January 14, 2012

The Neo-Independent, Vol. 6, No. 3 (Winter 2012)

Editor's Note

Gallup reports that 40 percent of Americans self-identify as independent--a "record-high" (see report). We are here to stay, and apparently grow, yet we remain marginalized and largely misunderstood. We also continue to press for changes in our political system that will open up the process to include independents in the first and critical round of voting: the primaries.

The following issue of The Neo offers a book review of Linda Killian's The Swing Vote: The Power of Independents, an interview with Kentucky State Representative Jimmy Higdon by Phyllis Goldberg regarding the fight for open primaries, and recent political analysis by Harry Kresky (see "America's Two Political Reform Movements," The Huffington Post). 

-- O.H.A, Editor

by Omar H. Ali

The Swing Vote: The Untapped Power of Independents by Linda Killian. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012. 320 pages.

“A great many people are struggling with how to fix our broken system. There are a lot of good ideas out there, including demanding more civility from our officials and the media; reducing the power of money in politics and the influence of lobbyists and special interests; increasing the number of competitive congressional and state legislative districts … and opening up the primary process in all fifty states to Independent voters. But unless Independent voters push for these reforms, they are unlikely to happen. The political parties, caught in a never-ending loop of finger pointing … don’t seem willing or able to change things.”

Linda Killian, The Swing Vote, p. 67

With historic levels of public disapproval with Congress and a steady rise in the number of independents in the nation, more people are asking who are America’s independents? Linda Killian seeks to answer this question in her new book The Swing Vote: The Untapped Power of Independents.
Killian, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and a columnist for U.S. News and World Report, is an astute journalist writing about a challenging and largely under-explored subject. The Neo-Independent welcomes this book as an important contribution to a more in-depth discussion about America’s independents—who they are, what they want, and what they are doing.
Although forty percent of Americans—a plurality of voters—self-identify as independent, such voters remain largely misunderstood by political analysts. Killian takes her shot to better understand who independents are and offers a series of prescriptions for the hyper partisanship crippling the nation.
Focusing on four battleground states—Ohio, New Hampshire, Colorado, and Virginia—Killian interviews a range of independents, who she characterizes as everything from “Starbucks Moms and Dads” to “the Facebook Generation.” While updating the old “Soccer Moms” category, among others, the story of who independents are is more complex than can be summed up in such catchy ways. One thing that comes through among the different people she interviews is their shared desire for less partisanship in all aspects of our political system. Interviewing rank and file independents and elected officials, Killian quotes one New Hampshire state representative, Cynthia Dokmo, who captures the widespread anti-partisan sentiment. As Dokmo puts it, public officials “[simply place] party loyalty before what’s best for the people.” 
Through her interviews Killian tells the story of a country on the wrong track, held hostage by two powerful parties, and the growing response among voters by leaving the Democratic and Republican parties to become independent. She accurately accounts for independents’ role in determining the last two major elections, notes how closed primaries limit independent participation, and describes the need for a host of political reforms (including open primaries, nonpartisan redistricting, and ending the filibuster).
Killian, however, insists on describing independents as essentially “centrist” or “moderates.” In doing so she relies on an ideological framework in trying to understand independent voters—one which erroneously presupposes (indeed imposes) ideological homogeneity among independents. Independents, in fact, span the ideological spectrum; their common interest is not ideological but—as one after another person interviewed in Killian’s book makes plain—a more open/less partisan political process.
As Julia Pfaff, an independent from Virginia, states, “I’m part of a huge group of Americans who feel disenfranchised.  We don’t like where we’re headed.  It’s like we’re riding on a bus, and the two parties are the drivers who are arguing over who gets to control the steering wheel.  Meanwhile there’s a cliff and we’re headed straight for it.” Rather than focus on Pfaff’s statement about the failure of the political process, Killian interprets Pfaff as making a call for moderation. Perhaps unintentionally, by offering the words of so many independents throughout her book, Killian allows for a compelling picture of independents to emerge—Americans leading the way in calling for a restructuring of the political system—despite the author’s insistence that what independents share in common is their “moderation.”
While Killian is limited in her framing of who independents are (or, more precisely, are becoming), she does a fine job of describing the palpable discontent in the nation with the major parties. She offers a series of prescriptions culled from various organizations and people—from Americans Elect to IndependentVoting.org—focusing on structural reforms while encouraging greater citizen activism. Her ideas clearly come out of the many conversations she had with those she interviewed, including my colleagues Jackie Salit, president of IndependentVoting.org, and attorney Harry Kresky, a pioneer in the development of legal strategies to challenge partisan control of the political process.  
Killian ends her book by imploring her readers to take action: “If you agree with the mission and methods of No Labels, the Coffee Party, IndependentVoting.org, or another group pushing for change, join them. Or start your own group.” Notwithstanding Killian’s limited framing of independents as “swing voters” (moderates in the ideological center of the two major parties) her study adds to the national dialogue about our “broken system,” pointing to both the critical need for key structural reforms and the emergence of a process-oriented independent political movement in the United States to help lead that call.

