Forty-two percent of Americans consider themselves neither a Republican nor a Democrat, according to a Gallup poll released the other day. That’s the highest percentage since Gallup started asking questions by telephone 25 years ago. Thirty-seven percent of Arkansans told Talk Business and Hendrix College last October that they were independents.
But only two of the 535 seats in Congress (.004 percent) are held by independents, and only one of the 135 Arkansas legislators, Rep. Fred Smith of the Green Party, isn’t a member of the two major parties.
What’s up with that?
A casual observer might assume American democracy works like the free market system, and voters have simply chosen to buy Democrats and Republicans. If that’s the case, voters aren’t happy with what they’ve purchased. According to Gallup, only 13 percent of Americans approve of the job those Republicans and Democrats are doing in Congress.
Are Americans just really bad voters? Do we not know what we want? Sometimes yes, to both.
But the system is designed to make it hard for independents and third party candidates to win. In a land that produces aisles full of cereal choices, we are cajoled into making one of only two choices at the ballot box.
This is true for many reasons, including the fact that the winner is the candidate receiving the most votes on Election Day. This puts Americans who want to vote for an independent or third party candidate in an awkward position: If they don’t vote for the major party candidate they dislike the least, it makes it more likely the one they really can’t stand will win. It’s called the "spoiler effect," and it’s a powerful force.
A possible answer is instant runoff voting, where voters choose their first, second and third choices. If no candidate wins a majority of first place votes, the second and third place votes are tallied until an eventual winner emerges.
This may or may not work. Australia, which has instant runoff voting, has remained a two-party system. Besides, it seems unlikely that Democrats and Republicans would mess much with the rules that got them elected in the first place.
The other option is for voters to decide to give somebody else a chance. Two states, Vermont and Maine, have made that choice and are now represented by independents in the U.S. Senate.
Will Arkansas also elect non-major party candidates to important offices? Probably not this year. No one has stepped forward as a major independent candidate. The state’s two minor parties, the Libertarians and Greens, are each composed mostly of a few dozen dedicated volunteers who are short of resources or big-name candidates. They have some momentum, but they have a long way to go.
In the near-term, a successful non-major party candidate in Arkansas probably would be a household name with nearly unlimited personal money to spend, a la New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The other most likely scenario would involve a major party incumbent losing his or her party’s primary and then winning the general election as an independent, as did Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman.
Things do change in politics. There was a time in American history when there were two major political parties, and the Republican Party wasn’t one of them.
A recent column emphasizing the importance of process over results invited readers to share what processes they would change. Here are a couple of responses:
Sue, no last name given, offered a take not on the political process but on the process of divorce.
Married 54 years through life’s normal ups and downs, she lamented the pain that divorce causes children and extended families. She believes preachers should preach against it, and judges should not grant no-fault divorces. "The goal should be to do whatever is necessary to keep them together, and the court should be right smack dab in the middle of their business," she wrote.
Loyal Fort Smith reader Layton Jackson offered several suggestions many Americans might find agreeable, including requiring political leaders to serve either without compensation or at minimum wage, and limiting elections to six months.
Jackson would have more trouble convincing Americans of his belief that the United States should adopt a Canadian-style national health care system — just as not everyone would agree with Sue’s statements on divorce.
But discussing these things is part of the process. And in a democracy, a healthy process is more important than short-term results.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.