Friday, November 16, 2012

A Sample Letter

I often emphasize the importance of calling, emailing, and sending letters to your local and state representatives. I understand that writing to these public figures can be a bit intimidating. I'm empathetic to those who feel they will just be ignored. In reality, sometimes they will scoff and sometimes we will be disregarded. However, these people want to be reelected. They feel like they are doing a service to the people of their district and the people of the country. Maybe they just want to keep their jobs. But no one wants to lose an election and when we contact our public officials we act as a reminder to them that they are being held accountable for their actions and that we have views and concerns that need to be represented. Your messages matter.

To get you started, I've written a sample letter to guide you. By no means should you change your own opinions to fit what I've written. This is simply an example of a letter I wrote to a Governor last week. I encourage you to voice your individual concerns in your letter or email.

Governor _________,

To preface my message, I would like to first thank you for your service and dedication to the people of your state. I am confident that you have a strong devotion to the people of this state and I know you are doing your best to represent them as best you can. I have several concerns that I wish to raise about our election system and about the partisan nature of our government.

I feel that the people of this state are being slighted by your affiliation with a party. I don't believe you ever intended for this to happen but it is an unfortunate side effect of a partisan system. Your job as Governor is to protect, defend, and support the people of your state. If you endorse a party, and the party happens to have views that do not correspond with your constituents, which alliance will you uphold? Although this may happen rarely, I believe that ever having to put party alliance in front of your electorate is negligent and completely avoidable.

For the reason listed above, I would like to support you as an Independent representative rather than as a party member. I think you will better be able to represent your constituency and gain voter support in the process. I would be happy to further discuss these ideas with you in further detail at your convenience. My contact information is:

Name
City, State
Phone
Email

Thank you for your consideration and I look forward to hearing from you in the future.

Sincerely,

Name

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Who Are They?

Who are the existing Independent reps? The list is short and demographically homogeneous but this does not have to be the case nor will it be if our movement is successful. Most of the current representatives caucus with the Democratic Party and reside in the New England area. What is the most important thing they have in common? They have some of the highest voter satisfaction rates of any politicians. They vote as their constituents demand. They are free to have unique ideas without following the party programs. Let's start the introductions:

Senators
Joe Lieberman - Connecticut
Bernie Sanders - Vermont
Angus King - Maine

Representatives
Unfortunately there are no Independent House of Representative members

Governors
Lincoln Chafee - Rhode Island

Let me do the math for you. That's 4 out of a possible 585 seats. That is about .68% of our representatives in the federal government. According to several polls conducted by CNN during the election season, approximately 30% of Americans self-identify as Independents. That is a terrible misrepresentation of the voting populace and shows the partisan nature of our political system is directly silencing the voices of Americans. Even if our current political leaders do a good job of standing up for the views of their constituents, they still must support their party's agenda or face backlash.

We need politicians to abandon their endorsements and represent their people, not a party.

The Illusion of Choice

Tonight I would like to delve a little deeper into the choices presented by our political leaders and their respective parties. The media portrays the two dominant political parties in this nation as dueling foes, each representing half the country valiantly against their devious opponent. They are polar opposites: Good versus Evil, Truth versus Lies, Life versus Death. Yet, even with such diametric options, the majority of Americans sympathize with one or the other. Are we really a nation composed of two dissimilar types of people with an ever growing chasm between our views? I think not, but the evolution of our parties to represent this bisection is not a difficult transition to logically follow.

Following the emergence of the Republican Party to oppose the already existing Democratic Party in 1854, American politics changed forever. The new party was a coalition of anti-slavery activists in opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The Act would expand slavery to include the two new territories and, while popular among the southern states, was widely opposed in the north. With such explosive beginnings it should come as little surprise that the two parties have proverbially "butt heads" for over 150 years. The real division of the parties stems from a need to control the House of Representatives and/or the Senate to pass legislation. By garnering the support of as many legislators as possible, congressmen ensure that the bills they attempt to pass have improved odds. The result is a collective with the epitome of a "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" mentality.

It is clear that under this system, the wishes of the voters quickly lose power. When a politician wants a bill to pass, he or she must ensure that they have the support of their party. To achieve this goal, they must support the legislation proposed by fellow party members regardless of constituent concerns and desires. Opponents to the bill must rally support on their own side, ensuring nay votes in exchange for support or opposition of legislation in the future. The end result is a stagnant congress with animosity brewing on both sides of the aisle.

A deadlocked congress is obviously detrimental to our country but to exacerbate the problem, policy is becoming more and more polarized. With each new bill, legislators must differentiate their policy from that which they just voted down. The new legislation is written to reflect the opposite values held by their respective party, once again ignoring the wishes of their constituency. Reason and logical are replaced by partisanship for sake of support from fellow party members.

When election season comes to pass, radicalism again pervades the proceedings. Republicans face off against Democrats, each taking polar opposite positions an each issue so as not to be portrayed as concessionary or a "flip-flopper". Any history of crossing the aisle is condemned and vilified. The result is a devastating blow to voter representation in public office. We are forced to choose between to officials on antipodal sides of a widening ravine in policy. Only the most radical voters are truly represented and the majority is left abandoned in the middle, forced to vote for poor representation or none at all. The disconnect is startling and neither side appears willing to step towards the middle.

