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REIMAGINING

GOVERNANCE
IN AN AGE OF
POLARIZATION
THE POWER & POTENTIAL OF INDEPENDENT LEGISLATORS

AUGUST 2018
TABLE OF
CONTENTS
INTRODUCTION
Rise of the Independents

Barriers of a Two-Party System

A Breakthrough of Independents

KEY FINDINGS
Independents as Individual Legislators

Independents as a Governing Coalition

CONCLUSION

ABOUT US
INTRODUCTION
The Unite America Institute has undertaken a year-long project
to explore how independent leaders can impact a political
system that remains dominated by the two major parties and
improve a governing process that has become increasingly
divided and dysfunctional.

3
RISE OF THE
INDEPENDENTS
INDEPENDENT VOTERS NOW MAKE UP THE
LARGEST AND FASTEST GROWING SEGMENT OF
THE AMERICAN ELECTORATE.
Today, more than 40% of Yet the tide that has disadvan-
voters self-identify as independent, taged independent candidates to
according to Gallup.1 Among the date is beginning to turn as voter
31 states and D.C. that register and frustration with both parties grows
report voters by party, from 2004 and as new organizations level the
to June 2018, the number of inde- political playing field.
pendent voters has grown by 35%,
from 20.5 million to 32.8 million—at
more than three times the rate as The question of whether independent candidates can win
Republicans and twice the rate as
Democrats. In seventeen of these
elections will inevitably turn to whether independent
states and the District, independent leaders can make a difference once in office.
voters outnumber one or both of the
two major parties.2
At the same time, however, both Can independents help to
major parties continue to dominate bridge the growing gap between
the U.S. Congress and state legis- Republicans and Democrats? Or will
latures. Only two of 535 members they be suffocated by a system that
of Congress and 27 of 7,277 state has historically been dominated by
legislators are independent.3 the two major parties?

Gallup, “Party Affiliation: Trend since 2004” Accessed 1 August 2018.


1

2
Secretary of State data collected by Ballot Access News and analyzed by Unite
America Institute.
3
Unite America Institute research; cross-referenced against Ballotpedia, “Current third-
party and independent state officeholders” Accessed 1 August 2018.

4
STATES WHERE INDEPENDENTS OUTNUMBER ONE OR BOTH PARTIES

INDEPENDENTS INDEPENDENTS STATES THAT DO NOT


OUTNUMBER OUTNUMBER REGISTER & REPORT
BOTH PARTIES ONE PARTY VOTERS BY PARTY

In more than half of the states that register


and report voters by party, independent voters
outnumber one or both of the two major parties.

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BARRIERS OF
A TWO-PARTY
SYSTEM
When four-term State Senator took away his committee assign-
David Johnson left the Republican ments (though Democrats gave him
Party to become the first indepen- one of their own seats), limiting his
dent to serve in Iowa’s upper cham- ability to help craft legislation. They
ber since the 1920’s, he quickly even stripped him of his office staff.
experienced just how much control As columnist Adam Sullivan of
the two major parties have over the eastern Iowa’s The Gazette wrote,
legislature. “As Johnson’s experience the past
The GOP leadership kicked two years demonstrates, the legis-
him out of their caucus meetings, lative process is designed to exclu-
removing access to important legis- sively serve the two major parties. In
lative information regarding what short, the system is rigged to benefit
bills were coming to the floor. They Republicans and Democrats.”4

Yet, Senator Johnson found the upside of his new status as


an independent: he was free to speak his mind and vote his
conscience, uninhibited by the pressures of his former party.

