Events in the nation’s capitol offered the perfect backdrop Monday for the Bangor visit of a group advocating for election reforms that remove the two major parties from a position of control over state and federal government elections and operations.
Also on Monday, as the clock ticked closer to the midnight start of a federal government shutdown, a panel discussion at Husson University focused on the subject of independents, their involvement in the electoral process and the obstacles faced by politicians who don’t belong to a party.
In Washington, D.C., the nation’s party-driven government is clearly not working, making it an opportune time to imagine how government and electoral politics could be and how they could get there.
For Jacqueline Salit, the structures used in almost every state to elect state officials, then to parse out power in state legislatures, perpetuate the power of political parties to run the system rather than act as engaged participants.
Salit managed independent Michael Bloomberg’s three campaigns for mayor of New York City. Today, she is president of IndependentVoting.org, and she’s trying to mobilize independents around political system reforms.
In 2011, a Gallup poll found a record 40 percent of Americans chose to identify themselves as independents. Even accounting for natural ups and downs — the percentage of the electorate identifying as independent tends to fall during an election year — more Americans than ever have shed party labels. In Gallup’s most recent tracking poll on party affiliation, at the start of September, 45 percent of respondents identified as independents.
In Maine, the number of voters not enrolled in a party has long exceeded the number of voters enrolled in either of the state’s registered parties. Unenrolled voters make up 37 percent of Maine’s electorate, according to the Maine Secretary of State’s office, compared with 32 percent for Democrats and 27 percent for Republicans.
Among young Americans, there’s little faith in the power of government and politics to make a difference. A Harvard study released in the spring found just 16 percent of young people surveyed disagreed with the statement, “politics today are no longer able to meet the challenges our country is facing.”
As The Atlantic reported in August, young people in the U.S. want to make a difference, and they’re civically involved, but they’re less likely than previous generations to view government service — either in elected office or through government jobs — as the medium for making that difference.
That means, in the future, a smaller and less representative pool of candidates could be vying for office and, if there’s no buy-in to the integrity of the system, a smaller pool of voters could be making decisions for everyone else.
Would a less party-oriented system lead to at least a partial restoration of faith in government’s ability to do good by the people?
At the very least, it’s worth discussing open, nonpartisan primaries and nonpartisan redistricting.
California last year abandoned its party primary system in favor of an open primary, in which voters choose from a slate of party and nonparty candidates and the top two vote getters advance to compete in the general election. Maine lawmakers earlier this year rejected a bill that would have introduced such primaries in the Pine Tree State.
In a gubernatorial primary, for example, the field could start out with three independents, a Republican and a Democrat. Voters could narrow the field to the Republican and an independent, coalitions of supporters would realign, and there would be no valid concerns about a third-party candidate playing spoiler in a general election.
An open primary might not be the right reform for Maine — it could, for example, push the parties’ candidate selection process behind closed doors — but exploring the option could lead to changes that shake up the political establishment and result in more representative, less party-oriented politics.
As for a nonpartisan redistricting process, that’s a no-brainer. Would our federal government have shut down if it weren’t for rigged redistricting that has made Republican districts even more Republican and Democratic districts more Democratic? When they represent non-competitive districts, elected officials become accustomed to talking to just a segment of the electorate — those voters who turn out for party primaries.
The fight for political system reforms like a nonpartisan primary is bound to be an uphill battle. After all, the people in power are the people who come out of and benefit from the party structure. And it’s difficult to mobilize voters around political system reforms.
But in an age when elected officials in Washington are polarized to the point where they can’t keep government funded, it’s worth discussing how government can work better. Our future depends on such a discussion.