So what are we left with? A choice between two radically different principles represented by two radically different people? Not even so much as that. When the best option is to choose against a candidate rather than for one, the system is broken beyond repair. The solution is complete reform, away from two homogeneous parties and toward one heterogeneous whole. When each policy can be debated on its merits and voted on in accordance with voter inclination we will have made dramatic progress. A congressional approval rating of under 10 percent (as low as 6 percent in one Gallup poll) is very telling. The majority is not being represented, the minority is not being protected, and YOU are being ignored. Tell your representatives you're tired of it. Demand a change.

Monday, November 12, 2012

How Do We Start?

How do we start? The task ahead certainly seems daunting. Well over 99% of the public officials in our country identify as Republican or Democrat and few of these people would even entertain the notion of running as an Independent. So how do we shift the mindset? What is the proverbial push to get things moving? I believe it starts with the small things; primarily, reducing or eliminating the benefits to running as a party affiliate.

One of the first and most immediately attainable goals on our list should be to remove the option of voting a straight ticket in the states where doing so is an option. This list is as follows: Alabama, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. Where is the benefit to an individual considering an Independent status when his or her opponent will collect votes from voters who not only are uneducated on the issues, but have never even seen the candidate's name? It is a travesty that such an option still exists in a country that claims to want bipartisanship and cooperation. Straight ticket voting encourages divisiveness and uninformed voting.

To truly eliminate straight ticket voting, our next objective should focus on removing party affiliation from accompanying candidate names on the ballots. Even without a "vote straight ticket" bubble, voters can scan down the ballot and select only those candidates who are endorsed by their respective party. The majority of states have party affiliation listed next to candidates on the general election ballot. Such blatant partisanship should offend anyone who wants a free-thinking and educated electorate. How can policy be based on fact and reason when our politicians are more worried about differentiating their positions from the opposition? The result is an inefficient and polarized electorate.

The next step toward Independent predominance is the most obvious: encouraging and rewarding local officials for running as Independents. The basis of change is a strong foundation. Whether it be a city mayor, district representative, or county commissioner, it is important to build a pool of qualified Independent candidates to have a realistic opportunity at making any significant change. As I've mentioned previously, this movement is not about replacing the existing people in office. It is about the existing people in office replacing their party and developing support for new candidates who wish to run as Independents.

Another change I believe would improve the representation of constituents in this country is the breakdown of state electoral votes into districts. This model has already been adopted by the states of Nebraska and Maine and has already shown that constituents are better represented this way. In the 2008 election, Nebraska's 2nd Congressional District voted for then-Senator Barack Obama despite John McCain having carried the state by 15%. McCain received 4 electoral votes while Obama received 1. The constituents of the 2nd Congressional District were certainly better represented by this method.

In all, there are many ways in which we can encourage and develop real change for better representation of voters in this country but it all starts with calling, emailing, and sending letters to your local, state, and federal representatives. No matter your personal beliefs, values, or interests, a representative that is not beholden to a political party is better able to represent those who vote him/her into office. The solution to partisan gridlock and inefficiency is not moderation or collecting majority, it is dissolution of the parties themselves.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Attack Ads

One of the most influential figures in my life is the second President of the United States, John Adams. A consummate family man, he sacrificed his own happiness, health, and career for love of his country and family. Thoroughly detailed in the historical non-fiction novel John Adams, written by David McCullough, the life of our founding father and patriot is an example of the devotion to independence that makes our nation unique. When considering how the two dominant political parties campaign against each other, a quote in the book by Adams resonated with me.

"Fear is the foundation of most governments but it is so sordid and brutal a passion, and renders men in whose breast is predominates so stupid and miserable, that Americans will not be likely to approve of any political institution which is founded on it."

Stupid and miserable. Attack ads made up over 70 percent of spending by the campaigns over the past 2 years and in some states (see Ohio) made up over 90 percent. What does that say about the people who are campaigning for these offices? The policies supported by each party are so polar as to be impractical or inefficient. When your own policies are lacking, the only recourse is to attack your opponent's and scare voters into voting not for you, but against the opposition. This inevitably leads to the the classic "lesser evil" scenario.

The question arises, will moving from party politics to primarily independents actually improve the campaigning process? In my opinion, yes. Instead of having partisan support for absurd policy, each candidate is entirely on their own to defend their views. We frequently see candidates in support of a larger policy that is scary to constituents but is considered necessary to be in line with larger party opinion. When candidates must stand on their own merits, elections will be determined not by who is the least dangerous or scary but rather on who most closely represents the wishes of the voters.

Part of our responsibility as voters is to support candidates for doing, as my grandfather is fond of saying, "the right things the right way." We need to reward candidates for backing policy with fact and reason. We need encourage candidates to run educational ads rather than attack/scare ads. When we work together, the electorate has incredible power. When candidates wish to be reelected, they need the support of their constituents. Call and email your representatives. Tell them you expect educational ads, you won't support scare tactics, you require scientifically and economically sound policy. Be passionate and be informed. Encourage your family and friends to do the same.

