By Shyla Nambiar
(Ms. Nambiar is a resident of next-door Peachtree Corners and an activist with Georgia Independent Voters)
Voter frustration with the system continues to grow as our country still experiences one of its worst economic crises and partisan politics hinder our ability to dig ourselves out of the mess. While the Democrats and Republicans remain at odds with each other over national policy, it is worthwhile to remind politicians that fully 40% of American voters consider themselves to be independents unswayed by party loyalties.
Independents are a growing movement and helped President Obama win the 2008 election. Independent voters have also influenced the gubernatorial elections in states such as Massachusetts, Virginia and New Jersey, as well as deciding local races. The United States has this tradition of populist politics going back to the 1800s, when citizens frustrated with standard politics allied to form grassroots organizations. Georgia has a history of independent thinking, and the movement is still strong today in the form of Georgia Independent Voters (GIV), a group aligned with the national Independent Voting.org.
Founded in 2003, GIV functions to give voice to independent voters in our state. While Georgia conducts open primaries and has local nonpartisan elections, reforms that independents support, it does not currently have in place the top two primary system, the system recently put in place by the voters of California. In this system, all voters can vote for the candidates of their choice in a single cross-party primary, and the top two candidates vie with each other in the general election. GIV considers the top-two solution a viable way to challenge the position of long time incumbents who frequently run unopposed. In Georgia last year, 77 percent of legislative races had only one candidate on the general election ballot, but this number would be significantly lowered if primaries were conducted as top-two nonpartisan processes, as it did in California last year.
Other reforms GIV supports to reduce partisanship and create a more effective government include same-day voter registration, reform of voter ID laws designed to exclude voters, and the initiative and referendum process to allow voters to propose legislation directly.
Independents face many obstacles due to the partisan nature of American politics. Unlike Georgia, many other states don’t hold open primaries, and independent voters can be shut out of important primary elections or required to sign loyalty oaths. Independent candidates also contend with restrictions on their right to run for office and are excluded from nationally televised debates. These exclusions undermine the health of the democracy.
In a political atmosphere dominated solely by the two major political parties, the election process in America is controlled by their interests. During 2012, the media focused on cynical partisan manipulation of voting laws in some US states. In an infamous episode, Pennsylvania Republican legislator Mike Turzai was caught on video declaring that the state voter ID laws would deliver Pennsylvania to Mitt Romney.
These types of politically-motivated voter suppression laws could be avoided with nonpartisan oversight of the process, as occurs in other countries. Independents are pushing for representation on the Federal Elections Commission and other election boards. Because independents lack the traditional partisan allegiances and recognize that nonpartisan politics produce the best public policy, they are singularly positioned to drive meaningful reform of the electoral process.
The two major parties function within a system where they make all the rules, and these rules are meant to perpetuate their own power and maintain their own privilege. The issue is structural reform. Political parties shouldn’t conflate their own priorities with that of our government. Independents believe that partisan tactics and quarreling fail to address America’s ills, and stress consensus as a way to solve problems.
Our Constitution doesn’t mandate two political parties. Rather, our first president, George Washington, warned against them, and there is nothing inherently American about a two-party system. Making room for independent voters and candidates may decrease voter apathy by giving voters more choices and would change the nature of American politics. Rather than a polarizing discourse filled with clichés and finger pointing, citizens would be able to get a more nuanced, three-dimensional understanding of the problems gripping the nation. We can even find alternative, creative solutions to these problems instead of the standard answers. The time is now to repair the system and move towards a post-partisan America.
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