Omar H. Ali is Editor of The Neo-Independent and a historian at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His book In the Balance of Power was named a “landmark work” by The National Political Science Review.

The Fight for Open Primaries in Kentucky
Phyllis Goldberg, The Neo, Contributing Editor

In 2009, then state representative Jimmy Higdon introduced a bill to open Kentucky’s primaries to independent voters. Rep. Higdon was responding to a request to sponsor such a bill by one of his constituents – and the Marion County Republican Party chair – Jodi George. Firmly committed to the inclusion of independents in the political process, George testified on behalf of the Higdon legislation in Committee hearings that year, as did Michael Lewis and other leaders of the fledgling Independent Kentucky, which organizes and advocates on behalf of the state’s 200,000+ independent voters.  

Higdon, elected to the State Senate in a special election later in 2009, introduced open primaries legislation in 2010 and again in 2011. In the last go-round the bill passed in the Senate but never reached the House floor, missing the cut in the House Elections and Constitutional Amendments and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee by just one vote.  (Not coincidentally, three members of the Committee were no-shows when the vote was taken.)  

Rep. Owens, who is credited by Senator Higdon for giving his open primaries legislation a Committee hearing each time it was introduced (the Committee kept it from going to the House floor all three times) is a Democrat. Higdon is a Republican.

The Neo recently interviewed Senator Higdon to get his assessment of where the fight for open primaries in the Bluegrass State goes from here. We later spoke to Jodi George as well.

NEO: Nationally, independent voters are in the spotlight again, given the role they’re expected to play in electing our next president.  Do you think this helps, or hurts, the case for open primaries in Kentucky?

SENATOR HIGDON: It helps. A lot of people would like to see open primaries happen, but there’s resistance on the part of the status quo – the Republican and Democratic parties. They’re just not open…they haven’t bought into the idea yet. Partly it’s because open primaries are an unknown. Partly it’s because of issues with open primaries in other states, like New Hampshire, where people can change their registration on the day they come to vote. Our bill isn’t anything like that.
But we’ve brought them a long way in the last couple of years. Jodie George and Mike Lewis, the chairman of Independent Kentucky, are very passionate about open primaries. But we haven’t seen that kind of passion more broadly.

NEO: Independent Kentucky has now collected several thousand signatures on open primary petitions. So you seem to have some wind at your back.

SENATOR HIGDON: Yes. A lot of people are talking about it. It’s gathered a lot of support. But we haven’t had the type of support to push it across the finish line. Without people lobbying their legislators, it’s not going to go anywhere. We need to get some of those legislators to change their minds.

NEO: Who do you see as potential allies in the effort?

SENATOR HIGDON:  I’ve mentioned Jodie George and Mike Lewis – and there’s my son, Jim Higdon, who’s a writer, and a strong supporter of open primaries. And I have to commend Rep. Darryl Owens, the chairman of the House Committee on Elections, Constitutional Amendments and Intergovernmental Affairs. He’s heard that bill for me three times in a row! It’s done very well in the state senate…there’s a lot of support there for open primaries.

NEO: Are you planning to introduce the open primaries bill in this session?
SENATOR HIGDON: My legislative docket is full. I’m trying to contact Senator Bob Leeper [an independent] about sponsoring. And we’re thinking about starting in the House this time.

NEO: Here’s the $64,000 question: What will it take to enact open primaries legislation in Kentucky?

SENATOR HIGDON: A coordinated grassroots movement with a lot of people contacting their representatives and asking them to support it.

Comments by Jodi George

We’re entering the fourth year of this idea…I’m confident that it’s going to pass this time. We need that option [of open primaries] in this state. Independents are paying for these elections…they have a right to vote in them. They’re a growing population that needs to be represented.

In 2010 we were only two votes short of getting it onto the House floor…We came that close. The idea that there isn’t enough passion for open primaries is untrue. If people weren’t there, we wouldn’t have accomplished what we did. I think it’s more accurate to say that there’s a bigger passion on the part of those who are against it. The pressure is out there. More pressure is needed, like people contacting their legislators.

Senator Higdon has said he would introduce an open primaries bill again in this session. Michael Lewis and I have got to rally from a different direction now, getting others to co-sign this bill. Michael has done an amazing job.