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Four ways the Biden administration should reach out to independents

Democrats, Republicans and independents

"Growing dissatisfaction with the two-party system and a frustration with government and the partisan entities that control it has fueled the growth of the independent voting bloc," writes Reilly.

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Reilly is a professor of public affairs at Arizona State University. He was chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education from 2017 to last year.

So-called independent voters, or those who do not identify as Republicans or Democrats, made up more than two-fifths of the electorate as the new year began.

Eight years into the 21st century, these voters began determining the outcome of presidential elections. Independents helped elect Barack Obama in 2008, preferring him by 8 percentage points. In 2016, they changed course and backed Donald Trump by a 4-point margin. Then last fall, they broke for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris by 13 points — delivering the margins of victory necessary for that ticket to secure the decisive electoral votes of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia and Arizona.

And in last month's twin Senate runoffs in Georgia, independents broke for the winners, Raphael Warnock and Join Ossoff, by 4 points, fueling the narrow victories that have delivered control of the Senate to the Democratic Party.

So it is becoming increasingly clear that independents are key in determining winners and losers at the ballot box.

The rise of the independent voter — with no formal name, no party affiliation and no common ideological doctrine — is increasingly becoming a volatile force in American politics. They now have the power to disrupt the status quo and drive structural reform. Half of millennials, 37 percent of Latinos, and 27 percent of African Americans identify as independents.

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The Biden administration would be wise to reach out to this growing and diverse electorate and try to understand what motivates these voters. The assumption that they have wholeheartedly converted to the Democratic Party would be a major mistake.

Growing dissatisfaction with the two-party system and a frustration with government and the partisan entities that control it has fueled the growth of the independent voting bloc — yet these people are often given second-class status and are subject to subtle and not-so-subtle voter suppression.

Currently, independents are barred or restricted from primary voting in half the states, And a sizable number of independents are locked out of presidential primaries and caucus voting. They're still widely dismissed as a sideshow to the nation's serious political action, rather than seen as a diverse force that is making a statement of noncompliance with the system driven by the two parties.

There are several steps that the Biden administration can undertake to address these unaffiliated voters.

First, it should reach out and listen to the concerns of the independent voter. A recent survey found 81 percent of them view the coronavirus crisis as having "made the problem of partisanship in our government clearer and more critical to address."

Second, the new president should bring independents into his administration, appointing them to key policy-making positions. It is one thing to look to create unity between Democrat and Republican policymakers. It is another to form a government that is accurately representative of the state of the electorate by signaling that the White House is attuned to the public disgust with partisanship. Period.

Third, the president should use his leverage over his party to press the Democrats Party to open future presidential primaries and caucuses to independents. The Supreme Court has recognized the right of political parties to determine who is eligible to vote in these nominating contests, whether or not state law agrees. And there is a need to better understand how voter registration laws compel partisanship: Members of the parties enforce discipline by threatening primary challenges against any of their elected officials who break with a party dictate.

Lastly, the administration should look into restructuring the Federal Election Commission to make it a nonpartisan rather than bipartisan regulator of campaign finance law.

Public faith in the electoral process has been rocked by recent events. To restore and expand that faith across the political spectrum, there must be demonstrable changes that lift voting and governing above and outside partisan control.

The continuing flight of millions of voters from the Republican and Democratic parties is reshaping the nation's political landscape in ways no one can control or even predict. It threatens the very basis upon which we have long analyzed campaigns and elections. Identifying and wooing the independent voter should rank among the most urgent challenges facing candidates, campaigns and political professionals.

More importantly, the country is trying — in jagged and conflictual ways — to define our future and our priorities. Independent voters have an important role to play in shaping that future without having to bend to the practices and partisan divides of the past.

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Our question about the price of freedom received a light response. We asked:

What price have you, your friends or your family paid for the freedom we enjoy? And what price would you willingly pay?

It was a question born out of the horror of images from Ukraine. We hope that the news about the Jan. 6 commission and Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court nomination was so riveting that this question was overlooked. We considered another possibility that the images were so traumatic, that our readers didn’t want to consider the question for themselves. We saw the price Ukrainians paid.

One response came from a veteran who noted that being willing to pay the ultimate price for one’s country and surviving was a gift that was repaid over and over throughout his life. “I know exactly what it is like to accept that you are a dead man,” he said. What most closely mirrored my own experience was a respondent who noted her lack of payment in blood, sweat or tears, yet chose to volunteer in helping others exercise their freedom.

Personally, my price includes service to our nation, too. The price I paid was the loss of my former life, which included a husband, a home and a seemingly secure job to enter the political fray with a message of partisan healing and hope for the future. This work isn’t risking my life, but it’s the price I’ve paid.

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Given the earnest question we asked, and the meager responses, I am also left wondering if we think at all about the price of freedom? Or have we all become so entitled to our freedom that we fail to defend freedom for others? Or was the question poorly timed?

I read another respondent’s words as an indicator of his pacifism. And another veteran who simply stated his years of service. And that was it. Four responses to a question that lives in my heart every day. We look forward to hearing Your Take on other topics. Feel free to share questions to which you’d like to respond.

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