From a recent article about the pipe bombing suspect:

Sayoc’s voter registration in Florida lists him as a Republican, according to state records. He registered in March 2016.

I thought this was a rather curious comment, and a quick internet search revealed that at least in some jurisdictions people are asked for their party affiliation when registering to vote. For example in California it seems mandatory.

Isn't the secrecy of your vote an important principle of democracy? While the US does have a secret ballot, and I understand that registering isn't the same as voting, it seems to me that this effectively nullifies a large part of the secret ballot as few people are going to vote for a different party than the party they registered with? For example for Florida it is easy to find out which party 9.5 million of the residents voted for; which, to me, seems like an invasion of both privacy and democratic principles?


TL;DR - People are asked for party affiliation so that they can vote in the primaries for the candidate that they want. Party affiliation doesn't necessarily reflect voting habits in the general election.

You can't find out which party an individual voted for. You can find out what party they are registered with.

The registration really only matters for the primaries, in most states you can only vote in the primaries of your own party (Republicans can't vote in the Democratic primaries and vice versa). (See Open primaries)

For example for Florida it is easy to find out which party 9.5 million of the residents voted for

We don't actually know who anybody voted for. During the general election (Election Day), individuals aren't limited in who they vote for. Republicans, Democrats, Independents etc. can all vote for whoever they want.

It's also important to know, that party affiliation doesn't necessarily reflect voting habits (although it usually does).

In NY or CA, Republican voters will frequently register as a Democrat, so that they can vote in their primaries (which will have more of an impact as the D candidate usually gets in).

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    Sooo, on might register one's affiliation with the other party, try to vote a bad candidate in the primaries and hope to increase your actual favourite party to win easier against that candidate in general election? I hope nobody thinks this way, though I suspect it might have been tried. Aug 4 '20 at 10:22
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    @HagenvonEitzen actually a lot of people do this in America. Especially ones in states that generally vote for opposing political views. This allows them to both choose the "better" candidate as well as have a stronger say in local elections.
    – WELZ
    Aug 4 '20 at 17:24

Compared to other democracies, the US has a very limited choice during the actual election. Yes, one can vote for a third party candidate, but think about the fact that the generic term third party exists in the political discourse.

This is compensated by the fact that the candidate selection of the two big parties is very open. In most other countries, candidate selection would be left to dues-paying, card-carrying party members or even mid-level and upper-level party functionaries. And one has to apply for party membership, not register for party affilation. (Not that the parties would turn many applicants away ...)

So in a way the primaries in the US are the first stage in a two-round, runoff election process. Except that there are separate primaries for Democrats and Republicans. (Usually third parties don't matter.)

  • And we in Britain would benefit from some such similar arrangement. The problem in the UK is that both major parties, Labour and Conservative, are governed by very small "memberships". Labour has about half a million members, and the Conservatives less than 200,000. These bodies have the final say in the selection of the party leader, and in policy formulation. And both are now in the grip of extremists - Labour has an extreme left-wing membership, and Conservatives a right-wing, pro-Brexit one. They are both out of kilter with the broad mass of voters.
    – WS2
    Oct 28 '18 at 11:03
  • @WS2, are you a member of a party? Why not? And if not, why do you expect that you have a say in forming party policy?
    – o.m.
    Oct 28 '18 at 12:03
  • There are in fact primary elections for third parties (depending on the state), if more than one person files to be the party's candidate for a particular office. Doesn't often happen, of course.
    – jamesqf
    Oct 28 '18 at 18:51
  • @o.m. I am a member of a party, as it happens - the Liberal Democrats. If I was so minded I could join all three main parties, and vote for the leaders of all of them. However, if a party aspires to form a government, it needs to have policies which are attractive to something of the order of 20 million people, not 500,000 apparatchiks prepared to cough up the princely sum £3 to become a member. The only way it can reflect the opinions of all those it hopes will vote for it, is to consult them on what they want.
    – WS2
    Oct 31 '18 at 19:17
  • @WS2, where I live one can only join one party. And if I spend a summer canvassing for a party, I expect to have more say in their candidate selection than a couch potato who may or may not vote for that party. Sure, a party should run an attractive candidate, but it should also run one who reflects the view of the membership, or parties get interchangeable.
    – o.m.
    Nov 1 '18 at 18:28

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