Political advisor and author Mark McKinnon says that “A messy participatory process is representative democracy at its best.” We understand what he’s getting at. The contest of ideas and the formation of interest groups is an important part of our political process. But there’s a difference between messy and rigged.
Nearly half of all Americans identify as independents, unwilling to endorse either the Democratic or Republican political parties. Yet, even in an election like 2016’s presidential runoff, which saw more voters cast for independent candidates than ever before in the modern era, their turnout amounted to less than 6% of the popular vote. That’s no accident.
Democracy needs fresh blood and new ideas to thrive. Without these things, old ideas whither and become miscomprehended until they no longer reflect the will of the people. We are living just such an outcome. The two-party system has kept Americans who want a new perspective from voting because there are laws that restrict third-party candidates from reaching the ballot.
We’re not just talking about presidential elections here. In Alabama, a third-party gubernatorial candidate needs 3% of the state’s population to sign a petition in order to make the ballot itself. In Hawaii, the requirement is 10% of the vote from an open primary. That latter one is of particular interest because while it might sound difficult, Hawaii is one of very few states that even have open primaries.
There are three ways for someone to get his or her name on a ballot for public office. The first, and by far the most successful, is to run as a member of the Republican or Democratic Party. The second is to run as an independent, and the third is to be written-in — which is basically forfeiting.
But let’s go back to method two. Running as an independent in a state with party-specific primaries is extremely difficult. In stateswith open primaries, voters can vote in both party’s primaries. To avoid the citizens’ support of the rival party skewing election results, closed primaries disallow this.
Each state arranges their primaries differently. However, in states with closed primaries, millions of independent voters are unable to support their candidates in the first step of the election process. While states like Connecticut specify a single primary where independents can vote, in others, voters who are restricted from both major party primaries must request a ballot from the independent party they support.
It might seem like our system is working just fine the way it is, but 2016’s presidential election saw a 20-year low in voter turnout. Many voters chose to abstain because they didn’t feel that they could support any of the viable candidates on the ballot, and voting third-party or writing a candidate in felt virtually pointless, given the way that our system is setup.
Give those people a voice in the preliminary steps of the voting process and we would have an entirely different election. Independents did drastically affect the turnout in 2016, but most of them will tell you they were not in favor of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. What would an election with more than two viable candidates actually be like?
It’s not such a far-flung idea. It’s called democracy, and we can achieve it. It starts with reforming the way that we choose our officials.
Editor's note: This guest post was written by Kate Harveston, blogger for Only Slightly Biased, and the views expressed may not necessarily represent those of The Centrist Project.