Opinion: History suggests independents won't exercise their vote much. But there's hope, as political divides seem to have reached an all-time high.
Independent voters in Arizona can be kingmakers, as Joe Biden’s and Mark Kelly’s victories in 2020 proved.
But that power is exaggerated in this regard: They are given a binary choice that is set by others, namely voters in the Republican and Democratic primary elections. And emerging from each camp, more often than not, are partisan candidates who aren’t their first choice.
If independents want to exercise their full power, they need to vote in the primaries and help determine the actual Democratic and Republican nominees. Will they?
This year’s primary election makes a good test case. That’s because the Arizona Republican Party is at a crossroads, with candidates and supporters splintered between those faithful to Trump and those who are not. The differences between the candidates matter, especially when it comes to legitimacy of the institutions they serve and the rules they favor to govern who can vote when, and how.
Few independents vote in primary elections
So, will the sleeping giant that is the independent voting block wake?
History suggests no. Not fully, anyway. Only about 5% of independents statewide voted in either the Republican or Democratic primary in 2018, the last election for which the Secretary of State's Office separated such data.
A look at Maricopa County, which accounts for the lion’s share of Arizona's electorate, offers a more optimistic trend.
In the 2020 primaries, 12% of the county’s independents cast a ballot. Four years earlier, less than 8% did.
Nonetheless, that’s only a fraction of the turnout of Democrats and Republicans.
The independent candidate paradox
To be fair, primary elections are designed as partisan affairs – an intraparty process by which Democrats compete against fellow Democrats, and Republicans against Republicans, for the nod to be their party’s nominee(s) on the general election ballot.
And primaries tend to turn out the most partisan voters. Thus, independent-minded candidates or ones who buck the party generally don’t fare well. Yet they may have a broader appeal to the general electorate.
That seems especially true among Republican hopefuls in this year’s races, some of whom have peddled outright lies about the 2020 election.
To wit: Two of the four Republicans running for secretary of state questioned, without proof, the legitimacy of the Maricopa County presidential election results. One, state Rep. Mark Finchem, is a major figure behind the “Stop the Steal” movement and the Jan. 6 protest that led to storming of the U.S. Capitol.
Independents can do themselves a favor and cast a vote for the candidate they feel best represents their values.
Major reforms could be years away. So, vote
It isn’t difficult. The Maricopa County Recorder’s Office only requires independents – those who have “no party designated” – to request a Republican or Democratic ballot to vote in primary elections. They can do that either with a mail ballot, if they’re on the Early Voting List, or at the polls.
Their vote now, small as it is, isn’t insignificant. Independents accounted for 10% of the total Republican ballots cast in the 2020 Maricopa County primary election, and 13% of the Democratic ballots. A more robust turnout could deaden the influence of political parties and their most partisan supporters.
Toward that objective, a lot of reformers have bandied about Arizona adopting a top-two primary – that is, having all candidates running on the same ballot, with the top two vote-getters, regardless of political affiliation, advancing to the general election.
Perhaps Arizonans will indeed follow the path of voters in Washington and California and sweep in such a change through the initiative process. Even in a best-case scenario, that’s two or more election cycles away.
Absent that alternative, independent voters are the answer to getting more broadly appealing candidates on the general ballot and into office. They can start in earnest with the August primaries.