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Which do you prefer, the waiter asked Alice, chicken or beef? Alice has a craving for lamb, you see, but the restaurant has two choices only. What is Alice to do?

America’s voters face Alice’s dilemma—choosing between two main options. The U.S. doesn’t have variety in major political party choices as does our neighbor, Canada. Eight parties—not two—hold seats in Canada’s House of Commons.

The limited choices in America may explain why so many Americans chose to be neither Democrat nor Republican. When Gallup asks Americans this questionIn politics, as of today, do you consider yourself a Republican, a Democrat, or an independent?—more respondents pick “Independent” than either Democrat or Republican. That beat goes on month after month and year after year.

In Gallup polls (twelve taken already this year) the 2019 highs/lows are Independent 46%/37%, Democrat 34%/26%, and Republican 30%/25%. Note that the Independent low is greater than the high of either party. Furthermore, one has to go back to December 2012 to find a reporting period when a party is picked over the Independent option. And, then—just like a radar blip—that preference vanished. Independent has prevailed ever since.

Political coverage is all about the parties with hardly a word said about the millions of Americans who are unaffiliated politically.

But you’d never know that to be true by looking at how America conducts business politically. Political coverage is all about the parties with hardly a word said about the millions of Americans who are unaffiliated politically. In the most recent debates, for example, at no time was any candidate asked about Independent voters and what they prefer. And none of the candidates said a word about America’s Independents.

One reason is that the parties are a structured part of America's political scene. That structure comes with a price tag. For example, millions of Independents don’t have a say when it comes to picking candidates for the presidency. Party primaries (both Democrat and Republican) are closed to party members in 11 states. In New York State alone, over 2,450,000 registered and unaffiliated voters could not vote in the 2016 primaries. In four other states, primaries are closed to members of one party or the other.

Of course, the argument against open primaries goes like this: Why should Independents have a say in choosing a party’s candidate when they aren’t party members? Here's a compelling response: neither major party has formal standing in the U.S. Constitution. That means political parties are private organizations, even though they are treated preferentially, as though they are like public utilities.

While the parties hold privileged status, many academics and most political operatives view Independents quite differently—not as a distinct category of voters but as ‘leaners,’ that is, closet Democrats and Republicans. How odd! In democracy’s terms, ‘independence’ is an unencumbered form of ‘One Person, One Vote.’ It's voter-centered, not party-centered.

That doesn’t mean Independents are entirely forgotten, though. The parties woo them come election time. It’s no wonder, then, that a recent national poll of over 5000 Independents found that the vast majority of Independents feel disrespected by the parties. The study, conducted by, found that nearly 90% of respondents believe that party-affiliated politicians don’t care what they think. Two-thirds of the respondents feel de-valued when they compare themselves to party-affiliated voters.

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But make no mistake about this: disrespected or not, Independents are ‘the third force’ in America’s politics. Independents outnumber party affiliates in nine states and also have a significant impact on political developments in those states, including in two early primary states. In New Hampshire, 42% of registered voters are unaffiliated, which is 11% more than second-standing Republicans. In Iowa, 36% of registered voters are unaffiliated, which is 4% more than second-standing Republicans. Furthermore, Independents are in the outright majority in two states—Alaska (55%) and Massachusetts (54%).

Massachusetts is a compelling case because the commonwealth is considered a Democratic stronghold. The prevailing assumption is that Democrats hold an overwhelming advantage in the number of registered voters. That’s not true. Registered Democrats trail registered Independents by 20 percentage points.

Michigan is another state of interest, primarily because of the way Michigan Independents voted in the 2016 Presidential election and, again, during the 2018 mid-terms.

In 2016, Trump carried Michigan by only 11,000 votes. The conventional explanation (mostly among Dems) goes like this: Clinton lost Michigan because African American voters in Detroit didn’t vote in the numbers as they had for Obama in 2012. The numbers are right—the Obama-Clinton difference was over 76k votes. But it's also true that Clinton didn’t match the Obama turnout in the Detroit suburbs, which are predominately White (-32k votes for Clinton). Furthermore, doesn’t it make just as much sense—if not more sense—to attribute an election victory/loss to those WHO VOTED? With that in mind, know that Trump had a 16-point advantage over Clinton among Independent voters.

While it’s impossible to know how many Independents voted in 2016 (Michigan doesn't register voters by political affiliation), it's a fair guess based on Pew research that Independents constitute at least 20% of Michigan’s electorate. 4.9 million Michiganders voters cast ballots in 2016, which means that between 930,000 and 980,000 of those votes were likely cast by Independents.

In the 2018 mid-term election, Michigan voters overwhelming approved (by a 61% to 39% margin) a ballot initiative that handed over responsibility for drawing the state’s Congressional boundaries from the political parties to an independent commission. Michigan, is among the most heavily gerrymandered states in the country. Of the 4.3 million Michiganders who voted in 2018, 2,500,000 voted ‘yes’ to the proposal. That number is nearly 260,000 more than the total number of votes cast in 2018 for the Democratic candidate (and winner) for governor.

What’s the takeaway message from all of this? First, let’s recognize that millions of Americans do not want to affiliate with either major political party. That fact, which is communicated infrequently, should be emphasized as a primary feature of America’s political landscape. Second, Independent voters should not be penalized for choosing to be unaffiliated. Today, they are. Third, let’s acknowledge that parties undermine democracy. They do so when they engage in gerrymandering, conduct closed primaries, modify (through state legislatures) the outcomes of successful statewide ballot initiatives, and engage in voter suppression efforts. They do all of these things to gain an advantage over their party rival.

What’s the solution? There is no second step if a first step isn’t followed. The media needs to stop privileging the parties. All the public gets served is ‘Democrat this’ and ‘Republican that.’ Independent perspectives are not featured in political discourse. An example is the LA Times recent coverage of Orange County (CA) politics. While it’s true that registered Democrats now outnumber registered Republicans in this longstanding Republican stronghold, what’s missed is another important political fact. From 2013 through 2019, the percentage of registered Democrats increased by 23% and the decline of registered Republicans was 6%, but the number of unaffiliated OC registered voters grew by 42%.

Constantly served either A or B, just like Alice was at the restaurant, Americans don’t get to taste ‘what’s out there’ in America politically. That's a recipe for keeping gridlock alive in America’s politics. When you have two choices only, bet that the outcome will devolve into A v. B. Independents, on the other hand, are politically diverse. They occupy the political spectrum from left to right.

For democracy’s sake, it’s time to acknowledge the fact that America is chock full of Independents. What’s more, it’s time to take them seriously. Listen and take heed.


Frank Fear