Independent voters, bless their hearts, are the poor cousins in the American electoral family. They're allowed to show up, but only half the time, and they pretty much have to dine on the table scraps left over after their rich relatives get first pick.

They're penalized because they want no part of flimsy-flamsy political labels and refuse to swear allegiance to the flags of either the Democratic or Republican parties.

People, of course, can actually register as an "Independent." Here, however, the general term, "independent voter," refers to anyone on the registration rolls who is not a Democrat or Republican. That includes Libertarians, Green Party or Reform Party members, Socialists and, mostly, non-partisan. Some of them even define themselves by their own basic philosophy, such as "Right to Life," "Constitution," "Populist" or "Independent Democrat." As recently as two years ago, there was actually a person on the voter rolls in Northumberland County who was an avowed member of the "Birthday Party," and even one (God help us) who identified himself as an "American Nazi."

There are 6,237 independents in Northumberland County who won't be allowed to vote in Tuesday's primary election.

They can't weigh in on who deserves to serve in county office, or who their town's next mayor or council member should be or who should be nominated to serve on the local school board. They can't help nominate Democratic or Republican candidates because they're not registered as Democrats or Republicans.

Pennsylvania, you see, has a "closed primary" system because professional politicians like it that way. Legislators in Harrisburg have spent many decades zealously guarding the exclusivity of the exalted "two-party system," acting as though the Constitution itself decreed - which it did not - that only Democrats and Republicans are fit to rule. It's enough to make you want to bring back the Whigs (the political party that died in the 1850s, not the hair piece).

Independents can, of course, go to the polls to help elect candidates in November, but by that time, there may not be a lot of choices.

Locally, for example, there are communities, such as Mount Carmel Borough, Mount Carmel Township and Kulpmont, where Democrats enjoy an overwhelming registration advantage. For all intents and purposes, nomination in the primary is usually tantamount to victory in these communities.

Democrats go to the polls with big smiles on their faces because they actually have something to vote for. They might get to pick from between seven to nine candidates for three or four council seats. There is more joy derived from rejecting candidates you can't abide than putting an "X" by candidates you find barely tolerable. By the time independent candidates get to the November election, they find that all the good candidates are taken and they're reduced to ratifying candidates that maybe they can't abide.

Even when independents in Pennsylvania get to pick in November between the Republican and Democratic candidates for legislature, Congress, governor or president, they are coming late to the party because it was other people who got to determine the choices. How distressing it must have been for an independent to decide between Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008 when he or she (depending on their philosophy) might have preferred Dennis Kucinich or Ron Paul.

The "dissing" of independent voters in school board primaries is especially galling because school elections are supposed to be non-partisan. We are in drastic need of serious election reform so independent voters can participate in primary elections for the school board. Just pick a party and make your choices. Why not? Most candidates cross-file in both parties anyway. Or forget the primary and just list all school directors on the ballot in November without R's or D's behind their names.

There are more independents in Northumberland County than there used to be. In 1976, there were fewer than a thousand voters in the county who were anything other than Republican or Democrat. In 1998, there was only about 3,000. In 2007, under 5,000. The gridlock in Washington, legislative antics in Harrisburg and the decline in the quality of leadership on the county level may all be contributing to a growing lack of confidence in the two-party system, at least as the two parties as presently constituted.

When all is said and done, independents are the ones who do most credit to the American system of government. They realize that no political party has a monopoly on the truth, and they think for themselves.

How long are we going to treat them like second-class citizens?

(Jake Betz is an assistant editor of The News-Item.)