Author to speak at Dole Institute about independent voters, future of political parties
photo by: Journal-World File Photo
People who do not affiliate with any major political party now make up the single largest block of voters in the United States, and if the country’s electoral system doesn’t adapt to that reality, political parties run the risk of making themselves irrelevant.
That’s the message of an author and political activist in the independent voter movement who will speak Wednesday afternoon at the Dole Institute of Politics on the University of Kansas campus.
Jackie Salit is president of IndependentVoting.org, a group that is working to organize independent voters and independent candidates.
She is also the author of several books about independent voters and served as campaign manager for three of Michael Bloomberg’s campaigns for mayor of New York City when he ran under the banner of the Independent Party.
During a phone interview Tuesday, Salit cited recent Gallup polls showing people not affiliated with any party now make up roughly 45 percent of the total electorate, and an even greater percentage among younger voters.
In Kansas, the trend is not as strong. Only about 30 percent of Kansas voters are registered as unaffiliated, according to the most recent figures from the 2016 elections. That compares to 44 percent who identify as Republicans, and about 25 percent who identify as Democrats.
“I think part of what’s going on now is there’s kind of an emerging battle over whether we need to fix and re-engineer certain aspects of the election system to take into account that this is the case now,” she said.
“We have an electoral system that doesn’t fit with the state of the electorate, and we have to do something about that,” she said.
In particular, Salit talked about the “closed primary” systems used in many states, including Kansas, which only allows people who are registered with a political party to take part in deciding whose names will appear on general election ballots.
In recent years, though, some states, including California, have introduced a new kind of unified primary system in which all candidates for an office appear on the same primary ballot, and the top two vote-getters advance to the general, regardless of whether they are from the same party or different parties.
“What the California model sets up is a public primary, rather than a party primary, and I think that’s more the direction we need to move in,” Salit said. “Not to mention, the other big issue looming over this is, you have so many closed-primary states where taxpayers are funding those closed primaries, but the taxpayers who happen to be independent aren’t allowed to participate in something that they’re paying for.”
Many political scientists, including KU’s Patrick Miller, dispute the idea that unaffiliated voters really are that independent.
“In fact, most independents act like partisans,” he wrote in an October 2017 op-ed piece in the Kansas City Star. “They may call themselves independents, but actually lean to one of the major parties, and in policy attitudes and voting behavior they look like overt partisans.”
That op-ed piece was actually a response to earlier guest commentaries by Salit and Greg Orman, who ran as an independent candidate for the U.S. Senate from Kansas in 2014, and who is now running an independent campaign for governor.
He went on to note that the same Gallup polls that Salit cites also show that the proportion of unaffiliated voters in the U.S. hasn’t changed significantly for decades.
Salit, however, rejects the idea that independents are really just partisans in disguise.
“Voters, in choosing to be independent, are making a statement about their dislike for traditional politics, their dislike for divisive party-driven politics, and their self-identification as something other than that,” she said. “Whether they tend to vote more this way or that way, frankly, is just simply how they vote.”
Salit’s appearance at the Dole Institute is the last installment in a seven-part series about independent voters and candidates. The series was organized by Dole Institute fellow Jim Jonas, who managed Orman’s 2014 campaign.
The event starts at 4 p.m. It is free and open to the public.