The 2016 election cycle was an exceptionally rough one for voters and candidates alike. The divisive rhetoric and lack of support for the major-party candidates revealed a failure in our system to engage all voters and demographics alike.
Last year, around 28 million independent voters registered nationwide to participate in the electoral process, becoming the fastest growing voting demographic in the United States.
Yet, many states such as Massachusetts and New Jersey disenfranchised independent voters, barring them from participating in the presidential primary election, and failed to educate voters to make sure they can exercise their right to participate.
With a fast-growing number of voters who identify themselves as independents, and a big percentage of Americans who do not relate with either of the two major parties, why is it that we don’t have more independent politicians?
IVN.us talked to Representative Owen Casás, member of Maine’s House of Representatives, and one of the only two independent legislators in a state where around 37% of the population identify as independents.
Rep. Casás was elected to represent the 94th district of Maine on November 8, 2016. Since the beginning, Casás has identified politically as independent, detaching himself from the two-party system, and he managed to beat Democratic candidate Kathleen Meil with an almost non-existent margin of 12 votes!
When discussing his experience of running as an independent candidate, Casás mentioned:
“Even though Maine has a robust history of independents, we still fall on the top-two party system. So running as an independent candidate in the state of Maine was an uphill battle from day 1.”
Casás refers to the fact that most voters rely on party affiliation to know where a candidate stands. When faced with an independent candidate, most citizens cannot assume where he or she stands, and therefore the candidate needs to work harder to communicate his or her values.
And in this particular election year, Rep. Casás noticed how the conversation took some unexpected turns when he was questioned on topics that were beyond the issues that most Americans care about, such as Muslims immigration: “It was hard to best describe who I am without being labeled a certain way,” remarked Casás.
He also emphasized the well-established point that any candidate has less chance of winning when they’re working outside the party machinery. Nowadays, there’s a growing number of people who identify as independents, yet our partisan system forces voters to align with a party to participate and therefore forces aspiring candidates to join a party to get attention and votes.
An example is Ben Chipman, a successful three-term independent politician who served in Maine’s House of Representatives, but when he wanted to run for State Senate, he enrolled as a Democrat because he lacked the resources to fight the major-party machinery.
Post-election, there’s one word that Rep. Casás uses to describe being an independent legislator: Awesome!
Given his unaffiliated status, Casás enjoys the fact that he can walk into both the Democratic and Republican Caucus to get work done. He says it is extremely easy for him to get facetime with any party leader in both chambers and that legislators from both parties are frequently reaching out to him to co-sponsor their bills.
“When I ask them, why me? I get one simple response: You’re an independent,” Rep. Casás joyfully explained. “People will go out of their way to talk to you because you’re different.”
Owen’s message to independents: The fight is worth it.
Representative Casás is currently working with Rep. Kent Ackley to introduce Open Primaries in Maine and give a voice to the roughly 368,000 voters that are currently barred from participating in Maine’s taxpayer-funded primary process.