More than 100 Republicans, including former federal and state officials, are prepared to launch a new political party if the GOP fails to make a series of unspecified changes, according to a report in The New York Times.
Whether such a new party comes to fruition, it's worth examining the changes needed to ensure the viability of a new force in American politics. After all, others have tried to end the two-party duopoly but rarely do they play more than the role of spoiler.
The 2019 Hidden Common Ground report produced by Public Agenda, USA Today and Ipsos found that 65 percent of Americans agree it should be easier for third-party and independent candidates to run for office, giving voters more than two choices. And in last year's report, 80 percent of respondents agreed that "Traditional parties and politicians don't care about people like me."
Voters had more options than ever before in 2018. According to Unite America, which supports nonpartisan reforms and candidates willing to work across the aisle, a record 431 independents ran for state legislative seats, governor or Congress in 2018, collectively earning more votes than independent candidates in previous cycles. However, only 14 of them won their races.
"The largest barrier facing new competition in America is not structural, it's psychological: a belief that an alternative can be viable and a new identity to align around," said Nick Troiano, executive director of Unite America (which has provided financial support for The Fulcrum). "Yes, we need ranked-choice voting to eliminate the spoiler effect. Yes, we need fair ballot access and debate rules. However, those things are necessary but not sufficient. What any third party really needs is a brand and a constituency that is powerful enough to transcend the tribalism on both the left and the right in order to win elections."
For disaffected Republicans, the appearance of big names in a new party might be enough to galvanize meaningful support. Miles Taylor, who served in the Department of Homeland Security under Donald Trump and authored an op-ed and book highly critical of that administration, is one of the organizers of the potential new party, according to the Times. Reuters has identified a number of other participants, including former members of Congress and two former governors (Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania and Christine Toddy Whitman of New Jersey).
But that may not be enough to give a new party the standing to win elections.
One structural change would be to allow more candidates into debates. Writing last fall about the presidential debate system, Christina Tobin of the Free and Equal Elections Foundation and Eli Beckerman of Open the Debates argued that the system is designed to prevent candidates outside the Democratic and Republican parties from competing.
"At a time when voters are thirsting for more choices, it is absurd to keep Libertarian nominee Jo Jorgensen and Green nominee Howie Hawkins off the stage," they wrote. "Objectively speaking, there are four tickets on the ballots in enough states to win the election, and yet the debate commission has decided to appoint itself as gatekeeper standing between voters and their choices — and assuring just two of those tickets have a shot."
Unite America's post-election report on the candidates it supported in 2018 identified 10 other structural reforms that would allow third-party and independent candidates to compete with the major parties' nominees:
- In addition to more debate access, independents would stand a great chance at the national level if the Electoral College were replaced by a national popular vote.
- Use of ranked-choice voting could end the argument that independents serve only as "spoiler" candidates.
- Moving to multimember districts with proportional representation would ensure independents have their voices heard in legislative bodies.
- Top-two primaries or top-four RCV primaries would give more candidates an opportunity to earn a spot in a two-person general election, rather than appearing down-ballot as a third candidate.
- Nonpartisan ballots would create a more level playing field, because voters would not have preconceived notions based on political labels included on ballots. All candidates would have to spend resources to explain their position, rather than relying on partisan identification.
- While straight-party voting speeds up the process for voters, it hurts independents by allowing someone to vote for all candidates of one party across all races with one action rather than considering them race by race.
- Ballot access requirements vary by state and in some places can be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming. Easing the rulings to get on the ballot would level the playing field for third-party and independent candidates who lack the resources possessed by the two major parties.
- Similarly, independents and third-party candidates face fundraising disparities when compared to their Democratic and Republican opponents, who can rely on their parties for significant financial support.
- Many states have "sore loser" laws, which prevent candidates from running in a general election as an independent after losing a primary. While the party base may not choose certain candidates, those people may have significant support among other voters.
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Kresky is counsel for Independent Voting, which works to promote the political clout of unaffiliated voters. An earlier version of this piece first ran in Independent Voter News.
Democrats, if they acted out of more than pique and the need to feed red meat to their base, hoped that their second impeachment would end up preventing Donald Trump from running for president again — by legally disqualifying him from holding future public office. If anything, the Senate's acquittal has kept Trump's base engaged and in sympathy with their leader.
It was certain from the start of this month's proceedings that there would be nowhere close to the 17 Republicans necessary to join all the Democrats for conviction. While the House Democrats' vote to impeach helped their party shape the narrative about the Capitol incursion, it left the party's Senate leaders essentially all dressed up but with nowhere to go — except to conduct a "trial" many viewed as wasting energy and political capital needed to address the pandemic, the economy and all the country's other challenges.
As for Republicans, it is clear they are not done with Trump. Their political viability depends on his base and for now, at least, they cannot hold that base and dump Trump — Mitch McConnell's desires notwithstanding. Moreover, many of the early 2024 presidential aspirants view Trump's base as their own.
