With Voters Sour On Major Parties, Group Recruits 'None Of The Above' Candidates Nearly 70 percent of voters say Republicans and Democrats fail to adequately represent the American people. One group is trying to help elect more unaffiliated candidates.
NPR logo With Voters Sour On Major Parties, Group Recruits 'None Of The Above' Candidates

With Voters Sour On Major Parties, Group Recruits 'None Of The Above' Candidates

The Colorado Senate, as seen on the first day of its 2018 session, Jan. 10, 2018 in Denver. A group called Unite America is determined to weaken the power of the two major political parties by trying to elect unaffiliated members in Colorado this fall. Joe Amon/Denver Post via Getty Images hide caption

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Joe Amon/Denver Post via Getty Images

The Colorado Senate, as seen on the first day of its 2018 session, Jan. 10, 2018 in Denver. A group called Unite America is determined to weaken the power of the two major political parties by trying to elect unaffiliated members in Colorado this fall.

Joe Amon/Denver Post via Getty Images

In the middle of a fiercely-fought election between Democrats and Republicans, one group is trying to encourage voters to pick candidates from outside of the two-party system.

The effort comes at a time when voters are dissatisfied with both major political parties. Nearly 70 percent of voters say Republicans and Democrats fail to adequately represent the American people, according to a recent survey from the nonpartisan Democracy Fund.

A Colorado-based group called Unite America is trying to use that dissatisfaction to elect more independent candidates to office nationwide. They have endorsed 29 unaffiliated candidates running for all levels of office from across the country.

Among the statewide candidates with the group's support are Gov. Bill Walker of Alaska, the country's only unaffiliated governor, and Greg Orman, who's running for governor in Kansas.

In Colorado, they've helped five state legislative candidates qualify for the ballot, campaign, and get their names out with promotional videos.

'Everybody wants to put you in a box'

Crystal Jacquez of Denver and Anthony Cross of Fort Collins, registered Democrats, hanging out at The Bean Cycle coffee shop in Old Town Fort Collins, Colo. Cross says he's open to voting for an unaffiliated candidate while Jacquez has "dabbled" with other parties, but ultimately voted for Democrats in the 2016 election. Jim Hill/Colorado Public Radio hide caption

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Jim Hill/Colorado Public Radio

Crystal Jacquez of Denver and Anthony Cross of Fort Collins, registered Democrats, hanging out at The Bean Cycle coffee shop in Old Town Fort Collins, Colo. Cross says he's open to voting for an unaffiliated candidate while Jacquez has "dabbled" with other parties, but ultimately voted for Democrats in the 2016 election.

Jim Hill/Colorado Public Radio

Anthony Cross may be the kind of voter Unite America has in mind. He's a Democrat who runs an arts magazine in Fort Collins and says he'd back an unaffiliated candidate, if he agreed with the candidate's policy positions.

"If anything, the last presidential election has kind of proven that both parties in many ways are flawed, the leadership in those parties are flawed," Cross said. And even though he likes the idea of backing an unaffiliated candidate, he thinks the chance that he would ultimately vote for someone who is unaffiliated is pretty slim.

"There's a high likelihood that I might not even know that person exists. And that's the thing. If you don't know they exist how can you vote for them? And how can you get that message out?"

Unite America is trying to fill that void by helping the candidates develop their message. Yet on their websites, most Unite America candidates don't give a lot of details on specific policy proposals.

"Everybody wants to put you in a box and wants you to stand in a box so they can clearly define what you are," said Paul Jones, who's in a race against a Democratic state representative in a competitive Colorado district.

He believes his independent mindset will resonate with voters who are frustrated and looking for change. "That's the problem that we face is that we're trying to solve complicated issues with very black and white solutions."

Sue Preston of Wheat Ridge, Colo., who is unaffiliated with a political party but tends to vote for Democrats. Jim Hill/Colorado Public Radio hide caption

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Jim Hill/Colorado Public Radio

Sue Preston of Wheat Ridge, Colo., who is unaffiliated with a political party but tends to vote for Democrats.

Jim Hill/Colorado Public Radio

In states like Colorado, unaffiliated voters now outnumber both Republicans and Democrats, but the Democracy Fund survey found that people fed up with the two party system don't agree on the solution. For example, many unaffiliated voters, like Sue Preston, say they consistently vote for one party or the other. She's retired and leans Democratic.

"I'm extremely disappointed in Republicans for not taking the initiative to voice their real concerns with this administration, instead of hiding behind their politics and hiding behind oh, I want to get elected this next term," said Preston.

Meanwhile Anthony Pagliaro, who moved to Colorado from Washington DC is also unaffiliated but says he votes Libertarian.

"I have trouble voting for Democrats or Republicans. I like a lot of the things both sides have to say and really dislike a lot of things both sides have to say, so it's hard for me to compromise sometimes. I can be a bit stubborn."

'Transformative impact'

It's been more than 100 years since Colorado elected an unaffiliated candidate to the legislature. Unite America Executive Director Nick Troiano believes the time is right, and that a purple state like Colorado with a narrowly-divided legislature is the perfect place to launch this movement.

"So just two or three or four independents could have a transformative impact, by controlling the balance of power and they can use that in the interest of serving the people," said Troiano. "If no party had an outright majority no one could ram their agenda through, they would need to reach across the aisle for some votes."

But if that's the goal, Unite America isn't fielding candidates in the right races to flip control of either of Colorado's chambers. In the state Senate, where Republicans have a one-seat majority, the group isn't backing candidates in the most competitive races. And in the House, analysts think they could chip away at — but not overturn — the Democratic majority.

"If some Democratic candidates end up losing in some competitive seats, they might be responsible," said former Republican State party Chairman Dick Wadhams.

Regardless of whether or not their candidates win any races in Colorado or across the nation, even getting four to seven percent of the vote could be enough to act as a spoiler in close races. That factor is a real possibility in the Kansas governor's race, where polls show that Unite America-backed candidate Greg Orman behind the two major party candidates but drawing significant support.

Wadhams thinks unaffiliated candidates will most appeal to younger voters who tend to be more liberal, but don't necessarily identify with a party.

"They might be particularly attracted to this centrist, non-partisan, bipartisan message."

One question about the group is how much its largest donors are spending. A top Democratic election attorney has filed a campaign finance complaint with the Colorado Secretary of State's office alleging that the group and its affiliates aren't being transparent about their donors, and are violating state campaign finance laws. The state said the complaint shows potential violations and is reviewing it further. Unite America maintains it has done nothing wrong and calls the complaint partisan.