Is Bernie a Democrat? Obviously, he's running for the Democratic Party's nomination. But is he a Vermont Democrat? Well, he did take a Democrat ballot in the state presidential primary election on March 1. Some would say that makes him officially a Vermont Democrat, and I wouldn't argue he's not. But is Bernie Sanders a member of the Vermont Democratic Party? No.
Vermont has laws about how major political parties are organized and operated, and in return for following these rules, the major parties are given certain privileges, for example, the winner of their primaries automatically go on the ballot as the candidate of the party. All states have laws about parties; in some states you don't belong to a party unless you check off a box when you register to vote. If that box isn't checked, you can't vote in the party primary.
Not Vermont. There is no party registration when you register to vote. The only indication anyone ever has about anyone's party preference is once every 4 years, when the presidential primary takes place. You don't get a party's ballot unless you say which one you want. And your choice gets marked down. And yes, all the Vermont political parties keep track of this. These days it's all computerized. And yes, anyone can get those records -- who is registered to vote and who voted and what ballot they took is public information, and has been since 1776 and all that.
So who are the members of the political parties in Vermont?
The strictly legal answer is "anyone whose name is listed on a town or city Democratic Party committee list recorded by the Vermon Secretary of State's office."
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, I know. Here's the deal: every 2 years, during the odd year when there are no statewide elections, the local party committees put up notices around town and, these days, on social media, alerting people that a caucus will be held, usually the last week in September. Whoever attends, plus whoever has asked to be put on the list, gets put on the list and it gets sent to the Secretary of State. So long as a large proportion of the towns do this, a party gets major party status in Vermont.
Needless to say the political parties pay strict attention to this law! Your author knows all about this because he's been on his town's list for the last 15 years, even chaired it for a while, and in fact, served on the state committee that actually runs the party (town committees feed county committees feed the state committee).
Out of curiosity, I got a copy of the town lists submitted last September, and Bernie's name isn't on the Burlington list, which is no surprise. Bernie has never believed in parties, has run resolutely as a one-man band in his congressional and senatorial races, even though he is the spiritual father of the Vermont Progressive party. This is a big part of his attractiveness, but may become something of an Achilles heel in state primaries where voters are required to be registered party members well in advance of the election. It's not too much to think that the new voters and independents he attracts may not be much attuned to party requirements.
When he first ran for Senate, I was on the Vermont Democratic Party State Committee as a delegate from Windsor County, and I happily helped clear the way for him to be on the ballot without anyone running as a Democrat. I had the chance to plead with him to work with Pat Leahy to unite the Vermont Democrats and Progressives together, because most Democrats were "small p" progressives whose politics were essentially identical to the Progressive party, which is a force in the Burlington region but not elsewhere in the state. I talked about how frustrating it was to contend the split between his wing of the party and Leahy's wing of the party in a time when we had to contend with a Republican governor and Republican President. Bernie explained, patiently and politely, that he simply didn't believe in parties and couldn't imagine doing that.
For the first time in his entire political career, Bernie is finally a major-party player. In Vermont political lingo, a small-d democrat. It will be fascinating to see if this experience opens his eyes to the important civic role parties play at the grassroots level, or if, in the end, he will continue to stand apart.