When she was 17 years old, Christina Tobin stood watching over Illinois election officials’ shoulders after her dad handed them 60,000 signatures so he could run for governor. Line by line, those signatures were disqualified until he had fewer than the 25,000 he needed.
The reason, according to Tobin, was her dad had filed to run as a Libertarian Party candidate – something other than a Democrat or Republican, in other words, so election officials made sure he didn’t have a chance to upset the apple cart.
The experience, she said, "made me sad, not furious. It makes me sad to see so many bad things happen in the world because of a bad electoral system."
Thus began an independent political life. Tobin helped her dad qualify to run for lieutenant governor as a Libertarian during the next election cycle. She twice worked to secure ballot access for Ralph Nader’s independent presidential candidacies. In 2010, she ran for California secretary of state as a Libertarian, collecting 2.3 percent of the vote and finishing fifth in a sixth-person race.
She’s now heading full time an organization she founded, Free & Equal, which works to elect independent-minded candidates, including Republicans and Democrats who she says are "not controlled by private interest money."
Though she opposes parties in general, her organization also works with third parties from across the spectrum in hopes of providing voters more choices. This year, Free and Equal organized this year’s best presidential debate, one televised on C-SPAN featuring four third party candidates who treated each other with respect despite their differences. Former CNN host Larry King was the moderator; she co-moderated.
Tobin sat down with me Nov. 23 while she was visiting Little Rock to speak at a next-day rally protesting the Federal Reserve.
She says Free and Equal has started raising more serious money and hiring staff to make a big push in 2014 to elect independent candidates at the local level. She is preparing to open a studio in Los Angeles and is planning the creation of a superPAC.
I asked her about the oft-stated argument that dissatisfied voters "throw their vote away" when they choose someone other than a Democrat or Republican and therefore help the candidate they most dislike win.
"With these political parties, it’s like racing to a cliff," she replied. "You’re going 70 miles an hour with one and 69 now or whatnot with the other, and arguably 70-70 both since they work together. And so we’re here to keep them from going off the cliff."
Speaking of cliffs, she faces an uphill climb. The last time the political system realigned was the middle of the 1800s, when the Republican Party arose to replace the Whigs.
If ever there were an election when the two major parties were vulnerable, this should have been it. The economy is stuck in neutral, the national debt is rising, and the bank bailout is still a recent memory. A Gallup poll at the end of last year found that 40 percent of Americans classified themselves as independents – the highest percentage ever recorded by Gallup.
However, Americans continue to vote for Democrats and Republicans, and while the system is definitely rigged in the two parties’ favor, no one is holding a gun to voters’ heads and making them choose only one or the other. In Arkansas, voters had five choices for president, and 97.45 percent of them selected either Mitt Romney or President Obama.
If anything, the two parties are becoming more entrenched and powerful, especially in Arkansas, so I asked Tobin how she and other independents can be successful. She said that social media and technology can change the game by mobilizing Americans. Besides, she said, "If people give up and they say it’s hopeless, then the system has won, and we’re going to continue going into a great depression – some argue the dark ages if we don’t do something."
Those are strong words, but she’s optimistic about the future and, just as when her father was knocked off the ballot, not angry. That might be her biggest strength.
"I don’t have any ill will on any of them," she said. "We have a flawed electoral system. It needs to be fixed."
We do have a flawed electoral system that needs to be fixed. She figured that out when she was 17 and then started trying to fix it. What’s taking the rest of us so long?
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org