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Report: Partisan-Driven Voter Suppression Getting Worse with Rise of Independent Voters

Created: 25 February, 2021
Updated: 14 August, 2022
6 min read

Independent voters are on the verge of being at least the second largest voting bloc in nearly all states that register voters by party. This is the findings of a report the Open Primaries Education Fund released back in November.

Right now, voters registered independent (or unaffiliated, etc.) outnumber registered members of at least one of the major parties in 15 of the 30 states that register voters by party. OPEF projects most states will be added to this list by 2035.

Also, for the first time, the percentage of voters polled by Gallup who self-identify as independent has reached 50% after years of hovering over 40%. Young voters and communities of color are also increasingly choosing the independent route.

It is important to note what this trend means, because in many states where voters are increasingly rejecting the Republican and Democratic Parties, it means sacrificing their right to meaningful participation in elections.

To go in-depth in the OPEF’s findings, Open Primaries hosted the first of its 2021 Virtual Discussion Series on Wednesday, February 24. The discussion was moderated by Center for Government Excellence Director Amber M Ivey, and featured: 

  • Open Primaries President John Opdycke; 
  • National Council of La Raza Chair Daniel R. Ortega, Jr;
  • Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt; and 
  • Open Primaries Vice President Jeremy Gruber. 

“We’re in a climate now in the country where issues of political reform, of polarization, of dysfunction -- these are front and center issues,” said Opdycke. “Independents have been ahead of the curve on these questions and on these issues, but by and large have been ignored.”

He added that one of the fundamental goals of OPEF’s report was to “make visible the exodus that is taking place from the political parties.” 

It’s an exodus that is important to acknowledge and understand because it highlights the depths to which the current US political system was designed to serve and give an advantage to the major parties and their members.

“This report is about looking at one of the important root problems, and that is this massive change going in the American electorate, where voters are not just aspiring to be independent voters, they are registering as independent, and they find themselves in a complex web of laws and regulations that put them in a second class status,” said Gruber.

Generally, the states that register voters by party also have a primary system that conditions participation in one way or another on party affiliation. Voters are warned in many states that refusing to join a party will mean restrictions at the ballot box.

In other words, public funds and resources are used to explicitly tell voters: Join a party or don’t vote.

Ortega emphasized this point when he talked about criticism leveled at the Latino community for not turning out in numbers to vote. However, he said the system has long discouraged participation in the electoral process.

“In Arizona, we have closed primaries. In Arizona, if you want to be an independent, you have to choose a ballot -- a Republican ballot or a Democratic ballot -- in order to vote. Most people say, ‘I’m not going to get into choosing what I didn’t choose to begin with if I am going to be an independent.’”

Ortega has called closed primaries, which force voters to join a party if they want a meaningful say, as the “largest voter suppression you have ever seen” and it is happening in Arizona and several states in the US.

The amount of voters who are locked out of the most critical stage in most elections -- that being the primary -- rises in the tens of millions and will only increase as more voters choose to register outside the major parties.

The consequence of a partisan primary system, whether it is open or closed, is that it has warped the incentive structure in a way that is detrimental to the political process and government at large.  Public officials are incentivized to prioritize the interests of their party first, because in most cases, their biggest challenge is going to be in the primary. To win, they have to entrench themselves behind partisan lines. They have to kiss the ring of party leadership. They have to stick by the party’s message.

“The outcomes you achieve are absolutely dependent on the inputs you put into the system," said Mayor Holt. 

“We have a system that incentivizes inputs that are divisive, that are seeking to run to the extremes because that is who is voting in a closed partisan primary process. This inevitably yields outcomes that turns a lot of people off." 

Party affiliation is not only used to limit access to the ballot. Some states also extend restrictions and party advantages to the administration of elections as well.

“In New York, for example, poll workers must be registered members of one of the two major parties,” the OPEF report states. “Independent voters cannot work the polls.30 In Arizona, and a number of other states, unlike Republicans and Democrats who can register once to vote by mail, registered independents have to request a mail-in ballot for each election.”

“Perhaps most egregious, much of the ‘fair’ redistricting debate hinges on the notion that districts be drawn with an eye not to representing every voter fairly, but to representing each party and its voters fairly. Contrast such an approach with an emerging focus of some reformers on instituting nonpartisan voter-centric redistricting commissions.”

The current system puts significant barriers in place designed specifically to benefit the Republican and Democratic Parties at the expense of fairness, accountability, and the rights of voters. Yet, this hasn’t stopped or slowed the great migration away from the two major parties.

The great exodus from the parties, however, has emphasized the need for reform, and the movement to transform primary elections to be fairer and more accountable to voters is also building momentum. Three states use nonpartisan open primaries for nearly all of their elections, one of which (Alaska) adopted the nation’s first top-four nonpartisan open primary in the 2020 election.

57% of Florida voters also cast a ballot in favor of nonpartisan primary reform in 2020 that would include all voters and candidates. Due to how state lawmakers have changed amendment rules over the years, though, that majority support wasn’t enough to pass the reform. Still, that 57% not only represents a majority of Florida voters, but millions of citizens who want all voters to have a level playing field.

The growth of independent voters is a trend that needs to be taken seriously. The parties have anointed themselves the gatekeepers of our elections, which has allowed them to dismiss independents. Pundits and pollsters force these voters into categories of "leaners," without acknowledging that from the onset the system only gives voters two viable options that are increasingly being rejected by US voters.

“Anytime someone tells you an independent voter is not really an independent, that they are a Republican leaner or a Democratic leaner, tell them they are wrong and that they are being disrespectful,” said Opdycke. “Independent voters are saying something by being independent that needs to be respected and related to seriously.” 

“We, the people, have to push back on the pundits and the pollsters, and say ‘you’re missing the point.’" 

Watch the full Open Primaries discussion above.

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