Passion and volume have real impact. Your vote is important but there are more ways to express your voice. Take 10 minutes, once a week, to contact your local and state reps. It's not necessarily the smartest or the majority that are heard, it is the loudest. We need to increase the volume of the independent movement.

Friday, November 9, 2012

When Voters Don't Know

A colleague brought up a very good question this morning that I would like to address.

"What if I haven't heard what the rep stands for? I always vote conservative but if he doesn't have a party affiliation sometimes I don't know if they're liberal or not."

What are the consequences of random voting? I would never suggest that someone vote for an individual they knew nothing about, yet it happens in every election. Straight ticket voting essentially advocates partisanship and discourages having any knowledge of candidates beyond the Presidential candidates. How can we accept this? Fourteen states (Alabama, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wisconsin) have options on the ballot to vote either straight Republican or straight Democrat. This format not only allows uniformed voting, it encourages such.

How should you vote when you don't know anything about the candidates? You shouldn't. There is nothing wrong with abstention. Abstention rates will most likely sharply increase as Independent representatives become more prevalent. This should not alarm us. On the contrary, we should be pleased that those who are voting know who and what they are supporting. Choosing not to vote has been portrayed as the same as a nay vote, and in some instances it can be. If the alternative to abstention is an arbitrary vote based on which party pays for a candidate's ads, I believe most of us would prefer that voter to leave a blank.

How do Independent candidates force us to be more knowledgeable? They make voting for someone who directly opposes your views a real possibility. Instead of finding a list of people neatly labeled as Republican or Democrat, voters will find a collection of candidates without any party. How do they feel about abortion, military spending, gay marriage, government oversight, or any other contentious issue we face today? People at the polls must be aware of each politician's positions or risk voting for a pro-choicer as a pro-lifer, for a military expansionist as an anti-interventionist, etc. When you remove assumptions, people respond by educating themselves.

A believe a move in the right direction is to remove party affiliations from the ballot. This is obviously impossible in states where voting a straight ticket is an option and I similarly hope to abolish this practice. These are long term goals but goals keep the motivation and proverbial 'fire' burning. So call or email your state representatives and tell them you want a party-free ticket. Let's make all ballots non-partisan and, in the process, make each candidate responsible for their own platform.

"Part leads to vicious, corrupt, and unprofitable legislation, for the sole purpose of defeating party."
-James Fenimore Cooper, 1838 in The American Democrat

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Demands of Independence

The platforms of political parties in the United States focus heavily on trust and reliance in the American people. American resilience and intelligence pervade speeches given by candidates both left and right, from national to state and local representatives. Yet, as the saying goes, actions speak louder than words and they are telling two very different stories. The public is fed opinion, sound bites, and party propaganda instead of factual information on which well founded policy can be developed. We are left to trust the respective parties to endorse sound policy without any information on which to evaluate it. With the devolution from partisan politics to independent candidates, we have the opportunity to correct this glaring shortcoming. However, the shift from the sweeping generalizations found in parties to a concentration on each issue individually is demanding on voters.

It requires a willingness to be educated about the issues. It is unfortunate that we expect fellow citizens to be disinterested and uninformed about policies and movements that affect all of us as residents of the United States. Apathy pervades and misinformation in advertising and in the media is effective. Why do we face such a poor state of affairs? We assume, and incorrectly so, that every Democratic representative holds the same political values as the most well known Democrat (President Obama at this time). The same holds true for the Republican representatives (led by Mitt Romney). We falsely conclude that every Republican or every Democrat demographic holds the same ideals and represents the same types of people. Let me give an example.

I live in a very conservative part of a very conservative state. Yet in every voting session we approve increased spending on education by a landslide; in every congressional session our representatives vote against it. They are so afraid of the backlash from their own party for crossing the aisle that they misrepresent their constituency. It is preposterous to the party leaders that an individual could cross party lines and still be representing the views of his or her voters. Criticism for faithlessness and insincerity inevitably follow. This is absurd and yet it represents the dilemma faced by the majority of congressmen and women.

To dispel these generalizations we must vote outside the parties. This is not to say that we need to shed our current representatives in Congress for independent candidates. Instead, we need our representatives to shed their parties in order to free themselves from the bonds of alliance. We need our voices in Washington to be free to speak our concerns and vote as we demand. The job of a congressman should be one of the easiest in our country: gauge the values and wishes of your constituents and vote in accordance. The complication of faithlessness in Washington could be completely corrected with the introduction of Independents to the House and Senate. Faithless voting will be rewarded with a single term and a cold shoulder on the way out the door.

Part of being educated as a voter is asking questions of your representative. We can't just accept advertisements and talking points as affirmation that our beliefs are being upheld. It is important to directly approach candidates in a public manner and ask "How will you vote on this issue?" "What is your reasoning?" "How will that help us?" Part of the responsibility of a representative is that their votes are truly representative of their constituents. That means that even if the issue is one upon which most citizens are uninformed, confused, or indifferent, they still need to vote for what is best for his/her people and have thought out reasons thereof.

"There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution."
-John Adams, 1789