A level playing field for independent candidates

— by Bruce Ticker

Pity the poor independent voter whose attitude toward the two major parties is simple:

A pox on both your houses.

That long-standing phrase could be taken literally given GOP control of the U.S. House of Representatives and Democratic control of the U.S. Senate.

Many independents voted for Republicans last November to send a message: If those in charge mess up, we will vote them out. At this rate, Republicans will be vulnerable to voter wrath in November 2012. The budget plan that effectively scraps Medicare is already a campaign issue that should terrify Republicans.

As television host Rachel Maddow correctly points out, Republican candidates pledged to focus on supplying jobs to the millions of Americans who are out of work. GOP House members insist that all their legislative initiatives since early January are tied to new jobs.

It is a stretch that their Jan. 19 repeal of the Affordable Care Act has anything to do with job creation. Or their new proposals on Tuesday, Feb. 8, to add restrictions on funding for abortions and eliminate federal financing for women’s health care clinics that provide abortions. Republican House members engaged in internal party squabbles over funding reductions.

An end to gridlock? Republicans can barely agree on a bad course of action, much less any course.

American voters will always be upset with this country’s direction so long as Democrats and Republicans are fighting one another. Why must we tolerate this?

More importantly, why must voters be forced to choose between candidates from the two major parties? Each Democrat voted out of Congress was replaced by a Republican. Did the dissidents specifically want Republicans in charge? Would voters consider electing a credible independent with a viable chance of winning?

Let’s suppose that in your Congressional District an independent candidate with a sensible platform entered the race against the Democratic incumbent and the Republican challenger. Voters are disappointed, justly or not, with the Democratic incumbent and are not enthused with the Republican. What would they do?

Under the present system, they might fear they will throw their vote away for the independent because most of their neighbors will vote Democrat or Republican. Or, the independent might draw votes from the lesser of the two partisan evils. Also, the party candidates no doubt are better financed and operate more efficient political organizations.

Suppose a system is created in which no one candidate draws votes away from another candidate. Instead, citizens can vote for their candidates and then list their next preferences. If no candidate wins a majority of votes, then a person’s vote can be transferred to a next-preference candidate with a larger share of the votes.

The Center for Voting and Democracy describes further how the system, called Instant Runoff Voting, operates:

“IRV allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference. Voters have the option to rank as many or as few as they wish, but can vote without fear that ranking less favored candidates will harm the chances of their most preferred candidates.

“First choices are then tabulated, and if a candidate receives a majority of first choices, he or she is elected. If nobody has a clear majority of votes on the first count, a series of runoffs are simulated, using each voter’s preferences indicated on the ballot. The weakest candidates are successively eliminated and their voters’ ballots are redistributed to next choices until a candidate earns a majority of votes.”

IRV has prompted criticisms, but at the very least it takes us in the right direction away from what we now have.

More after the jump.
An educated guess: If IRV was in place last November nationwide, the new crop of House members would have likely consisted of a healthy mix of independents and Republicans, along with incumbent Democrats who survived re-election because voters ranked them as their next preference. Maybe neither party would have the majority.

The infusion of a large number of independents in Congress would be the best move for America. The democratic process would be enlivened. Independents would inherently act on the basis of policy and the needs of their constituents. They will not be beholden to either major political party to any appreciable degree, even though they would form alliances with either party depending on the issue at hand.

A system allowing for expansion of candidates would also render conflicts over redistricting somewhat irrelevant. Every 10 years, each major party maneuvers to benefit their chances of winning the most congressional seats. What difference would redistricting make if a level playing field was created for independents?

There are good people with fine intentions in both parties, but they will always factor in the wider political needs of their parties. They need their parties for financial and organizational support in future elections, and they will consider how there votes will affect the political fortunes of other party members.

As it stands, it is nearly impossible to comprehend why the Republican Party exists now except to perpetuate their place in government. They back policies that are harmful to the poor and middle class, and only the greediest among the rich need their help. Democrats make a good-faith effort to serve the public, but they still tailor their positions to shore up re-election chances for the president and for senators and representatives from swing areas.

Democratic leaders would call this moving to the center, others would call it blatant pandering.

Two independents now serving in the Senate usually vote with the Democrats. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-acknowledged socialist, evolved as a highly respected mayor of Burlington, part of the largest metropolitan area in Vermont, and he subsequently served in the House before running for the Senate in 2006.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman represented Connecticut for three terms before losing the Democratic primary in 2006. He ran as an independent and beat the Democratic nominee in the general election.

The emergence of viable independent candidates is possible in communities with relatively small constituencies such as congressional districts and in small states for Senate and governor posts. It does not seem practical for an independent to get elected president or senator in a large state.

The latter thought may appear to be unrealistic, but it is certainly not impossible. After all, this is America.