The largest political designation of US voters is actually no designation at all. Over 40 percent of Americans self-identify as politically independent, and in some states like Massachusetts, more than half of voters have declined to register with a political party.
Most elections are decided in partisan primaries where less than 10 percent of voters nationwide participate. As a result, candidates of the dominant party are forced to appeal only to an activist 'base' of voters that turn out in disproportionate numbers than the general electorate. Decreased participation leads to unpopular representatives who are often elected by less than 4 or 5 percent of the actual electorate.
If the parties can agree on one thing, it’s that they don’t want to compete for the votes of nonpartisan voters. Kentucky, Hawaii, and South Carolina are only a few of the many states where the parties have tried to close the electoral process to nonpartisan voters.
The Republican Party, for example, led the challenge against Washington state’s nonpartisan primary system and has fought to close primary elections to nonpartisan voters in Idaho and Virginia.
The Democratic Party led a fight in the Hawaii’s courtrooms to end the state’s open primary system and argued that the party’s right of association trumps a voter’s individual right to participate in the seminal case: Democratic Party v. Jones.
Both parties teamed up with minor parties to challenge California’s new nonpartisan system, failing in 3 different attempts to reclaim primary elections as a private, rather than public exercise.
These low-turnout party primaries not only encourage partisanship (a “run to the right or left” effect), but they are paid for with public taxpayer dollars.
IVN estimates suggest that over $400 million was spent by taxpayers in 2012 to fund primary elections alone; tax dollars that come from voters who the parties actively prevent from participating in the process. In closed and semi-closed primary states, only voters who affiliate with a particular political party can vote in the primary.
(Update 7/18/2016: Research conducted by Open Primaries found costs for the 2016 primaries were in line with IVN's findings for the 2012 elections.)
This requirement stands in direct contrast with the freedom not to associate as guaranteed by the First Amendment. Political participation cannot be predicated on one’s membership to a private political party.
The consequences of institutionalized partisanship are very apparent. The 113th Congress held the lowest approval rating of all time -- 9 percent. Partisanship has stretched Congress to the point where accomplishing its primary function, passing a budget, is cause for national crisis.
The phenomenon of gerrymandering, for example, is largely a consequence of bipartisanship. One party carves out a favorable district to secure safe elections for years on end and the other does the same. Party bosses can guarantee outcomes in uncompetitive districts where the party favorite has no real challenger.
Due in large part to gerrymandering, only approximately 35 of 435 congressional elections are competitive in any given election year. That means in more than 90% of these elections, the winner is actually decided during the primary, before the majority of voters participate.
In 2010, California had the least competitive elections in the country. In 2012, the first year nonpartisan primaries were conducted in California, Ballotpedia found that the state had the most competitive elections in the nation.
The goal of a representative government is to elect leaders beholden to their entire constituency, not just one party or powerful special interest. Yet, right now, the legal scales are tipped in the favor of Republicans and Democrats. To understand how the parties have taken hold of the electoral system, it is first important to understand how primary elections work.
Political parties are using the publicly funded electoral system to insulate themselves from competition. This disenfranchises a large portion of the electorate, gives parties unfair access and control over our democracy, and forces legislators to be accountable only to their partisan base and not the whole electorate.
The consequences of a dysfunctional and increasingly polarized government are far-reaching. It has bled into our political dialogue so deeply, issues are no longer debated on their own merits, but along carefully focus-grouped and scripted Republican or Democratic talking points. Substantive debate has taken a back seat to partisan gamesmanship. Candidates, who used to run campaigns of persuasion, now run campaigns of negativity and fear carefully targeted to mobilize their partisan bases.
If we can make our representatives accountable to all of us again, they will start talking to all of us.
The Independent Voter Project believes that democracy functions best when the most people participate. The goal of its open news platform, IVN.us, is to encourage participation in the public dialogue by the broader electorate. The goal of its coalition efforts at EndPartisanship.org is to make sure all voters can exercise their right to a meaningful vote.
Photo credit: Justin Ormont / Wikimedia Commons