I voted in the primaries this morning, and overheard a question I've never encountered before in a primary:
"Can we split our tickets between the parties?"
I'll admit to being a little shell-shocked by the question itself, posed by a married couple who were disappointed to find out that they would have to pick a party ballot in order to vote in a primary. They turned around and left without casting ballots.
This raised a couple of thoughts:
1. It helps to plan in advance of your vote. Look up the ballots for your area (usually available from the county auditor), and if you don't have an opinion yet, consult a friend, search for a candidate's presence online, or seek out who's been endorsed by people or media outlets you trust. But it's smart to show up with a plan. (The married couple, for instance, could have shown up prepared for each of them to cast a vote in a different party.) It's not the end of the world if you don't vote for a candidate for every office (but why wouldn't you?).
2. Iowa's nice in that we offer same-day registration. It's easy to switch parties (or to declare a party for the first time) the moment you walk through the door. Other states are much more restrictive, and I'm glad we retain the open system we have.
3. Don't turn down a chance to vote. I cannot imagine showing up at a polling place and then not voting at all. Even if the couple who showed up were disappointed that they'd only get to cast 50% of the votes they wanted to cast, that's still a better way to have a say than no vote at all!
4. Committed party members are going to show up at the polls, no matter what. The primary voters we really need are the independents and others who aren't strongly affiliated with any major party: Whether you like it or not, a primary election functions like the first round of voting in a runoff system. So if you've been frustrated in the past by your choices in November, you need to show up in June to help determine who's going to be on that ballot. Picking a party and voting in a primary election doesn't commit you to any ongoing relationship or identification with that party -- you can disaffiliate almost immediately after. But the most important message independents can send to the parties is to show up for the primaries and start weighing in on the first round of voting. You can't win if you don't play!
5. Remember, you always have the choice to write-in a name if you aren't satisfied with the choices you see (or if nobody's running). It's a terrific act of rebellion, and it's probably more useful at the primary stage than in the general election.