Massachusetts’ Attack on Independent Voters

“Those who have been bred in the school of politics fail now and always to face the facts.”  ― Henry David Thoreau, “Slavery in Massachusetts”

It was disappointing to read that Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin is spending public money urging voters to leave the United Independent Party ahead of an important registration deadline.

But it was not a surprise.

Massachusetts has a long history of using the power of incumbency to cripple political opponents. In fact, it’s a leading state for such partisan gamesmanship. Dating back to 1812, when Gov. Elbridge Gerry signed into law a redistricting plan for state Senate districts that favored his Democratic-Republican Party, the era of Massachusetts rule rigging began. It has continued, unabated, ever since.

Given the insider dealing and venality that epitomized the 2016 presidential primary process, I’d hoped that politicians would think twice before abusing the power of the state for political purposes. Galvin quickly diminished any such prospect of moderation in the sketchy behavior of elected officials. He hid his actions behind the thin veil of fiscal responsibility. He claimed to be troubled by the additional $56,000 he was going to have to spend printing ballots to accommodate Independent voters. He conveniently ignored the fact that thousands of these UIP members have been paying taxes for decades to support a primary process that excludes them.

Nationwide, states spend hundreds of millions of dollars paying for closed primaries that the courts have deemed private political activity. If Galvin were serious about attacking inappropriate state spending on elections, he’d start advocating for the two major parties to reimburse the commonwealth for the millions it spends on this private political activity.

The premise of Galvin’s argument appears to be that he does not like the Independent Party’s use of the word “Independent.” Apparently he has a low opinion of the citizenry if he really thinks some of them might be confused by the name. Given his attempts to reduce the choices that they have at the polls, some voters might also be perplexed by the secretary’s use of the word “Democrat” to describe himself. Should the state send a letter at taxpayer expense urging Democrats to leave the party in the event they’re likewise confused?

This is hardly the first time a partisan politician has abused the power of their office to attack a centrist Independent Party or Independent candidates. In many jurisdictions around the country where a robust Independent or third party movement has formed, the dominant party has tried to rig the rules to blunt their momentum.

In my home state of Kansas, where my 2014 candidacy threatened to take a U.S. Senate seat from the Republicans, they responded predictably. Instead of becoming more responsive to voters, our state’s highly partisan secretary of state, Kris Kobach, introduced legislation that would bring back one of the great excesses of machine politics: straight party-line voting – which is designed to discourage voters from considering an Independent candidacy altogether. Kobach’s rationale, like Galvin’s, was laughable. He described it as a “convenience” for voters.

A heavy-handed attack on a political party’s basic right to exist is the sort of thing that causes independent-minded people as disparate as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump to say that the system is rigged against ordinary citizens. Millions of Americans flocked to that message opposing a system run by political elites that benefits no one but the elite themselves. Galvin should remember that when engaging in behavior that makes him a poster child for political reform.

I’m not surprised that many people are joining the United Independent Party. In a recent Gallup poll, 60 percent of Americans said they do not feel well-represented by the Democrats and Republicans and believe a third major party is needed. Fully 42 percent of Americans now describe themselves as politically independent. Millions more have gravitated to unconventional choices in our recent presidential primaries. The appeal of the United Independent Party – a good-government organization that advocates for greater transparency, collaboration, and genuine problem-solving – is obvious. If given a level playing field and enough time to grow, it could become a threat to the major parties in Massachusetts.

So, when an Independent Party begins to take root, political partisans like William Galvin try to stop them. Instead of encouraging their own candidates to evolve to meet the needs of voters, they abuse the powers of their office to limit competition and accountability.

Massachusetts voters should view this attack on the UIP for what it is – an attempt to limit their choices. In that sense, it is an attack on Massachusetts voters themselves.

Editor’s note: This article originally published in Real Clear Politics on August 25, 2016. Republished with permission.