On October 10, the Independent Voter Project hosted a panel discussion at the first annual Politicon event in Los Angeles, California. The panel, “Outside the Partisan Narrative: From Journalism to Elections,” concentrated on what institutional reforms are necessary to alleviate systemic partisanship and voter disillusionment within the status quo.
It is not a new revelation that voters are disillusioned and disengaged from the political process. Voter turnout is at historic lows, voter approval of Congress hovers near single-digits, and many feel the country is heading in the wrong direction.
Panelists included Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez (D- San Diego), 2014 independent U.S. Senate candidate Greg Orman (Kansas), political director of Crowdpac, Liz Jaff, IVP attorney Chad Peace, and co-chair of IVP and panel moderator, Jeff Marston.
Commencing the panel discussion, Marston asked the group to explain what the root causes of partisanship are.
“We have to look to how we elect our representatives and what incentivizes our representatives to represent us in the first place,” Peace said. “Elections should serve people first and then let the parties compete, not the other way around.”
Liz Jaff, echoed that sentiment albeit with a different twist. Jaff explained “[o]ur recruitment process is partisan from the beginning. If you get picked, you are picked by the Republican Party or the Democratic Party.”
Essentially, Peace argued, we need to make the political parties compete for our vote and not monopolize the choices we have.
“If you’re trying to break up a duopoly in the marketplace that doesn’t mean you are anti-free market. In fact, it means you are pro free market. It means you believe in businesses having to compete for the consumers. When we say nonpartisan reform, we aren’t saying to get rid of the parties. What we are saying is to make them compete for the minds of voters.” – Chad Peace
As an independent candidate from Kansas, Orman explained that the root cause of partisanship is socio-cultural. People feel as if they want to join a team and political parties provide them that opportunity.
On that note, Marston posed the question on what the largest challenges are to electing nonpartisan, independent-minded candidates.
There are the obvious hurdles to making it on the ballot, such as collecting signatures, Orman explained, but those are not the most significant ones. The largest hurdle is overcoming the misconception of what an independent actually is.
“When I say I am an independent candidate to a Democrat voter, all they hear is that I am a Republican. When I talk to a Republican voter and tell them I am an independent, all they hear is Democrat,” Orman stated.
“We have to get over the notion that voting for an independent means throwing your vote away or simply voting for another party,” he said.
We have to get over the notion that voting for an independent means throwing your vote away.Greg Orman
“I see it as the four-minute mile: it is impossible to do until somebody does it,” Orman added.
Solving the problem of partisanship will take more than electoral reforms, the panel explained. Part of the solution to these systemic issues must come from enhancing civic engagement.
Voting is a two-step process which is often more complicated than it needs to be. This is why Asm. Gonzalez co-authored AB 1461, California’s automatic voter registration bill, also known as the state’s new Motor Voter Act.
In a historic moment for California voters and aptly occurring during a panel discussing voter engagement, Gonzalez announced that AB 1461 had just been signed by Governor Jerry Brown.
AB 1461 makes registration easier for voters, Gonzalez explained.
“When a person has two jobs and three kids, registering to vote doesn’t often cross their mind,” she said. “There were between 3 and 4 million people who Googled ‘how to vote’ past the registration deadline.”
This shows that while people want to vote, they often are unclear of registration deadlines. Automatic registration is one reform to remedy this barrier, Gonzalez explained.
While making registration easier, the panel concluded, it does not mean that voters will show up on election day.
In response to the voter engagement problem, Jaff promoted the idea of nominating candidates that voters will care about. Crowdpac, an organization whose mission is to place objective data in the hands of voters, will soon launch a platform where voters can nominate any candidate they wish for any given race at the local, state, and federal level.
Their goal, Jaff explained, is to take the process of nominating candidates out of the hands of political parties and place it in the hands of voters. If voters are excited about their candidates and can actually choose who is running, the hope is that they will turn out and vote for them.
“The number one quality that we underestimate, what people across the political spectrum are looking for, is authenticity,” Peace said, adding that the lack of authentic candidates is playing a huge rule in declining voter turnout.
Part of the lack of trust in candidates and the lack of authentic candidates might stem from the way campaigns are conducted. Orman alluded to the overwhelming amount of negative advertising that voters are inundated with. The goal of negative advertising is not to increase turnout but to suppress it, he said.
“I’ve been trying to get voters to understand that their decision not to vote isn’t really a protest statement against the system, but in reality, they are unwitting accomplices of those they are opposed to. The decision not to vote ultimately serves the purposes of those they would actually like to vote against.” – Greg Orman
Concluding the segment on efforts to increase voter engagement, Peace stated that millennials have grown up in an age where technology has brought everyone’s conversations closer together. As a result, more divisive political conversations result in less friendships.
Consequently, as partisan bickering has escalated in our political discourse, young voters are increasingly turned off from the process altogether. Only 19.9 percent of 18-29 year olds cast ballots in 2014. That was the lowest rate of youth turnout in the past 40 years. One reason why, the panel agreed, is because our political process and the political parties are currently too divisive.
“Picking one team is so divisive and we see that in our political process. I think that’s why you see [the younger generation] so disassociated from politics,” Peace concluded.
At the end of the day, our current political landscape suffers from a level of hyper-partisanship that has turned voters off from the process. But there are those working inside and outside the system to make things better — and bring them back in.
Photo Credit: Shawn M. Griffiths / IVN News