Independents are now 40% of the electorate and are playing a major role in national and local politics.
The following are a set of political reforms favored by many independent voters that address the institutional barriers to theirparticipation and to greater democracy.
Open primaries: This was the year of the Open Primary. Independents flocked to vote in the primaries and established that they are an engine for a new politic. Support for open primaries is very high among independents. CUIP’s polling puts it consistently at above 90%. Consequently, independents would value efforts to further institutionalize this practice.
Open Primaries is a general category which has taken a number of different forms. Whatever the approach taken, open primaries would allow some 40% of American voters to participate in the critical first round of elections for public office from which closed primaries bar them. Moreover, as this year’s presidential primaries demonstrate, open primaries maximize the influence of younger voters, anti-machine voters and voters more open to change. Thirty-three states have some form of open primaries (or caucuses) at the presidential level. Only a handful have them for other federal or for state offices (though many cities have nonpartisan municipal elections, including 60 out of 75 of the nation’s largest cities as of 1991).
The parties have resisted open primaries other than in the presidential elections and have instituted lawsuits challenging them. California’s blanket primary was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court (on the grounds that it allowed non-party members to determine the party’s nominee). California Democratic Party v. Jones, 530 U.S. 567 (2000). This year, however, Washington's modified blanket primary was upheld. Washington State Grange v. Washington State Republican Party, 128 S.Ct. 1184 (2008). And Oregon voters will have the opportunity to ratify a system similar to that of Washington this November. This issue has huge currency now as numbers of state legislatures are being pressured by public opinion to consider the issue (Arizona). In some closed primary states, state officials reported a record number of inquiries and protests by registered independents who were barred from primary voting (Maryland).
Election Administration Reform: In almost all of the states elections are run by either the Secretary of State (elected as a Democrat or a Republican) or by a bipartisan Board of Elections. The Federal Election Commission (“FEC”) is bipartisan. Independents have no representation at any level. Partisan election administration can undermine the integrity of the process and hurts independents in a number of ways. For example, this year California’s Democratic Party elected to open its presidential primary to independents. But in Los Angeles county, many independents who showed up to vote were given ballots but not instructed on how to fill them out such that their vote in the Democratic primary would count. This was a consequence of election administration that, intentionally or inadvertently, was insufficiently attentive to the needs of independent voters participating in an open primary. Consideration must now be given to equal representation on the bodies that administer elections and/or to a system of nonpartisan (as opposed to bipartisan) election administration.
Initiative and Referendum: Partisan gridlock in Washington and in many state legislatures has made policy innovation or even sound policymaking a rarity. Initiative and referendum, in which citizens can directly legislate, is an effective way to break through. The open primary legislation in Washington State was passed by referendum. There is presently a petition drive underway for an open primary initiative in Oregon. In Ohio, drug law reform was achieved by I&R. In New York, the more honest incumbents have said that they oppose I&R because they expect the first citizens’ legislation to be enacted will be term limits.
Some complain that I&R allows the wealthy or the right wing to control the legislative agenda. However, this presidential season – and the Obama campaign in particular – has demonstrated that an inspired citizenry will financially and politically support efforts to bring about much needed progressive change. For independents, referenda are a level playing field, an arena where their votes are as effective as those of major party members. Their power is not diluted by exclusion from party primaries or by the partisan organization of legislative bodies and committees.
States have historically functioned as laboratories of reform. I&R, now legal in 27 states in some form or fashion, contributes to this. It may even provide a model for a system of national referendum, a process that could directly engage the citizenry and build a culture of national conversation. Every voter in every state should have access to the I&R process.
Redistricting Reform: In some states the dominant political party has used redistricting to minimize the possibility for electoral success of the other major party. In other states the two major parties have used it to preserve the electoral and legislative status quo. In either case, redistricting has meant the construction of “safe districts” for either Democrats or Republicans. This necessarily means blunting opportunities for new alliances to emerge in the context of congressional and other legislative elections. It also virtually rules out competition from independent forces. The redistricting process should be nonpartisan and administered in a way that the voting power of independents is not diluted.
Ballot Access Reform: Discrimination against independent and minor party candidates must be eliminated. Ballot access reform bills that establish uniform ballot requirements in federal elections have languished in Congress since 1985. There is no reason not to level the playing field for all candidates for public office. (This issue has been especially important to libertarian Republicans and third party adherents, including many who backed Ron Paul in the Republican primary.)
Direct Elections for the Presidency: Despite lip service by some Democratic Party leaders, a move towards abolition of the Electoral College has not been seriously undertaken. As a result, in a general election for president, the solid “red” and “blue” states are often ignored because their outcomes are predetermined. This is unfair, not only to independents, but to all voters in such states. Every American’s vote should count. Another approach worth considering would be to have electoral votes in each state awarded in proportion to the popular vote. This practice was adopted in Maine.
Same Day Voter Registration: A maze of state by state regulations govern the voter registration process, including cut-off dates, waiting periods, “locked boxes,” etc. Legislators often object to SDVR because, they say, if you don’t know who your eligible electorate is, you won’t know who to mail your campaign literature to. The practice of restricting voter registration supports the incumbents, but not the voter, and certainly not potential new voters. In some states, the “cut-off” date precedes the moment in the election cycle when voters start to pay attention to the choices. This is particularly true for younger voters. Given the advances in technology, there is no reason that voters should not be permitted to register on Election Day itself. What’s more, voters should have the right to re-register at the polling place after they’ve cast a ballot. This is the practice in New Hampshire, and it’s been vital to the state’s independents – 44% of the electorate. Recently, legislators tried to deprive them of that right and independents fought back and won – twice.
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For a generation, the sine qua non of reforms designed to keep government honest has been campaign finance reform, i.e. a focus on “keeping the money out of politics.” That approach has proven to be not only ineffective but also misguided. Again, the Obama and Ron Paul campaigns demonstrated the positive side of bringing money – through ordinary people, rather than special interests – into politics.
This reform agenda creates the basis for a new reform coalition which includes the 40% of the country that are independents. As the independent movement grows, as more young people become interested in politics, as old alliances and paradigms break down, it is critical to focus on introducing mechanisms that bring the American people more directly into the process. CUIP believes that’s vital for turning the page in American politics.