices are too. He calls himself an independent, but if he wants any say at all in the electoral process, it's got to be with the party of Jefferson.

On Election Night, there's certainly merit in discussing which candidates have a bit of crossover appeal. Indeed, when Obama and McCain talk about electability, their primary performance among indies is certainly part of the equation. But some precision is in order. Independents are not always who we think they are.