Striking Out on Their Own
Independent voters are gaining importance in the U.S. elections.
About 10 years ago, Sevag Demirjian chose independence. He felt the two-party system of U.S. politics wasn’t for him, and he opted out of a party affiliation to become an independent voter.
Demirjian’s decision to abandon political parties took shape over time.
“I grew up in a GOP [Grand Old Party, a common nickname for the Republican Party] household and was a registered Republican when I turned 18. But my first presidential vote was for Bill Clinton [a Democratic candidate] in 1996. So, from then I knew I wouldn’t be a typical political party member who blindly casts a vote for a party regardless of the individual candidate or issue,” he says.
There are two dominant political parties in the United States, the Democrats and the Republicans, though many smaller parties also exist.
Over time, Demirjian, who practices law in Los Angeles, became more and more disillusioned with the political process.
“Both sides always hold their ground and every ‘debate’ results in anger, disappointment and negativity, with both sides truly believing they are right and the other side is not only wrong, but also immoral and/or stupid. To me, this just doesn’t seem like a logical way to run our country,” he says.
Eventually, Demirjian switched his voter registration from Republican to No Party Preference (NPP), an option available in California. In a presidential election, a No Party Preference registrant can vote in any open primary. The Democratic, Libertarian and American Independent Party in California welcome No Party Preference voters, while the Republican, Green, and Peace and Freedom parties do not. In 2016, Demirjian voted in the Democratic presidential primary.
Demirjian is not alone in his discontent with U.S. political parties. According to a Gallup poll in 2015, for the fifth consecutive year, at least four in 10 respondents identified themselves as politically independent, even if they tended to lean Republican or Democratic on issues.
“There are a litany of reasons why people are choosing not to have a political party preference,” says Dan Howle, co-chair of the Independent Voter Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to encouraging independent voters to participate in the electoral process.
“From a purely political perspective, many people do not identify with all the positions of any political party. Some voters do not like the abundance of campaign literature that arrives in their mailboxes. Younger voters simply do not identify with political parties and are not inclined to ‘join’ a party. Others have cultural reasons. Many Asian and Hispanic voters choose not to state a party preference,” says Howle.
Howle co-founded the Independent Voter Project in California in 2006 with a threefold purpose: to “give every voter the opportunity to vote for any candidate,” no matter their political party; to “give candidates, who did not have a party preference, equal access to be on the ballot” and to “make elections competitive,” he says.
The Independent Voter Project supervised the drafting of Proposition 14, a ballot measure passed in California in June 2010, which introduced the top-two primary election system. Within this system, all candidates, regardless of their political parties, are listed on the primary ballot. Voters of any party, or no party, can vote for whomever they choose. The process applies to all elections except presidential primaries.
According to Howle, the top-two primary election system has had a “tremendous” impact on election results in California and maximized competition. It also significantly increased the influence of independent voters.
“The top-two open primary results in general election contests that have two members of the same political party running against each other. In those cases, independent voters are the decision-makers,” says Howle.
Demirjian says independent voters “have the power to make a big difference in local elections.” To hold the same sway in presidential elections, Demirjian believes, the country needs to “break out of the two-party system,” which, however, he sees as unlikely to happen anytime soon. Still, he thinks, the ever-increasing number of voters choosing to go independent will help shape the political landscape.
“As frustration grows and people begin to pay attention, this trend toward independent voting will only continue, forcing members of the two major political parties to temper their unilateral decision-making,” says Demirjian.
Voter independence is key to fair elections, too, says Howle, who continues to work with the Independent Voter Project to bring open primaries to other states.
“Remember, elections are for the benefit of voters, not political parties or candidates,” he says. “Voters pay for elections and should have equal opportunity to choose the people they want to represent them without restrictions imposed by the parties.”
Carrie Loewenthal Massey is a New York City-based freelance writer.
When George Washington was elected as the first president in 1789, only six percent of the U.S. population could vote. In most of the original 13 states, only landowning men over the age of 21 had the right to vote. Today, the U.S. Constitution guarantees that all U.S. citizens over the age of 18 can vote in federal (national), state and local elections.