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Independent Voters Have Little Voice In Congress; Isn't It Time to Change That?

Joe Rothstein // Published October 10, 2009 in U.S. Politics Today
More Americans declare themselves as independents and no-party voters than opt for either the Democratic or Republican parties. Nationally speaking, if Independents were an organized party the registration line-up would look roughly like this: Independents 40%, Democrats 35%, Republicans 25%.

Despite their numbers, independents have virtually no voice in Congress or in most state legislatures. If they did, we would be seeing an entirely different political landscape in the U.S. than the tough terrain now inhabited almost exclusively by Democrats and Republicans.

That became clear to me the other day while sitting through a presentation of a new survey on public attitudes about health care reform. The event was sponsored by the Brookings Institution. The survey was the work of the University of Maryland's highly respected WorldPublicOpinion.org. which sampled 1400 respondents just a few days earlier.

Take a look at these numbers:

Sixty percent of the self-identified independents think the U.S. government should be responsible for insuring that people have adequate health care. Fifty-three percent favor having the government provide health care directly to everyone who wants it. Fifty-seven percent favor a public option for everyone, and 74 percent favor the limited public option in the House committee bills. Only 21 percent of the independents believe the U.S. health care system is basically sound.

There's a lot more. For the most part, independents align far more closely with registered Democrats than with registered Republicans. But independents are furious with both parties about the mind-numbing partisanship that has defined the health care debate.

One clear message from this survey is that independents strongly believe health care reform is needed, that government has a major role to play in the reform effort, and that Congress should get on with it.

We're seeing the same type of numbers in the debate over energy reform. In an August ABC News/Washington Post survey, 56% of the self-identified independents and 63% of those who call themselves "moderates" said they favor the President's energy reforms. Despite these numbers, when the energy debate heats up again soon, those trying to scuttle the reforms are likely to be labeled "centrists."

In truth, the real "center" doesn't seem to have much of a voice these days. The center was probably best expressed in the 2008 presidential election, and the post-partisan "change" message that carried President Obama to a decisive victory. But once the enthusiasm for change hit the wall of congressional partisanship the message shattered.

It's no mystery why this happens.

Think of how we elect people to Congress. In 35 states, you have to register as either a Republican or a Democrat to vote in a primary election. That requirement alone disenfranchises anywhere from 25 to 50 percent of the voters, per state.

On September 1, voters in California's 10th congressional district went to the polls to replace their representative who had taken a position in the Obama administration. The district has 365,120 registered voters. California's Republican party has a closed primary, where only registered Republicans get ballots. The Republican candidate who emerged with the nomination did it with just 4,871 votes.

Okay, you might say, a special election historically draws few voters. But look at 2008's regularly scheduled primaries in Arizona, where 22% turned out, or Michigan where the number was only 18%. Parse those numbers by individual party voting and it's clear that very few people are electing those in Congress who are now deciding the nation's fate on health care, energy and a whole host of other issues.

It gets even worse. Because our reapportionment system is so politicized, in most states congressional districts are drawn to insure that either Democrats or Republicans will hold individual seats. That's why in most election years there's so little turnover. Independent voters are denied any say in the choice of partisan candidates. And when they can vote, in general elections, it's essentially just to ratify the choice of the infinitesimal minority who selected those candidates.

If congressional districts were drawn by non-partisan commissions to connect those with geographic interests rather than party affiliation, and if independents were permitted to vote in all primaries we would be seeing a much different type of Congress---and probably a more productive one.

Let's go even further. Why not have instant runoff elections, which would give third party candidates a better chance? Or develop a system of proportional representation, the way many other democratic countries do, to give minority opinions greater voice?

Some states and districts have opted for such reforms, but too few to make much of a difference in Washington. Reformers take note: If you don't like what's happening in Congress today, go back upstream to the source, to the way these people get elected in the first place.

Fixing that problem would go a long way toward solving a ton of other ones.