There are surely good reasons to prevent a second Trump presidency. And there is an approach that can both impede Trump and improve our democracy.
For it to become more than an abstract argument, however, will require buy-in by elements of both major parties — or sufficient funds to take it directly to the people.
The approach calls for defending and expanding open primaries. Open primaries can take several forms. Most common is the top-two version, where all candidates and voters participate in a first round and the top two vote- getters go on to the November election. Most top-two systems allow candidates to list a party preference or affiliation. California, Washington and Louisiana use this system. In other states, partisan primaries remain, but all voters are allowed to choose which party's primary to vote in. This is used in such nonpartisan registration states as South Carolina, Wisconsin and Virginia.
Trump's immediate strategy appears to be to remain in the Republican Party and seek to support as many winning candidates in the 2022 congressional primaries as possible. Such a strategy is most effective in a closed primary system where only registered party members may vote. And already, pro-Trump Republicans in Missouri, New Hampshire, Virginia and South Carolina are working to close their states' primaries. The success of Trump's strategy will provide a measure of his strength in the GOP and the prospects for those aligned with him.
Reform advocates — particularly those aligned with Independent Voting and Open Primaries — are fighting these efforts. Can they convince anti-Trump Republicans and Democrats to join with them to keep the primaries open? This is not the ideal scenario for partisans on either side. But if they are sincere about stopping the previous president's comeback, they would be hard-pressed — or at least exposed — if they failed to do so.
If "anybody but Trump" is the cause that elected President Biden in 2020, can "anybody but Trump" be so easily rejected ahead of 2022?
Open primaries would force Trump, and other candidates, to demonstrate broad appeal to the overall electorate in order to advance to the general election. It makes it much more difficult for a candidate to do what Trump did in 2016, which was to assemble a solid core of 30 percent or so of his party's voters and ride that through a crowded field to the nomination. Trump used this divide-and-conquer strategy to best 11 other Republicans who survived into the primaries. That allowed him to advance from being the plurality choice of one party to winning the White House with 46 percent of the popular vote.
The best antidote to Trump and Trumpism is more democracy. The impeachment route was anti-democratic and bolstered the partisan status quo. Its advocates sought to block Trump while they maintained top-down partisan control of our electoral process. Does this play into Trump's hands? Is this what is best for our country?
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My father, a Navy veteran of World War II, just celebrated his 94th birthday. He is one of the estimated 300,000 living veterans of that war and he is healthy, mobile and active, with a wicked sense of humor. His memories are sharp, his voice raspy, and he offers colorful reflections on almost a century of American life.
Last weekend, I asked what the country was like when he was in college during and after the war. If you were in uniform and hitchhiking on leave, he said, drivers stopped and said they would take you wherever you wanted to go. In a bar, you couldn't pay for a beer or a meal. The country was united and he was so proud.
Then he paused. When he watched the events at the Capitol, he said, suddenly grim, he wished he was still in uniform. He wanted to be there to defend our democracy, to repel and punish those who would attack it. His voice was choking.
My heart ached. His pain and anger were palpable, even over Zoom. Yes, it was about the sordid events at the Capitol. But it was also about how much the fabric of the country had unspooled in his lifetime.
Like many, I watched members of Congress forced to evacuate after a failure by law enforcement to create a sufficiently secure perimeter around them or put a visible and well-equipped anti-riot force in place, as had been done before a thoroughly peaceful anti-racism protest the Rev. Al Sharpton led on Capitol Hill last summer. This double-standard must be investigated.
Eventually, last week's violence was ended. Debate resumed. Objections were heard, the separate houses debated. After courts had dismissed more than 60 lawsuits claiming fraud, after states conducted recounts that produced no different outcomes, Congress affirmed that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris had the necessary electoral votes to be sworn in next week.
For my money, the democratic process held. The perpetrators who committed violent acts and brought lethal paraphernalia are being hunted down, arrested and charged. I disagree with those who breathlessly proclaim our democracy is fragile. In the face of ceaseless legal, political and procedural challenges culminating in this violent disruption, democracy looked pretty sturdy.
But what does seem fragile? The institutions that mediate and control the American people's relationship to our democratic republic. Here I refer to the two dominant political parties, the massively over-endowed and overreaching mechanisms of the exercise of political power.
Full disclosure: I'm an independent. I dislike the political parties and what they breed. They are dedicated to the proposition that their self-preservation, separately and together, is equivalent to the national interest. There are moments of upheaval where those can appear to be the same thing, but that is momentary.
This is part of the terrible pain of the moment. The vacuum in political leadership in America is wrenching. After a brutal election season — in which $15 billion was spent by both sides getting Americans to hate and fear each other — 41 percent of the electorate chose to identify with neither party. Declaring oneself a political independent is their statement of non-compliance with a wretched culture.
The House decided that an unprecedented second impeachment was the best way to sanction Trump, and 10 Republicans joined the Democrats to charge him with "incitement of insurrection" Wednesday. I sorely wish that partisan Democrats hadn't used the impeachment gambit once before, and with an almost totally party-line outcome.
