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Independent Voters in Profile

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When I cautiously began to get involved with other nonpartisan voters — I was an independent, after all, and not exactly a joiner — I hardly knew what to expect. The few independents I knew personally were evangelicals disenchanted with the Religious Right and its close association with the GOP who considered themselves to be conservatives or moderates. The media, however, kept reporting that independents were overwhelmingly liberal, so I decided to find out for myself just who all these independent voters were and in which political direction they tended to lean.

I chose a highly unscientific method of discovery: I got to know the voters themselves. Highly scientific, statistically reliable polls tend to compartmentalize independents into manageable categories — left-leaning, moderate, centrist, ultra-conservative, whatever — but I like my method a whole lot better. By spending time actually listening to independents, I discovered a delightfully diverse group of people who defied many of the assumptions made about nonpartisan voters.

Meet four such voters whom I interviewed and profiled in We the Purple:

Larry Reinsch, 48, Ames, Iowa: Don’t let Larry hear you say that conservative independent voters are just Republicans in disguise; Larry has voted only for independent or third-party candidates since he was in his 20s. He describes independent voters as “the 40 percent of the voting public that has intellectually matured out of the two parties.” A metal fabricator who serves as state organizer for Independent Voters of Iowa, Larry is working to launch the Iowa Citizens’ Debate Commission in affiliation with the national Citizens’ Debate Commission, a grassroots effort that is attempting to abolish, and supplant, the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates. “People say you’re wasting your vote if you don’t vote for a Republican or a Democrat. I believe it’s exactly the opposite; you’re wasting your vote if you vote for a Democrat or Republican,” he says. “I say, don’t vote for the candidate you think can win; vote for the one you think is the very best candidate. If people do that, we’ll get better candidates.”

Kat Schrode, 23, Richmond, Virginia: When Kat Schrode first registered to vote five years ago, neither major party fit her thinking, so she registered “undeclared.” In 2004 she wanted to vote in the Democratic presidential primary in 2004 and did not realize that automatically made her a registered Democrat. But Kat is an independent through and through. “The major parties ignore issues that concern Americans, and so an important role of independents is to force candidates and incumbents to address topics they’d prefer to avoid or simply hadn’t considered,” Kat says. “Shattering the current partisan system would allow for more freedom in the raising of issues.” Until recently, Kat was a research technician at a psychiatric facility affiliated with Harvard Medical School, and while she was living in Boston she became actively involved with COIV, the Coalition of Independent Voters in Massachusetts, promoting an effort to legalize political fusion in state elections and polling independents on a weekly basis about their thoughts regarding the 2008 presidential election. A primary political reform issue for her is breaking the two-party system, which she sees as an obstacle to addressing other critical short- and long-term issues. “Independents can and should be raising such ignored issues, but until independents are recognized, I’m not optimistic about our concerns being heard,” she says.

Maggy Simony, 87, Cape Canaveral, Florida:  Maggy, who recalls attending a rally for FDR 1940, cannot imagine not voting. She was an “ardent Democrat” until the Vietnam War, when she switched her affiliation to the Republican Party. In 1991, while living in New Hampshire, she became disillusioned with both major parties, supported Ross Perot in his 1992 presidential bid, helped start the New Hampshire Reform Party and served as its state secretary, and remained active in the party until 2000. Today, issues such as trade, globalization, immigration, and open borders dominate her independent political activity, but she calls herself an “eclectic traditionalist” rather than a conservative. The author of a number of travel-related books, Maggy keeps a close watch on ballot access issues and says her dream ticket for 2008 is Lou Dobbs for president and Virginia Sen. Jim Webb for vice president. “I can’t stand either party at this point,” Maggy says. “The way it is now, neither major party represents the interests of middle-class America.”

Linda Curtis, 56, Bastrop, Texas: Linda voted for George McGovern in 1972 to protest the Vietnam War; since then, she’s voted mostly for independent or third party candidates. As an independent activist for 27 years, she has worked in 20 states. In 2001, she founded Independent Texans (http://indytexans.org), a movement without a party that she describes as a “big populist tent.” As an activist, Curtis supports independent candidates, encourages discussion about issues the two major parties ignore, advocates for political reform, and fights to wrest control of the government from special interests and place it back in the hands of the citizenry. Her pet issue, though, is initiative, referendum, and recall, which she considers the most important political tools for independents (“IR&R will get you the other reforms you want,” she says.) She describes the independent movement in her state as grassroots democracy that serves ordinary people rather than the party machinery. “We span the spectrum from to the right of Attila the Hun to the left of Vladimir Lenin and all points in between,” she says of the ideologies represented in the hybrid movement. “We vote in either party primary. We’re Libertarians; we’re Greens; we’re Constitutionists. But the vast majority of us simply identify as independents with a small ‘i.’”

Marcia Ford is the author of We the Purple: Faith, Politics and the Independent Voter.