How Democrats and Republicans rig the rules against independents
Second of two parts
America has two major political parties, and tens of millions of Americans don’t care for either of them.
In states where voters register by party, 28 percent officially sign up as independents. In opinion surveys, nearly 4 in 10 adults say they consider themselves neither Republican nor Democrat. According to Gallup, a majority of the American public hasn’t had a favorable opinion of the Democratic Party since 2009, or of the GOP since 2005.
We are a nation awash with independent voters. So why don’t more independents get elected to office?
Of the 535 members of Congress, only three aren’t party members: Senators Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and, as of this month, Representative Justin Amash of Michigan. In the nation’s statehouses, just 23 legislators out of nearly 7,400 are independents. Every governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, treasurer, and auditor is a Democrat or a Republican. Likewise all but one of the secretaries of state. Only North Dakota’s Al Jaeger belongs to neither party.
Part of the reason we have so few elected independents is inertia: Politics plays out in a partisan arena, and most voters take the familiar paradigm for granted. Moreover, even voters who dislike both major parties usually dislike one more than the other. Veteran political analyst Charlie Cook observes that the strongest emotion in US elections these days “is not love but hate” — Americans tend to cast their ballot not for the candidate or party they support, but against the candidate or party they loathe. Independents may not affiliate as Republicans or Democrats, but especially in high-stakes elections, they generally know which party they want to vote against.
Still, if more independents were on the ballot, more voters might be inclined to support them — especially in deep red or blue districts dominated by a single major party. Alas, Republican and Democratic incumbents routinely rig the rules in their own favor, making it all but impossible for non-party outsiders to have a fighting chance.
Sometimes those rigged rules come disguised as evenhandedness.
In Texas, for example, candidates who wish to run in the general election must file the necessary paperwork by December of the preceding year. Such an early deadline makes sense for major-party candidates who will be competing in primaries in the spring. But there is no reason to make independent candidates lock in their candidacy so prematurely. Ballots for the November election — the only one relevant to independents — don’t get printed until August or September. So why does Texas impose its ultra-early filing deadline? Because, writes political strategist Reed Galen, “the Republicans who run the executive and legislative branches (and, let’s be honest, the Democrats) are not interested in making it easier for new competition to enter the market.”
Other rules blatantly favor partisan loyalists at the expense of independents.
There is favoritism when it comes to money: In many states, party committees can raise funds in unlimited amounts and transfer tens of thousands of dollars to their candidates, yet independent candidates are allowed to tap no comparable source of donations. Signature requirements can also be rigged: To qualify for the ballot in some states, would-be Republican and Democratic candidates are required to collect only a small fraction of the signatures independent candidates must produce.
Equally egregious is straight-ticket voting: In nine states, voters are given the option of choosing a party’s entire slate of candidates by marking just one box or pulling a single lever. By encouraging voters to disregard individual candidates, straight-ticket voting severely disadvantages independents, who can only win by inducing voters to look beyond party label.
Then there are so-called “sore loser” laws, on the books in nearly every state, which ban anyone who loses a party primary from appearing on the general election ballot as an independent. Such laws allow the parties’ narrow base of ideological activists to shoot down a candidate who might have far greater appeal among the broader electorate in November.
In the face of such lopsidedly unfair rules, it may seem remarkable that anyone would bother to run for office as an independent. And yet there are stalwarts who do. In 2018, according to the nonpartisan group Unite America, a record 431 independents ran in state and federal elections, and upwards of 8 million voters cast ballots for them. Granted, only a handful were elected. It will take a lot more votes for independents before a critical mass of Americans begins to believe that the two-party monopoly is not the only game in town.
Then again, millions of Americans are repelled by today’s hyperpartisan bitterness. This is a good time for them to be reminded: Your vote belongs to you, not to the political parties. If enough voters take that to heart, there’s no telling what might change.