It would have been better to tie the president's hands for his final days in office by having Vice President Pence and the Cabinet (what's left of it) invoke the 25th Amendment — followed by Pence, Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, Chuck Schumer and Kevin McCarthy standing together to promise a peaceful transition of power.
But I don't get to decide. I'm only one citizen, one who's sick and tired of being force fed a toxic brew every time something happens.
Trump, in his infinite narcissism, did more than incite a riot. He handed the Democratic Party a golden goose: the chance to ring the bell for democracy, to transcend the gamesmanship they helped to create.
In an Ipsos poll taken last weekend, 58 percent of independents said Trump should be removed from office before his term ends — surely the most nonpartisan view on that question. But the same poll found only half the country believes Democrats can be counted on to protect our democracy. Many independents are asking whether Democrats will champion the necessary political reforms to reverse the incentives driving partisanship. I have not seen evidence they will.
Meanwhile, Republicans are deservedly in chaos. Those high-minded government officials turning in their resignations have me laughing. Someone once said, when government officials talk about principles, hold on to your wallet. I just locked mine in a drawer. The GOP is assessing a vote to convict Trump in the Senate followed by a vote to bar him from any future office. A healthier option would be opening all the 2024 presidential primaries to all voters. Independents voted against Trump by 13 points in November, delivering the Democrats the White House and, later, the Senate. Trump could not survive an open primary in four years. The American people would be the deciders.
Perhaps the worst thing is that it's so hard to know what anything means. The 18th century philosopher Bishop Butler opined that everything is what it is and not another thing. Wishful thinking? Did the Democratic leadership pursue impeachment because they have the votes to stay Trump's hand? Or do they want to force the GOP to cast damaging votes? Are the resignations an "every man for himself" act of desperation? Or an act of conscience? Was the scene at the Capitol an actual insurrection or a crazed display of deformed defiance, with criminal acts that should be prosecuted?
Are all these events, and so many others, only one thing?
America is in crisis. Where do we go from here? The widening gulf between the positive traditions of our democracy, however flawed, and the current culture of partisan politics will have to be engaged. We can't continue as we are. This we know because we feel it in our gut.
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While American politics comes off like a death match between Democrats and Republicans, off camera more and more voters are choosing not to affiliate with either party — and those numbers look destined to grow.
The share of independent voters has trended upward in the past two decades, and this fall accounted for 36 percent of the electorate, according to Gallup. A report released Monday projects this unaffiliated population will continue growing over the next 15 years.
With the electorate continuing to move away from past loyalties to the red and blue teams, many democracy reform groups see the time as ripe to make the political system adapt to better represent and accommodate independents. The report was prepared by the Open Primaries Education Fund, which is aligned with one such group that advocates for policies weakening the red and blue duopoly.
In 30 states, citizens may choose whether or not to affiliate with a political party when registering to vote. Nineteen states do not register voters by party, and North Dakota doesn't require registration at all.
The Open Primaries report projected that, in the states with partisan voter registration, nearly three-quarters are expected to see an increase in independent registrations by 2035. Four of this year's biggest presidential battlegrounds are forecast to see growth in unaffiliated voters.
Of the states carried by President-elect Joe Biden, North Carolina is estimated to have the biggest increase, at 14 percentage points, followed by Arizona (10 points) and Pennsylvania (2 points). The growth is expected to be 8 points in Florida, where President Trump this fall continued a string of narrow wins in statewide races for Republicans.
Just four states are on course to see their shares of independent voters decline: Utah (34 points) and Idaho (24 points) among places now dominated by the GOP; New Jersey (18 points), Rhode Island (5 points) and Connecticut (4 points) among the Democratic states; and purple-these-days Maine (3 points).
As the share of independent voters increases, the number of Americans registered with the Democratic or Republican party is expected to dwindle. Thirteen states are expected to see a registration decline or stagnation for both major parties, and another 13 will see a drop in just one party's registration.
Source: Open Primaries Education Fund
Independents currently make up the plurality voting bloc in nine states with partisan registration, and the report predicts that will become the No. 1 registration choice in four new states during the next 15 years.
The report concludes that in order to keep up with these voter affiliation shifts, more states need to eliminate the party registration requirement and adopt open nonpartisan primaries in which all voters can participate.
Alaska voted this fall to join California and Oregon as states with singular primaries for Congress and all state offices — open to all registered voters, and with candidates of all stripes listed on the same ballot. The ballot measure Alaskans approved will advance the top four finishers to the general election. A solid majority of 57 percent of Floridians voted for top-two open primaries for state positions, but a supermajority of 60 percent was required.
"The United States is going through a political realignment," the report concluded. "Unlike past realignments, which involved the emergence, repositioning, and/or obsolescence of entire political parties, the accelerating national trend of the last 30 years is voter disaffiliation from the Democratic and Republican Parties."
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