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New LA political party faces same old irrelevance

The nature of American politics is such that, despite history indicating otherwise, occasionally people think a meaningful party other that the two major parties will come along. The delusion continues in Louisiana, where some activists imagine they can create a significant third force.

Until a couple of years ago, state law prohibited any recognized political party with the name “Independent,” even as people registering to vote could put down that label for a party affiliation. When state law changed to lift that ban, over 50,000 registrants existed under that moniker (reflected in their registrations as “other”), but had no party to call home.

Now they do, sort of. A pair of individuals claiming refugee status from the major parties have petitioned for recognition of a new party under Louisiana law, termed “Independent.” Being as it takes only a thousand registrants under that label and $1,000 filing fee, its joining the two major parties and three minor parties as official seems inevitable, even as the founders disclaim they have formed a political party, preferring to call themselves “anti-party.”

Minor parties in America are not relevant parties, where one that is “relevant” has an impact on public policy as it has enough representation to affect policy-making in the political system. Theoretically, even a party with a single representative qualifies if that one person can make or break coalitions and passage of legislation, such as in the Australian Senate where its voting system regularly spits out several one-person parties in a razor-close electoral environment. And it doesn’t even need physical representation to achieve relevance; if other parties take into account that parties’ preferences in their own campaigning, they have acceded relevance to that party.

So, with 56,000 or so registrants, can this Independent Party, which alleges it will give voice to those disgruntled with the Democrats and Republicans, become relevant in Louisiana? After all, that number represents roughly nearly two percent of all voters – but becoming a viable force remains unlikely, for several reasons.

First, a portion of those registrants chose “Independent” because they wanted to convey true dissatisfaction with the political party system as a whole. They wanted a tag to set them apart from any party and would not profess allegiance to a party by that name. Perhaps in the future they will have to opt for the “no party” label assigned when a registrant indicates no adherence to a recognized party nor writes in anything.

Second, another portion has no loyalty to a party not out of antipathy for all of them, but because Louisiana’s electoral system does not penalize people for lack of party loyalty. With the blanket primary system in effect for all elections except presidential preference primaries, registrants suffer no sanction by not attesting to affiliation with a major party as, in essence, they can participate in party primaries without having to do that.

For example, the recent Senate race, technically a general election followed by a runoff, featured both a Republican and Democrat primary contested together that sent the strongest candidate of multiple contenders from each to a runoff. Regardless of party label or lack of it, anyone could make this choice. With a closed primary system – where only those who affiliate with a party can participate in its primaries – membership conveys the privilege of picking a party nominee prior to the general election, an incentive that if existing would drive down the number of registrants not Democrat or Republican, including those who had chosen “Independent.”

Third, a portion represents apathetic voters. Although more probably would not pick or write in a label, some of these in Louisiana inscribed “Independent.” Such individuals turn out to vote at much lower rates than those who choose parties, particularly the major ones. In other words, the entirety of the number who wrote in “Independent” overstates actual support at the ballot box.

Finally, voting behavior research shows adoption of a self-reported independence label for some indicates a transition away from a major party to the other. At any given time, this portion has no allegiance to the notion of an “Independent” party but leans towards a new major party even if psychologically they don’t want to appropriate its name. Eventually, they will go whole hog on the name that ratifies their voting behavior, but they never really were “Independent.”

For a number of reasons, major American parties demonstrate considerable resilience and flexibility that makes them responsive to voters’ demands and thereby creates difficultly for any other party to become relevant. Just because a non-trivial pool of voters call themselves “Independent” does not mean a vast resource exists to allow a party of the same name to act as relevant. Those behind this organization will relearn this as the future unfolds.

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