Guest Commentary

Independents exist, but Republican and Democratic officials like a two-party system

Independent candidate Greg Orman may shake things up in the race for Kansas governor.
Independent candidate Greg Orman may shake things up in the race for Kansas governor. The Wichita Eagle

Election laws vary greatly from state to state in everything from open/closed primaries to ballot qualifications, but there is a generally universal one-size-fits-all rule: The two major political parties, while seemingly at odds with everything else, will continue to work together to keep our nation a two-party system.

Vested interests of the Republican and Democratic parties are to make it relatively easy for their respective candidates to achieve ballot access and advance from the primary to the general election. At the same time, they make it more difficult — and in some cases nearly impossible — for independent candidates to do so.

The predictable outcome is usually followed by the steadfast conclusion that voters of any, all and no party affiliation therefore prefer to elect only Republicans and Democrats. Such faulty logic is equivalent to a restaurant menu offering only Coke and Pepsi and surmising there is absolutely no taste for any other flavor.

Look at the variety of soft drinks in U.S. markets and cafes to fully understand what great thirst Americans have for more flavors.

But presently at the ballot box, the essential ingredient for any free and healthy democracy, we seldom have such choice. That’s a recipe for stagnation and polarization, not for new ideas and greater participation.

Although in sparse numbers, independent candidates are defying the odds and rising from New Jersey and Maine to Alaska and Oregon. Kansas could be next, with a possible independent gubernatorial candidate in Greg Orman. Meanwhile, Nebraska may have among the most restrictive laws to prohibit independent candidates from qualifying with enough signatures to run for statewide office. California, once the land of opportunity, has made it much more challenging for independents to advance to the general election via its top-two primary.

Recent research suggests independent voters already are making inroads to bridge our paralyzing partisan gap. While Republicans and Democrats converse less frequently with each other because of mutual mistrust and cafeteria-style news, independent voters feel comfortable talking politics, elections and related issues with individuals from both camps.

Perhaps independent candidates might do the same: no party line to walk, no loyalty to party over country. Instead, we could have decisions made on individual merit on a case-by-case basis, including sometimes — please, sit down for this — public policy via compromise, coalition and consensus.

A good framer for a better understanding of independent voters and their potential for inclusion in elections is “Gamechangers: Independent Voters May Rewrite the Political Playbook.” The October report, which calls for more pinpointed and focused research on independent voters, was a collaborative effort by Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, University of Southern California’s Schwarzenegger Institute and Independent Voting.

Some 42 percent of U.S. voters self-identify as independents, according to Gallup. Independent voters long have played a major role in deciding elections even when there were just Rs and Ds on the ballot.

Fortunately, more polls are surveying independents these days. Unfortunately, news media continue to report an ever-dynamic political world in the most simplistic terms of blue and red charts.

The fact of the matter is, many if not most voters are purple (a complex mix of red and blue) and some are even more colorful like a box of 64 crayons. And it is because independents run the spectrum of colors when it comes to political preferences there is but a limited push for an organized Independent Party as a brick-and-mortar threat to the duopoly. Perhaps a participant in a focus group said it best: “We’re not a party. We’re a mindset.”

Many Americans would welcome the option to vote for an independent (the small or big “I” variety) along with R and D candidates on the ballot. It’s all about choice. But such a paradigm shift toward fundamental democracy would require a commitment to change a myriad of presently exclusionary election laws. And guess who controls the fate of such laws? Hint: Not I.

Joseph Garcia is the director of communication and community impact and the director of the Latino Center at Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy.