America’s Independent Voters and Voices: The Forty Million Missing

Show Notes, Sources and Transcript

July 9, 2020

By most measures, the US has over 40 million independent or unaffiliated voters representing a third or more of the electorate. Yet despite large and growing numbers, independents are often missing from the national conversation.  

Independents have no cable channel or national newspaper. You rarely encounter independent viewpoints on major networks or opinion pages. And there’s a surprising lack of scholarship on independents as well.  

Who are American’s prominent, politically-engaged political independents? We’ll meet four in Episode 3: 

Laura Sibilia, a three-term independent legislator in the Vermont Assembly; John Opdycke, President of Open Primaries; Thom Reilly,   Chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education; and Jacqueline Salit, President of Independentvoting.org.

Purple Principle theme and background music composed by Ryan Adair Rooney.

Resources:

About Us. Independent Voting. https://tinyurl.com/y8gm53wa

Angus King. ProPublica. https://tinyurl.com/ydz8jdz7

Bernie Sanders. ProPublica. https://tinyurl.com/yapkmyvj

Chancellor Dr. Thom Reilly. Nevada System of Higher Education. https://tinyurl.com/yc7c9zjj

Governor Bill Walker. Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics. https://tinyurl.com/yaj3qp67

Governor’s Roster 2020. National Governors Association. https://tinyurl.com/ydhoqxrl

Independent Voters. Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. https://tinyurl.com/y85ysckm

Laura Sibilia. Vermont General Assembly. https://tinyurl.com/yc2oe3pg

Voters, Media & Social Networks. Morrison Institute for Public Policy. https://tinyurl.com/y7j5c6wf

Mitzi Johnson. State of Vermont Speaker of the House. https://tinyurl.com/ycm9shsc; VoteSmart. https://tinyurl.com/y7hvnorv

Number of Legislators and Length of Term in Years. National Conference of State Legislatures. https://tinyurl.com/y84jxu2y

Party Affiliation. Gallup. https://tinyurl.com/ybjvcb3k

Phil Scott. Ballotpedia. https://tinyurl.com/y7kypco7

Primary elections state-by-state. Independent Voter Project. https://tinyurl.com/y9a2jv6j

State Partisan Composition. National Conference of State Legislatures. https://tinyurl.com/vkrlvyb

Vermont Reapportionment Statistics. VT Legislature. https://tinyurl.com/yb8lgb9k

Amash, Justin (7/14/19). Our politics is in a partisan death spiral. That’s why I’m leaving the GOP. The Washington Post. https://tinyurl.com/y2coqs4p

Astor, Maggie (9/26/19). Phil Scott is First GOP Governor to Back Impeachment Inquiry. The New York Times. https://tinyurl.com/yx8wkxre

Blake, Aaron (2/28/20). For the first time, there are fewer registered Republicans than independents. The Washington Post. https://tinyurl.com/tv9wrnn

Cook, Rhodes (7/12/18). Registering by Party: Where the Democrats and Republicans are Ahead. UVA Center for Politics. https://tinyurl.com/ybc99wg7

Drutman, Lee (10/19/19). Let a Thousand Parties Bloom. Foreign Policy. https://tinyurl.com/vroohc7

Greenblatt, Alan (6/26/19). GOP Holds Voter-Registration Advantage in Races for Governor and President. Governing. https://tinyurl.com/y3nfn83q

Jacobson, Louis (10/3/18). Where Independents Could Shake Up Race for Governor. Governing. https://tinyurl.com/y77b7bab

McCullum, April (11/8/18). How a Republican governor won blue Vermont – again. Burlington Free Press. https://tinyurl.com/yap8qtbj

Remsen, Nancy (3/2/16). Mitzi Johnson: Farmer, Musician and Vermont’s Chief Budget Writer. Seven Days: Vermont’s Independent Voice. https://tinyurl.com/ycqyspoc

Rindels, Michelle (8/7/17). Q&A with Thom Reilly, who starts today as chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education. The Nevada Independent. https://tinyurl.com/ycjmecc5

Spangler, Todd (5/16/20). Justin Amash abandons presidential hopes, says it’s too hard to break through. Detroit Free Press. https://tinyurl.com/y74g95bc

Transcript

John Opdycke: 

Well, 30 years ago I went to college and I made the silly mistake of joining the young Republicans and the young Democrats at the same time.

Robert Pease (narrator) (00:16):

You’re listening to John Opdycke. He’s the president of Open Primaries1 and one of four politically engaged American independents you’ll meet on this Purple Principle.

John Opdycke (00:25):

And I didn’t know that wasn’t allowed. I came from a very nonpolitical family. I was very naive. I went away to college with somewhat of a chip on my shoulder to get more worldly and knowledgeable about how the world worked. And I thought getting involved in politics was a good way to do that, but I very quickly learned that that’s not what party politics was. Party politics was, you know, picking a team, bashing the other side. So I became an independent.

Robert Pease (narrator) (00:57):

This is Robert Pease, creator of The Purple Principle, and a lifelong political independent. From an independent perspective, John’s college attempt to join both parties seems perfectly reasonable. We are governed by both parties. Major donors give money to both Republican and Democratic politicians to advance their interests. Why can’t citizens join both parties? The reality is that stories like this from one of America’s 40 million independent citizens are largely missing from the national conversation. That’s because of the dominance of the two major parties and the media’s focus on their partisan battles. Independents are like the agnostics in the national church of “us vs. them”, “blue vs. red” or “red vs. blue”, squirming uneasily during self-promoting sermons. They’re the more casual viewers of the Super Bowl or Game Seven of the World Series, who wouldn’t really mind things ending in a tie so no one went home disappointed or angry. In the media realm, independents have no cable channel. And when was the last time you saw an independent commentator on a major network?

Sound Collage (02:00):

Democratic…Democratic debate…. 

Conservative…Democratic Senator… 

Democrat from New York lead over the Democratic field… 

Republican presidential candidate…  

Robert Pease (narrator): 

Independents are largely missing from high school and college textbooks and classroom discussions. And in many states, independents are excluded from the primary voting booths. Today you’ll meet four of those 40 million overlooked American independents. Each of them are working in different ways to transcend polarization in US politics and society. John Opdycke, a member of both parties for those few formative minutes in college, is now working to fully franchise independent voters as president of Open Primaries. We asked him to explain the mission at this New York-based nonprofit.

John Opdycke (02:43):

We think that the primary should belong to the voters and not to the parties. That’s their origin. Now they’re seen as the process of a party, which is a private organization choosing its nominee. That’s how most people think of primaries, that’s how the law defines primaries. What we’re saying is, actually, these are taxpayer-funded elections. Every person, whether they’re in a party or not, should be able to vote in them.

Robert Pease (interviewer) (03:08):

And what effect do you think that would have on elected officials and on governance? 

John Opdycke (03:14):

Politicians who get elected in open public primary systems are much better elected officials. They actually are incentivized to work with members of the other party. Candidates that get elected in these closed, partisan primaries, they have absolutely no incentive to govern, to represent their constituents. Their job is to represent the 5 to 10% of partisan warriors that get them elected every two years in the primary. That’s all they care about. It’s not because they’re evil people or stupid people. It’s how the election system is set up.

Robert Pease (interviewer) (03:45):

So, as you know, there’s been steady growth in the number of independents in the U.S. over the past few decades.2 What do you think is driving that?

John Opdycke (03:54):

I think independents are saying loud and clear that they do not like party politics. They might vote for a Democrat or Republican. I mean, in 99% of the elections, those are pretty much your only choices. But just because you vote for a Democrat or Republican doesn’t make you a party person. And independents have real criticisms of party politics and how it operates. Not just the candidates, but the culture of it, the way in which it turns every issue into a political football. 

Robert Pease (interviewer) (04:26):

But independence also comes at a cost. Can you describe for us the disadvantages you see to being an independent?

John Opdycke (04:35):

Well, the disadvantages are that you’re a second-class citizen. I mean, in many states you’re not allowed to vote in the primaries. And the primaries are oftentimes the only elections that matter because of gerrymandering and a whole host of other factors. Independents get ignored. When they are related to, they get related to as Republican leaners or Democratic leaners. And if there’s an independent candidate that you might be interested in, they’re typically marginalized. So being an independent comes with a whole host of barriers that in many states and in many elections, keep independents on the sidelines. 

Robert Pease (interviewer): 

And how about advantages? 

John Opdycke:

The advantages are, you have some hope and vision for this country beyond the next election.

Robert Pease (narrator) (05:23):

The closed primary system that Opdycke and Open Primaries are working to reform also means remarkably few independents attain elected office. We asked reporters Emily Crocetti and Michael Valeri to research how many independent legislators are currently in office, at both the national and state levels. 

Michael Valeri (reporter):

Let’s start in the Senate. Currently, there are two senators that are listed as Independents, Bernie Sanders and Angus King.

Emily Crocetti (reporter):

But both caucus with the Democrats. 

Michael Valeri (reporter):

And I know Sanders votes with the Democrats about 83% of the time 3 and King 90.6% of the time,4 according to ProPublica.

Emily Crocetti (reporter):

And there’s just one Independent in the house, Justin Amash of Michigan, who left the Republican party last year.5

Michael Valeri (reporter) (06:03):

And I think he seemed to be like a candidate for President for about a week.6

Emily Crocetti (reporter) (06:06):

And currently no independent governors. The last was Bill Walker of Alaska in 2018.7

Michael Valeri (reporter) (06:12):

How about at the state level? I know we did that spreadsheet a few weeks ago.

Emily Crocetti (reporter) (06:15):

Yeah. Let me look that up. And it is amazing – when you add up all of the two legislatures of each of the 50 states, you get over 7,000 state-level representatives nationwide.8

Michael Valeri (reporter): (06:25):

And how many independent legislators, as in not belonging to a party, either major or minor?

Emily Crocetti (reporter) (06:30):

Maybe 22, more or less. It’s tricky because some caucus with one party or another, but you can safely say about two dozen. So two dozen, out of nearly 7,400.9 Yet 35% of Americans are registered independent or unaffiliated. 10 

Michael Valeri (reporter):

Says a lot about two-party power. 

Emily Crocetti (reporter):

And partisan politics.

Robert Pease (narrator) (06:50):

Our next guest is one of those remarkably few independent legislators who’s beaten the two party odds multiple times. Laura Sibilia is a three-term member of the Vermont General Assembly.11 She first decided to avoid major party backing and seek office as an Independent back in 2015. 

Laura Sibilia (07:08):

I had three, who now I would classify them as moderate Republicans. I don’t even know if there’s room for them today as Republicans. Three Republicans approached me about running. And I remember very distinctly saying to them, “well, I’m not a Republican.” And you know, I believe in gay marriage and a whole host of civil rights and a woman’s right to choose. And they said, “well, we believe in those things too.” Okay. So, I’m not running as a Democrat. Because I feel like the party just takes it too far.

Robert Pease (interviewer) (07:47):

Can you give us some examples?

Laura Sibilia (07:49):

Well, in particular, we have a lot of labor policies. You know, the minimum wage policies, paid family leave, and those are perennial issues here. They’re not necessarily issues I’m opposed to. But we shortcut a lot of times the policy development of those in our tiny little state. And we aren’t able to address the situation on the ground here. And in rural Vermont, things are not quite the same as they are in New York City or Burlington. Vermont is so small. And our districts are so small. I represent less than 5,000 people. We can have 20,000 people because we have a ski mountain there, but I also represent a town or an organized town with a population of three.

Robert Pease (interviewer) (08:41):

So how would you describe your own independent platform then?

Laura Sibilia (08:45):

I don’t have a platform. In fact, I basically refuse to have a platform. There are issues that I’m going to put forward from my constituents. When other people put forward issues that we have to vote on, my platform is “I’m going to look at that and understand it and ask all kinds of questions and then vote the way that I think is best”. So that’s a disadvantage in some ways and an advantage to being an independent. So you don’t get fed from the party.

Robert Pease (interviewer) (09:22):

All right. So to review, you didn’t feel comfortable running as a Republican or Democrat and you don’t have a platform. Is it possible you’re just not comfortable with political parties?

Laura Sibilia (09:32):

You know, I’d like to say that I really understand the notion of organizing people, organizing ideas, organizing for funding, for moving ideas forward. So I get the idea of parties and I get the value of parties, but that’s not me. And I think that there’s value to having folks like me outside of the parties, to be the, I don’t even know what we would call it, but the space in between. So we’re seen as unaffiliated brokers in the middle.

Robert Pease (interviewer) (10:11):

But it seems polarization is growing between the two major parties at the federal level, and in many states. Do you feel that growing in Vermont as well?

Laura Sibilia (10:20):

I feel like it’s growing and I feel like it’s, you know, moving down. I’ve seen the Governor called a RINO, you know, I’ve seen other lawmakers called DINOS for… you know, I don’t even know if that’s how you say it. I presume it’s for collaborating. But I think my constituents are reacting at the federal level and that ends up coming down.

Robert Pease (interviewer) (10:49):

And how has that played out in the Vermont Assembly?

Laura Sibilia (10:52):

There’s been some real loss in the Republican party for moderate voices. In the last election, we had four folks, one independent and three moderate Republicans that I worked with often. They all lost their seats. I went door to door with one of them, and literally heard people say, “you know, usually I’m with you. But you know, we can’t deal with what’s going on with this presidential administration. We have to stop it.”

Robert Pease (interviewer) (11:28):

But if partisanship is creeping down to the state level, are you still able to play that role you mentioned, that role of unaffiliated broker in the middle?

Laura Sibilia (11:38):

Yeah, absolutely. I think Vermont is actually incredibly fortunate right now. We have a really moderate, Republican Governor and we have a moderate Democratic Speaker,12 and both have a high level of integrity. The Speaker is a real stickler for making sure that everyone is able to engage fairly in the process and that all of the voices are able to be heard. I would say the Governor does the same. So I feel really fortunate to be serving at this point.

Robert Pease (narrator) (12:19):

Political identities often form around voting age, such as in late high school or early college, when our guest John Opdycke tried to join both major parties. Let’s say a young American, not entirely happy with the two major political identities, searches online for important or famous Americans who are independent. What do they find? We asked reporters Emily Crocetti and Michael Valeri to investigate. 

Michael Valeri (reporter):

Okay, well, we’re talking about a young person here, late high school, early college. They’re probably going to look for celebrities.

Emily Crocetti (reporter) (12:49):

Or in this economy, maybe CEOs. So what did you get for independent celebrities?

Michael Valeri (reporter) (12:55):

I googled a list of American celebrities who are political independents. The second result is referring to the American Independent Party, not to unaffiliated independents. So I’m not sure Dr. Google understands the question.

Emily Crocetti (reporter) (13:06):

And wow. Or maybe sad. Your third hit looks like 22 celebrity Democrats.

Michael Valeri (reporter) (13:13):

Yup. From Oprah Magazine. What about CEOs?

Emily Crocetti (reporter) (13:16):

The first hit is a Harvard Law School journal article on the politics of CEOs.

Michael Valeri (reporter):

Any independents?

Emily Crocetti (reporter) (13:22):

Not really. There’s a huge table listing contributions, but either to Democratic or Republican campaigns only. 

Michael Valeri (reporter):

What about the second hit?

