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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Jayne: Many unaffiliated voters party on

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Page Editor
Published: August 9, 2020, 6:02am

It is a quirk of American politics, kind of like the McDonald’s phenomenon. Few people admit to actually liking McDonald’s, but for some reason there is one on every other corner.

The political equivalent of that cognitive dissonance can be found when it comes to voting for independent or third-party candidates. Plenty of voters claim they are fed up with Democrats, or that Republicans give them hives, or that both parties are good for nothin’ and we need independent, centrist candidates — and they complain about the established parties right up until it’s time to fill out a ballot.

That can leave independent and third-party candidates out in the cold. No, we’re not talking about last week’s primary race for governor, which had 36 candidates, including ones who professed allegiance to the Fifth Republic Party and the StandUpAmerica Party and the Proprietarianist Party. We’re talking about serious candidates who try to stake out a position in the middle and then are ignored.

You know, like John Blom. The Clark County councilor was seeking reelection after serving admirably as a Republican. Following a falling out with the local party, which has leaped somewhere to the right of Barry Goldwater in recent years, he ran without stating a party preference this time around. The result: A Republican and a Democrat advanced in the top-two primary.

The same thing happened in 2018 to Marc Boldt, a perfectly reasonable man and former Republican who had been elected as county chair despite stating no party preference. That worked once, but when Boldt came up for reelection, voters in the primary opted for those with an R and a D next to their names.

When it comes to voting, particularly in races that are not for president or governor or senator, following tribal instincts tends to be easier than seeking detailed information about the candidates.

Which leads to the question: Is there room for the independents that voters often claim they want?

“We’ve seen this growing for 30 years,” said Jim Moore, the director of political outreach at the Tom McCall Center for Civic Engagement at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore. “The number of people who are unaffiliated is growing. They’re frustrated with some part of the party and they leave it, but then they vote exactly the same way.”

On Tuesday’s statewide ballot for positions such as governor and secretary of state, 26 candidates declared a preference for something other than the Democratic or Republican party; none of them advanced to the general election. In local elections, non-traditionalists went 0 for 3.

Some might see that as a roadblock to repairing our political system. Moore doesn’t.

“It leads to frustration, but I don’t know if it’s as big a problem as people think because the ideas of third parties are subsumed into the major parties,” he said, offering an example. “The Republican economic policies of the past 20 years are the libertarian policies of the 1970s.” Those policies are to cut taxes and bleed government until it can no longer function; but that’s a discussion for another time.

Meanwhile, the advice for would-be independents or third-party candidates is to make nice with the Democrats or Republicans. The two-party system is so entrenched that even a progressive, free-thinking state such as Washington — hey, we don’t even register by party — is deaf to outside voices.

The last third party to establish itself, after all, was the Republican Party in 1854, when the issue of slavery led to divisions that allowed for the creation of new coalitions. Things have changed since then, including the lack of a singular issue that can transform American politics.

So, for now, third-party candidates are the Sisyphus of politics, hopelessly pushing a boulder up a hill. “If they don’t have the issue and they don’t have the celebrity, it’s untenable,” Moore said.

All of which leaves voters who are frustrated by the parties saying they are hungry for change. But, apparently, they are not as famished as they claim.