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When Californians vote in the state’s Democratic primary on June 7 the electorate will include a large number of independent voters. State primary rules enable independents to vote in the Democratic primary as long as they register to do so. The New York Times reported recently that over 850,000 independent voters have registered since January 1, which means the percent of independents voting in California’s Democratic presidential primary will certainly exceed the roughly 20% who comprised the Democratic primary vote in 2008.

Independent Voters

Why Independent Voters Matter—Frank Fear

California’s system is a welcome change from closed primaries that have earmarked this election cycle. Unaffiliated voters were excluded from voting in those states despite the fact that state primaries were conducted at public cost. Twenty states and the District of Columbia hold closed primaries or caucuses. Opening up the process is unlikely, USA Today reports, because many state legislatures are controlled by Republicans who have little motive to change the status quo. In New York State, alone, it’s estimated that nearly 3 million independent voters, on both sides of the aisle, weren’t able to cast ballots in that state’s recent presidential primary.

The two-party political party system doesn’t align well with the political temperament of many Americans. The system, as configured, compels many voters to choose between a party-endorsed Democrat and a party-endorsed Republican.

Enabling political access to independent voters isn’t just a matter of fairness. It’s a matter of national urgency. The two-party political party system doesn’t align well with the political temperament of many Americans. The system, as configured, compels many voters to choose between a party-endorsed Democrat and a party-endorsed Republican.

But the dominant storyline in this year’s presidential campaign is that millions of Americans are choosing neither. They’re turning away from Establishment choices to vote for Bernie Sanders (not really a Democrat) and Donald Trump (not really a Republican).

In doing so voters are coping with a system that doesn’t fit their preferences. Coping only goes so far, though. Involving secondary parties equally in political affairs is the conventional choice for fixing the problem. While a good move, generally, that alternative doesn’t go far enough.

The reason is an anathema of social life. Political parties, like all organizations, are rife with self-interest. Adding more political parties to the mix obfuscates a fundamental problem: “what’s best” often gets interpreted in doing what’s best for “The Party.” That doesn’t mean political parties are bad. It simply means that political parties—like all organizations—have inward-focused tendencies.

Consider what Paul Ryan said a few weeks ago when he told CNN that he “wasn’t quite ready” to endorse Donald Trump. Ryan declared that Trump, as the Republican standard-bearer, needs to “bear our standards.” But candidate Trump didn’t become the Republican nominee by bearing those standards. He got there largely because he didn’t.

Ryan’s response illustrates a major political problem with which Americans must contend. It’s the “Party First Ethic.” That approach is problematic because democracy works best when voters—not political parties—come first. That’s why independent voters—free-agents in the electorate—are so important to America’s future.

If nothing else, “right-siding” the American political system (from parties to people) is a catch-up game. Options are plentiful and ubiquitous in post-modern America, available in generally free and unencumbered ways. You’d think we’d have a more robust political system, too. But we don’t—at least not structurally—because of the “Party First Ethic.”

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The hopeful news is that free-agent voters are defying that ethic. Millions of voters, including registered party members, simply aren’t following “the party line.” Voting for neither of the Establishment candidates is an act of defiance for some, an expression of anger for others, and a rejection of business-as-usual for many.

In the aggregate, though, it’s more. It’s a recipe for major political change. Sanders calls it “messy,” but that reference doesn’t go far enough. Unless and until there’s push back externally, political parties (and, indeed, most organizations) will change slowly and modestly on terms they choose. It’s in an organization’s interest to be in control, to call the shots.

What enables ‘big change”? Distress. Organizations need to experience unpredictability, pressure to change, even chaos. The source of distress in politics often comes by way of grassroots voters. Those citizens aren’t captured by party politics and they just don’t do what ‘the party’ prefers.

That’s exactly what’s happening this year. Republicans ended up with a candidate that defies Conservative categorization and party control. Democrats are still trying to digest Sanders and calculate what his candidacy means for the Party’s future.

And try as they might—even after months and months—neither political party has been able to figure out how to re-establish stability on their terms. Consider two headlines from the May 26 edition of The Washington Post:

Donald Trump keeps attacking Republican candidates

Why so many Sanders supporters don’t want to be Democrats

Am I happy with this turn of events? You bet. It’s good for America.

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We’ve needed things shaken up for some time, and the shake-up is coming from just the right source—the people.

“The People.” Hurray for democracy!