The results of the 2022 midterms should put to bed any lingering doubts as to the growing power of independent voters. Across the country, independents–31% of the turnout–decided the outcome, defied expectations, and saved the Democrats from the projected “red wave.” The question is whether Democrats will return the favor or continue to insult them by–among other things–opposing efforts to enact open primaries.
Independent voters just obliterated the condescending stereotypes that they are apathetic and uninformed. They rejected the politics of extreme partisanship, election denial, and disinformation. They voted for candidates, not parties. They stood up for leadership, action over rhetoric, and democratic values. In swing states, they broke decisively against election deniers: 57-39 for Fetterman in Pennsylvania, 55-39 for Kelly in Arizona, and 53-42 for Warnock in Georgia. In New Hampshire, where registered independent voters outnumber both Democrats and Republicans, Democrat Maggie Hassan won by almost ten points.
That doesn’t mean that independents have become Democrats. Far from it. They broke 49-48 for Kemp in Georgia and 52-46 for DeSantis in Florida. Independents don’t belong to either political party and if the Democrats assume that independents will automatically vote team Blue in 2024 they do so at their own peril.
Many academics, political insiders, and pundits alike have difficulty admitting that this group of “non-party” voters should be recognized as a force. But they are. Independents are now the largest or second largest group of registered voters in most states. Gallups tracking of independent voters has consistently found them to be a larger demographic than either major party. They are young and they are diverse. And if you ask them what they want, as we have countless times, they want to vote, and that begins with a primary election system that does not treat them as second-class citizens.
While the Republican Party is often (rightfully) criticized for backing various forms of voter suppression, it’s the Democratic Party that has taken the lead in opposing primary reform. Democratic leadership has refused to move legislation in Maryland and New Mexico despite wide public support. In Oregon and New York, Democrats have squashed every effort over the past 20 years to allow independent voters to participate in the primaries – despite (or possibly because) of the fact that independents are now the largest group of voters in Oregon and have a 2-1 registration advantage over Republicans in New York City. In Nevada, where an open primaries ballot initiative just passed despite the Democratic Party’s opposition, the question is whether the Party will actively campaign against a required second vote in 2024.
Things are even worse at the national level, where primary reform is the closest thing to a four-letter word at the DNC. Not one piece of Democratic Party legislation, not even a speech about democracy from the President on down, has touched on the fact that millions of independent voters across the country are shut out of voting in closed primaries. That could end tomorrow. Both Parties have the unilateral power to open their primaries to independent voters. Democratic Party leaders in five states have already done so voluntarily. National party leaders won’t even discuss the issue.
Beware of the cost of opposing primary reform. Florida is a case in point, where there are over four million registered independents. In 2017, independent voters flooded the state Constitutional Revision Commission hearings demanding primary reform. Both parties sued to keep a primary reform measure off the 2020 ballot, and when that failed, the Democratic Party took the lead in opposing the “Let All Voters Vote” amendment. They cynically equated letting independents vote with hurting voters of color and promoted a public campaign to such effect. That despite the fact that 40% of Latinos and Asians, and 35% of younger African Americans are now registered to vote as independents. Floridians ignored the Democratic opposition. Measure 3 received 57% of the vote – 3 points shy of the 60% required–and independents turned their backs on the Democratic Party by wide margins in the 2022 midterms.
Some Democrats are already hoping that Trump’s candidacy for President in 2024 will force independents to continue to stick with their party without having to lift a finger. That’s a mistake. The Democratic Party should do something simple but powerful. Recognize that the largest group of voters in the country don’t want to join a political party. They want leadership, not partisanship, results not rhetoric, cooperation not grandstanding. And they want to be able to vote in every election. Let them.
Jeremy Gruber & John Opdycke
Jeremy Gruber (left) is senior vice president and John Opdycke (right) is president of Open Primaries, a national election reform organization. They are the co-authors of “The Next Great Migration: The Rise of Independent Voters.”