Emily Crocetti (reporter):

That is a 2016 Harvard Business Review article, with political affiliations on U.S. boards. But no names or bios.

Michael Valeri (reporter) (13:38):

So no role models. What about Wikipedia? There must be a list.

Emily Crocetti (reporter) (13:41):

List of famous American independents… does not exist. But you can ask for it to be created. Okay… But right under it, there’s a list of suicides. Maybe they mean political suicides.

Michael Valeri (reporter) (13:58):

Just like Dr. Google, Dr. Wikipedia doesn’t really seem to understand the question.

Emily Crocetti (reporter) (14:02):

And that’s not going to help any young people out there learn about U.S. political independents, that’s for sure.

Robert Pease (narrator) (14:08):

Famous American independents may not pop up in online searches like Democrats or Republicans, but there are independents in highly important positions throughout the country. Thom Reilly, Chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education, is one example. He currently oversees the education of a hundred thousand students throughout the state. 

Thom Reilly:

Well, professionally, I first registered as an independent when I was the County Executive or County Manager in Clark County, which is the Las Vegas Valley.13 I was appointed by a seven-person partisan board. I did find that a key to being effective in that position was trust and communication with the elected officials. I felt being an independent allowed me to navigate through some of those political issues and assisted me in gaining the trust of the elected officials, similar to the position I’m in now. In fact, I remember during my interview, this issue came up and several noted the fact that I was a registered independent, and that had been noted in the media as something that they felt very attracted to.

Robert Pease (interviewer) (15:21):

And do you feel there are times in your personal and social life where it’s an advantage to be an independent, such as when people are arguing along partisan lines?

Thom Reilly (15:31):

I think in private life, as well as in those types of discussions, the fact that many individuals don’t feel you’re predetermined in your position or you haven’t taken a position that is well-identified by a political party, there’s perhaps some openness to listen to your point of view. 

Robert Pease (interviewer) (15:49):

Let’s turn back to academia and education for a minute. As you know, there are lots of student Republican and student Democratic groups on campuses all around the country, but not so many independent groups. Are you aware of any in your system?

Thom Reilly (16:04):

Very few. There’s been some discussions around the issues that many independents have begun to champion, particularly around structural barriers to participation in the political process. But it’s very interesting. There’s this whole idea of an independent, free thinking citizen that’s able to make intelligent, informed decisions, which has really been a place of distinction that we’ve had throughout American political life. But it seems to have escaped us in academic scholarship. For the past 60 or 70 years, it’s as if that many academics are unable to conceive of a voter who doesn’t choose between one of the two major parties

Robert Pease (interviewer) (16:54):

Go back a few years to your previous position at Arizona State where you conducted some research on independents and voting access. Can you tell us about that project?

Thom Reilly (17:03):

Prior to becoming the Chancellor, I was head of a think tank called the Morrison Institute at Arizona State University, and it was a nonpartisan think tank.14 We had done a series on the independent voter. And I do remember a conference we were having that fell right after the 2016 election. So partisan tensions were extremely high. And it was interesting that in a very partisan atmosphere, when we began talking about changes to allow all individuals to participate in the political process, there was this bizarre alignment of both parties attacking any effort to open up their primaries or to allow individuals to be able to get on the ballot easily. It was very surreal, if you will.

Robert Pease (interviewer) (18:03):

And we saw this Morrison Institute research has some insight into the media diets of independent and partisan voters. Tell us a bit about that. 

Thom Reilly (18:12):

Sure. You know, the Pew Research has done some very respectable research on voting patterns.15 But particularly when they looked at media consumption, they, like others, left out independents. So individuals tend to live in this bubble of more conservative-leaning individuals looking at news sources that reinforce a worldview versus those of liberals. And this has been pretty well documented, but when they had independents as part of their networks that they talk to on an ongoing basis – and this was particularly true of more conservative individuals – it tended to moderate their media consumption. Which means in the case of the very more conservative individuals, they tend to introduce additional media sources in their consumption. And I think that’s pretty powerful. Again, that needs to be looked at further and really poses questions as to whether independents serve as a moderating influence.

