Independent voters are, by definition, outside the political party structure but because of their numbers, they hold tremendous potential to sway the primary election now underway.

Primary elections typically have low voter turnout. In 2012, just over 34 percent of the roughly 470,000 registered voters in Pima County cast a ballot.

But primary elections can be confusing.

For instance, in Arizona independents and voters who have not declared a party affiliation can vote in primary elections (the rules aren’t the same in every state).

Yet independents often don’t. According to figures released Friday from the Pima County Recorder’s Office, fewer than 9 percent of the 156,144 eligible independent and no-party-affiliation voters have requested an early primary ballot.

It is possible, although not likely given the increased popularity of early voting, that a flood of independent voters will turn up in person at the polls on Aug. 26, election day.

While primaries do serve a political party function, their effect is not exclusive to those parties. Independents don’t align with any of the organized parties recognized in Arizona — Democratic, Republican, Libertarian, Americans Elect or Green — but they have the same choices come November, so it doesn’t make sense to bypass the initial selection process.

The Pima County Recorder’s Office answers calls from voters, and there are a few misconceptions that keep coming up, said Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez.

Independents and no-party-affiliated voters can cast a ballot in the primary election — you can request an early ballot until Friday, Aug. 15 — or at the polls.

You will need to request a specific party’s ballot, and you can choose only one; it’s not mix-and-match by race.

Requesting a party ballot does not — repeat NOT — mean you have changed your independent voter status. You will remain a registered independent or “NP” (no party).

The party you choose, however, will know that you have requested its ballot and you may receive campaign materials or be contacted asking if you’ve turned in your early ballot. State law requires the county recorder to provide political parties and candidates with this information, Rodriguez explained.

“People don’t like it but it’s the law — and who makes the laws? Candidates,” she said.

Rodriguez also cautions to never give your ballot to someone you don’t know.

“We started getting phone calls from voters asking how come these candidates and groups are calling us to pick up our ballots,” she said. “It happens every election.”

Sometimes people who say they’re from political parties or organizations will offer to mail or deliver the ballots, saving the voter the trouble, but there’s no way to ensure it’s legitimate — so it’s better to do it yourself or hand it only to someone you know and trust.

“Why would you give your voted ballot to a stranger at your front door?” Rodriguez said.

A missed vote is a lost opportunity. The primary election is how candidates in the general election are selected — they’re not warm-up elections that don’t matter.