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Election rejection: independent voters don’t feel respected, but can’t be ignored

Robert Graham, chairman of the Arizona Republican Party, says it’s important to engage independent voters who feel disenfranchised by the political system. (Photo by David Caltabiano/Cronkite News)

Robert Graham, chairman of the Arizona Republican Party, says it’s important to engage independent voters who feel disenfranchised by the political system. (Photo by David Caltabiano/Cronkite News)

Independent voters, who get shut out of primary elections and are ignored by Republicans and Democrats, proved in the 2016 election that squandering their voices is politically dangerous, according to some political observers.

Public officials, pollsters and university professors said in panels earlier this week that too many miscalculated the power of the independent voter – those unaffiliated with either of the two major parties – in predicting Donald Trump would become the nation’s next president.

Daniel Ortega of the Cesar Chavez Foundation, speaking at a post-election discussion organized by the Morrison Institute for Public Policy, said Democratic and Republican leaders shut out independent voters.

“‘Nobody calls me. Nobody comes to my door. Nobody sends me materials,’” Ortega said he’s often told. “A larger number of voters are left out there with no communication.”

Since independents in Arizona aren’t allowed to vote in closed primaries, candidates of major parties miss out on hearing from a large voter demographic, he said at Wednesday’s panel.

“They get nothing because they can’t vote in the primaries,” Ortega said, adding it rigs the system against unaffiliated voters.

The idea that the voting process is “rigged” could be true, according to several panelists at the session. Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan said the voting process is inconvenient to those who aren’t committed to a party. She says she is an advocate for fair access to the ballot.

“What does that mean? That means ballot props have an equal chance of getting on the ballot. I would love to see the county recorders be able to send early ballots out to independent voters without them having to take that extra step of having to go and request” a ballot, Reagan said.

It’s hard to gauge how political parties can win over independent voters because the demographic is so diverse, said Omar Ali, a board member of, a strategy center for independent voters.

“What does bring independents together? Basically, the issue of the process as being ‘rigged’,” said Ali, a professor at the University of North Carolina. “That’s not traditional left-center-right thinking.”

Charles Coughlin, who owns consulting firm HighGround Inc, believes open primaries will be more inclusive by allowing everyone to be involved in the political process. Candidates will also be able to more accurately gauge a community’s expectations.

“Rather than operating in a closed primary system where my message is to a base number of voters, I get to build an electoral coalition of my liking based on my beliefs as a candidate. I can go speak to those people,” Coughlin said.

Closed primaries also decrease voter engagement, according to Arizona GOP chairman Robert Graham. He said Republicans did manage to capture their attention, helping boost Trump to the presidency and keeping Congress under Republican control.

“A party has stated principles and values. It helps people to make decisions,” Graham said. “How do we engage people to participate?”

Independents have grown into a crucial election demographic. About 40 percent of voters identify as independents, compared to about 24 percent as Republicans and 30 percent as Democrats, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center study.

The Pew Research Center shows Democratic President Barack Obama gained popularity with independent voters in 2008, but they shifted in 2016 to Republican Donald Trump.

The change shows the hearts and minds of independent voters, Reagan said.

“At the end of the day, independent voters are independent for a reason,” Reagan said. “Sometimes it’s because they don’t like the party politics.”


  1. Independent voters were the voters that were created when the United States became a nation. There were no organized political parties in the United States from the signing of the Declaration of Independence until the election of 1800 because the basic idea during that time was to start a partyless government. The first two Presidents of the United States both spoke out against the formation of political parties. So you can say that independent voters are what remains of the independence that existed when the nation was first formed.
    The political parties that took over the government in the election of 1800 have had two hundred years to write state election laws that exclude the participation of independent voters. In Arizona those laws were especially exclusive toward independent voters because Arizona was admitted shortly after the two major parties had consolidated their stranglehold on elections by starting public funded party primary elections. In most eastern states, there had been independent voters. In Arizona there were still only 200,000 independent voters until the late 1980’s, the time when they began to increase in numbers.
    The real problem in Arizona is not party primaries, although it is unconstitutional to require voters to pay for elections in which they cannot participate, an idea in American politics that goes back to the time of slavery. The real problem in Arizona is that independent voters cannot become candidates for public office because an independent candidate in Arizona has to get about seven times as many signatures as a Democrat or Republican to get on the ballot and a hundred or so times as many as a Libertarian or Green Party member. Added to this is the fact that this disparity in signature requirements increases the more independent voters there are.
    Because we independent voters know that political party politicians will never change this unconstitutional discrimination, what we will have to do to overthrow it is to start registering as candidates and support independent candidates for the state legislature, where state election laws are written. Consequently, we are looking at a process that will take time and require patience.
    The only other possibility is that a ruling will be made in federal court granting voting rights to independent voters, which does not seem likely because no such ruling has ever been made in federal court, and every time this has been brought before the courts, they have habitually ruled that states can require independent candidates to show a “modicum of support” before placing them on the ballot. Why political parties are not given this requirement is never explained.
    In any event, as this article explains, political parties in Arizona are going to continue to distract independent voters with contentions about party primaries. There is no reason to argue with them about it. They are in a position to deny rights, including those guaranteed in the Constitution and in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which is what they will continue to do.
    The problem that political parties have is that they cannot stop independent voter registration, which means that their days are numbered as their dwindling total of political party voters continues to decrease in the state.

  2. Actually, didn’t they just make it nearly impossible for Libertarians or Green Party (or other third party candidates) nearly impossible by changing the number of signatures needed from a percentage of registered voters by Party, to a percentage of the total number of voters? I think that probably applies to Independents as well.

  3. Minor party candidates like the Greens and Libertarians had a signature requirement based on the number of voters in their parties, and, typically, the signature requirement was about a hundred signatures to appear on the ballot as a minor party candidate. That may have changed as the two major parties continue to try to consolidate power. Terry Goddard as Attorney General mounted a campaign against minor parties and was successful in eliminating all but Libertarians and Greens as parties officially registered with the state government.
    Minor parties will continue to be irrelevant because they cannot break two-party control. Independent voters have the numbers to do it, but it will take time. The problem that the two major parties have with independent voters is that they cannot stop independent voter registration. They tried in 2005 by removing the option to register independent from the Arizona voter registration form with the following effect on independent voter registration:

    2000–2002 107,715
    2002-2004 165,771
    2004-2006 26,834

    This decrease was only temporary. As soon as Arizonans learned that they could still register independent, the rate went back up, and independent voters passed Democrats in numbers in 2009 and Republicans in 2012.
    The real problem is their inability to become candidates for political office. Independents are the ones who have a signature requirement based on the total number of voters. In 1988 I ran for statewide office as an independent, and the signature requirement was 10,000. This election it was about 34,000. This shows the impossibility of an independent getting on the ballot. As the two major parties decrease in numbers, their signature requirement decreases because the number of voters in their party decreases. But the signature requirement more than tripled for independent candidates in thirty years time from a requirement already impossible for anyone but the extremely wealthy or for party mavericks who raise money in a party campaign and then run as independent candidates like Bill Schulz did in 1988.

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