Robert Pease (narrator) (19:20):

Our final guest is Jacqueline Salit, President of IndependentVoting.org,16 a 25-year-old clearinghouse and advocacy group. Jacqueline worked closely with Thom Reilly on that study, analyzing independents and media consumption. Like our other guests, she’s been a politically engaged independent her entire professional life. So we asked her: what position or viewpoint do most American independents have in common?

Jackie Salit (19:46):

We’ve done surveys on this. The numbers come in at between 65 and 70%, who say that the reason that they decided to be an independent is because they think the political parties are more interested in their own self-preservation and their own power than they are in doing what’s right for the communities or constituency or the nation.

Robert Pease (interviewer) (20:07):

You’re on the record saying that excluding independents from taxpayer-funded primary elections is a form of taxation without representation. But why should parties allow someone who is not a member vote in their selection process?

Jackie Salit (20:21):

Well, that’s a great question. And it’s a very fair question. I think what we would say about that is look, the parties have to make up their mind as to what they are. What kind of thing are they? Are they a private association that allows them certain protections, protections including the protection of the first amendment to exclude? If you’re that kind of organization, then you’re a private organization and you should function as a private organization, and the taxpayers should not foot the bill for your activities. You should not have the privilege of acting as a quasi-governmental institution. 

Robert Pease (interviewer) (21:05):

Tell us a little bit about the invisibility of independents and the difficulty that creates for mobilizing them?

Jackie Salit (21:11):

Well, this is very, very important and I’m so glad you’re bringing this up. I mean, there’s this fallacy within academia and within professional political circles that says that in spite of the fact that 45% of the country identify themselves as independent, there’s really only like 7% true independents in America. So they shrink us down by virtue of the following methodology in these surveys. So they ask you, “how do you identify, Democrat or Republican?” Okay. Democrat, Republican, good. We got it. Independent. “Oh, wait a second. We have a follow-up question. How did you vote in the last election? Did you vote?” Oh, I voted for a Democrat or, oh, I voted for Republican. “Oh, okay. Hmm. That means you’re not really an independent, it means you’re a leaner.” 

Now let’s leave aside the fact that in most elections, the only choices you have are Democrat or Republican. But the problem is even deeper than that, because why should how you vote in a given cycle, or even in multiple cycles, be privileged to define you relative to how you want to define yourself? If someone decides to identify as an independent, they are making, in my experience, a statement of noncompliance with the system.

Robert Pease (narrator) (22:48):

That was Jacqueline Salit, President of IndependentVoting.org, and one of four guests today who find value and virtue in their political independence. In future episodes, we’ll be talking with more of the 40 million missing Americans from all walks of life about the advantages and disadvantages of being independent and their views on a polarized nation, government, and society. 

This has been Robert Pease for The Purple Principle team; Sarah Holtz, Associate Producer; Janice Murphy, Senior Editor; Emily Crocetti, Staff Reporter; Kevin Kline, Audio Engineer; and Emily Holloway, Fact Checking and Research. Our original music is by Ryan Adair-Rooney. Please stay tuned for future episodes, like us on social media, but not in a partisan way, and share your purple tail through our contact form at purpleprinciple.com. We may feature you in a future episode, blog or media post.

1994
2017

In 1986, 34 Democratic and 29 Republican Senators signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, creating a citizenship path for illegal immigrants while making it a Federal crime to employ illegal workers. The House also voted in favor, 238 to 173. The bill was signed into law on November 6, 1986. 

congress.gov

In 1972, 17 Republican Senators joined 35 Democratic Senators to override the Nixon Administration veto of the Clean Water Act, a landmark piece of environmental legislation. The House override vote was 247 to 23, including 96 Republicans and 151 Democrats in the majority.

govtrack.us

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