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Independent candidates appealing to voters turned off by two-party bickering

The 40% of Americans who declare themselves unaffiliated with either of the two major political parties are looking for more options.

(CN) — In Saratoga Springs, Utah, January Walker thinks blockchain technology could increase election transparency and government efficiency. Almost 2,000 miles east, in Independence, Kentucky, attorney Eric Deters thinks it’s time the Bluegrass State legalized marijuana.

These are but two of the hundreds running for elected office outside the United States' two-party institution, which has directed politics for most of its history. More third-party candidates are stepping up to run as voters express record dissatisfaction with current elected representatives.

“Voters are tired of what's going on in each of our states and in our country with the two-party system,” said Deters, a Republican who recently announced an independent bid for Kentucky’s 2023 gubernatorial election. “They just don't like full-time politicians.”

While his slogan of “less government, more freedom” is staunchly GOP, Deters said he differs from the state party on marijuana legalization, which he supports for adults 21 and up. Since state Attorney General Daniel Cameron received President Donald Trump’s endorsement on the Republican ticket, Deters thinks the only way to put forth a formidable challenge is from outside the party.

Over the last three decades, increasing numbers of voters left the Democratic and Republican parties, declaring themselves independents or members of other parties. Many millennial and Gen Z voters have never registered for a party.

“The time and circumstances are such to where large segments of the voters have had enough, and now is a good time as any for an independent candidate to take a shot,” Deters said.

Besides managing local political campaigns, Deters chaired the Northern Kentucky for Trump group in the 2016 primary and worked as a Trump spokesperson in the general. Even with his resume and plans to self-finance the campaign, Deters faces numerous hurdles. Just to appear on the ballot in Kentucky, he must gather 5,000 petition signatures, while party members only need two.

“Something in dire need is candidate and staff training,” said Blair Walsingham, deputy political director for the Forward Party. Founded by former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, the Forward Party supports ranked-choice voting, nonpartisan primaries and universal basic income.

 “The Republicans and Democrats in various groups do candidate training, but if you're not a part of that circle, then you don't have access to that,” Walsingham said.

Besides establishing name recognition, independent candidates must build basic brass tacks infrastructure that major party candidates take for granted, from recruiting volunteers to raising money, getting news coverage, leveraging social media and even building a website.

“There were many structural barriers, but the largest barrier was psychological,” said Nick Troiano, executive director of Unite America, a grassroots organization advocating for political reform bridging partisan divides. Troiano ran as an independent in 2014 to represent the 10th Congressional District of Pennsylvania.

“People did not want to waste their vote, or worse, inadvertently cause the election of their least preferred candidate,” he recalled. “For independent candidates to be successful, they have to overcome the barrier of being viewed as viable by voters.”

To eliminate the fear of the wasted vote, Troiano supports ranked-choice voting reform. Instead of asking voters to choose one of two candidates with the winner taking all, voters would rank candidates in order of preference; whatever candidate has the lowest support is eliminated, and voters’ ballot are redistributed for their second-favorite candidate. 

On top of 50 jurisdictions using ranked-choice voting nationwide, 22 legislatures considered bills that would create, expand or support the system this year.  

Many would-be independents end up incorporating their causes into the established parties. After all, young progressive Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez coexists with President Joe Biden in the Democratic universe, and the realm of Republicans includes both former President Donald Trump and Maine Senator Susan Collins, a moderate by GOP standards.

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“I will be the first to say that I'm politically homeless because it feels like neither party wants my common sense as a voter,” said Alex Walker, a mechanical engineer from Durango, Colorado, who recently ran as a Democrat in the state’s 3rd Congressional District primary.

Voters ultimately chose businessman Adam Frisch, who will challenge incumbent Republican Representative Lauren Boebert in November.

“I'm shoved into a shoebox of either left-wing ideology or right-wing ideology when in reality, I think there are parts of both platforms that make sense,” Walker said. “At the same time, the fact that the GOP is turning into new Jim Crow is 100% inexcusable, and I would never be a part of that party in 2022. So I'm a common-sense independent-thinker who ended up a Democrat.”

Walker did not seriously consider running as a third-party candidate because the numbers didn’t add up.

“The math tells us that it is almost impossible to be taken seriously as a candidate who could win a general election if you seek the nomination of a third party,” he added.

Some political scientists say most independents are in name only.

Co-authors of the book "Independent Politics: How American Disdain for Parties Leads to Political Inaction," Samara Klar and Yanna Krupnikov found the political biases of most independent voters are just as strong as anyone registered with a major party.

“Independent voters are not necessarily ideologically moderate,” said Klar, a political science professor at the University of Arizona.

A 2019 Pew poll found while 38% of the nation's voters declared themselves independent, about a third still considered themselves Republicans and a quarter Democrats; 13% leaned Republican and 17% leaned Democrat. Only 7% of independents reported really being independent from the two parties.

“The biggest misconception is that independents are persuasive when it comes to who they're going to vote for. The vast majority of independents have only ever voted for one party in their entire life, and they will sooner die than ever vote for the other party,” Klar said.

As more people associate partisans with the extremist talking heads they see on TV, Klar said voters have distanced themselves from the labels.

“The difference among independents is that they generally don't want to be associated with either of the parties, because there is this negative stigma,” she said.

This decision can come at a political cost to voters, particularly in states with closed primaries, where registered party members choose who runs in the general election.

Some voters register as independents to voice dissatisfaction with their former party.

“I got disgusted with Republicans for not doing what they said they would do. You can’t trust the Democrats, but at least they follow through,” said Kelly Howarth, of Thornton, Colorado, who switched his political affiliation from Republican to independent. Independents and unaffiliated voters can fill out one party’s ballot in the state’s semi-open primary.

Still, Howarth remains consistent in his views.

“I look for people who vote conservative and support Trump,” he said.

Despite the challenges, many third-party and independent candidates believe they can build momentum by offering new ideas. Take the results of the 2020 election, which divided Republicans and Democrats over perceptions of reality — could there be more options beyond the Big Lie and the Great Steal?

“If we had blockchain voting in the first place, I don't think we would have had the Jan. 6th experience,” said Walker, the moderate millennial running under the United Utah Party to represent the 4th Congressional District.

Founded in 2017, the centrist United Utah Party has 2,565 registered members.

“Blockchain voting will essentially bring 100% transparency to our elections and expand voter access for military members and people who are disabled,” Walker said.

Instead of individual votes being counted and reported by a central agency, a blockchain voting system would create a permanent digital ledger of all votes, encrypted to protect individual identity, and accessible to anyone.

The merits of blockchain technology don’t come up in debates between Democrats or Republicans, but Walker said she added it to her campaign platform after listening to the technologically savvy constituents in her district.

“The politics of the past is no longer aligned to the needs of the future,” Walker said. “We have a lot of multi-decade conversations happening and they don't address the issues of today.”

Americans say they want choice in health care, burger toppings and video streaming services. It remains to be seen whether they will also demand it from politics.

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