More than half the states with presidential races on Feb. 5 allow independent voters to participate. In California, however, independents can vote in the Democratic primary, but not in the Republican contest. Some Republicans think their party is making a mistake.
Nearly one-fifth of California voters have no party affiliation. These "decline-to-state" voters as they are called, tend to be younger than partisan voters and a bit better educated. They're generally liberal on social and environmental issues, but fiscally conservative, according to a study from the Public Policy Institute of California.
They are people like graduate student Megan Rawlins of Menlo Park. Rawlins, 27, says she leans Democrats and has no particular preference among the Democratic presidential candidates. She says she wants to help pick the Republican nominee, however, just in case the Democrats lose in November.
"Among the Republicans I have much stronger opinions. I don't think they could all do a good job, so it was more important for me to put my say in that arena," she says.
If independents want to participate in the Republican primary, they should change their party affiliation, says state GOP Party Chairman Ron Neering.
"That's why we want to encourage everyone to register as Republican and enjoy our party so that they can vote in the primary and help us nominate the next president of the United States," Neering says.
California Democrats have a different philosophy — allow decline-to-state voters to help choose the Democratic nominee.
"Because usually when you invite decline-to-state voters to vote in our Democratic primary, they end up voting for our Democratic nominee in November," explains party chairman Art Torres.
Republicans and Democrats have made different decisions about independent voters partly because they have different ways of awarding delegates. The Democrats calculate delegates by a candidate's statewide percentage of the vote, while Republicans apportion delegates by congressional district.
Jack Pitney, government professor at Claremont McKenna College, says Republicans are afraid that in districts with relatively few GOP voters the independents might engage in "mischief voting."
"They might vote maliciously to support the weaker candidate and thereby control the general election outcome," he says adding, "There is very little evidence for mischief voting. For the most part ordinary voters just don't decide that way."
Rawlins found her own way around the system; she changed her registration just so she could vote for a Republican in the primary.
"But as soon as the primary is over I will re-register and go back to being a decline-to-state voter," she says, adding she'll probably vote for a Democrat in November.