4
The Gazette, “Independent Iowa legislator exposed flaws in two-party system”
9 June 2018.

6
A BREAKTHROUGH
OF INDEPENDENTS
Senator Johnson was not the and put us over the top,” he said.5 agreement was reached on long-de-
only one to leave his party in the The impetus behind the new layed reforms to the state’s perma-
summer of 2016. On the day of Alaska House Majority Coalition was nent fund. Those reforms were
the filing deadline in Anchorage, passing a comprehensive fiscal plan signed into law by Governor Bill
Alaska, Jason Grenn changed his to shore up the state’s unsustainable Walker, an independent, in 2018.
Republican affiliation to indepen- budget. By the spring of 2017, the As Governor Walker remarked
dent and decided to toss his hat in bipartisan coalition was successful in his 2018 State of the State
the ring as a first-time candidate for in passing four bills as part of this address: “After all of this, do I still
state house. plan—including making $85 million believe that a fisherman from Yaku-
Dismayed by the legislature’s in budget cuts, ending cash subsi- tat and a carpenter from Valdez can
lack of progress on tackling the dies to the oil industry, restructur- come together around the simple
state’s fiscal crisis, Grenn challenged ing the Alaska Permanent Fund, and idea that our home and our future
the incumbent Republican state passing the first-ever broad-based matter more than our ideology; that
representative and won election by progressive income tax. in our unity and our independence,
186 votes. He soon faced the deci- While most of these propos- Alaska could show the rest of the
sion of which party to caucus with als were met with resistance in country a path forward? Absolutely,
in the legislature. The Republican the state’s GOP-controlled Senate, I do.”6
Party won 21 of the chamber’s 40
seats; Democrats won 17 seats, and
Grenn was one of two independents.
The Republican Party was poised to
reclaim their majority, which they
had held for more than 20 years, but
a new governing coalition emerged
instead among three moderate
Republicans, both independents
and the Democrats.
Grenn’s participation was deci-
sive. “I wanted to be part of a coali-
tion that looked at a comprehensive
view of the long term economy of
Alaska. I knew that this may cause
conflict with some of my supporters,
but I knew that me joining the group
would be a huge difference maker

5
Unite America Institute interview, November 2017.
6
Governor Bill Walker, “State of the State Address” 18 January 2018.

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A NEW WAY
FORWARD
As the previous examples illustrate, the role independents
have played in legislatures has varied from state to
state, based on unique political dynamics, institutional
norms, and parliamentary rules. By both examining
and extrapolating on the experience of incumbent
independent leaders across the country, the Unite
America Institute seeks to establish, for the first time,
core insights and best practices of how independents can
impact and improve the legislative process.

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KEY FINDINGS

9
INDEPENDENTS
AS INDIVIDUAL
LEGISLATORS
More than two-dozen independents serve in state legislatures
and the U.S. Senate. These leaders often operate as lone
independents entirely outside of party structures. We identified
five key ways that individual independents have been able to
make a positive impact on legislatures across the country.

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01
PUT THEIR DISTRICTS
AND STATES AHEAD OF
PARTISAN AND SPECIAL
INTERESTS
Independents have fundamen-
tally different governing incen-
tives than major party legislators.
For example, independents do not
participate in primary elections and
therefore do not fear being “prima-
ried” by someone to their ideological
“Good representation is about commit-
extreme. Many independents also
refuse to accept contributions from ment to the needs of the people that
PACs and lobbyists. This reduces elected you, regardless of party. I did not
the influence of political parties caucus with either party. I used the time I
and interest groups, giving inde- otherwise would spend listening to party
pendents the freedom to put their
insiders talk political strategy in caucus
constituents first.
Former Colorado State Repre-
meetings to actually read the bills on my
sentative Kathleen Curry, who left own and call my constituents to get their
the Democratic Party in 2009 to opinions. Being an independent made me
serve as an independent, recounted a more effective advocate of my entire
a common sense bill that died in
constituency.”
committee during her tenure due
to the influence of political parties
and special interests. The bill would
have removed liability for private
Kathleen Curry, former State Representative (I-CO)8
property owners should trespass-
ers get injured while on their prop-
erty. According to Curry, Democrats
were under extreme pressure to
vote against the bill because trial
lawyers—a key donor constituency
for the party—opposed it. As a
Democrat, Curry would have been
subjected to the same pressures
but, as an independent, Curry “could
just focus on what was right” and
co-sponsored the bill.7 7
Unite America Institute interview, 7 August 2018.
8
IVN.us, “I Was a Better Representative and More Influential
AFTER Dropping My Party” 20 November 2017.

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02
FIND COMMON GROUND
AND BUILD BIPARTISAN
COALITIONS
Independents are uniquely able
to broker agreements between the
two major parties amid rising parti-
sanship and polarization in legisla-
tures. As neutral arbiters, they are
able to build trust and relationships
across the aisle, which can facilitate
“Rule number one in conflict resolution is
bipartisan collaborations.
Such was the case in 2017 when that it is very hard for two sides, A and B,
Colorado State Senator Cheri Jahn to get unstuck without a third force, or
left the Democratic Party to serve without a mediator. Independents can
as the institution’s first indepen- bring a new way of thinking and a new
dent legislator. She encouraged and
dimension to politics to help solve prob-
facilitated conversations between
two key legislators from oppo-
lems and get the two sides working again.
site parties, which led to a major Once you have a third side, the fundamen-
breakthrough on transportation tals change. Suddenly there is a group
funding—a top priority that the inside the legislature that can convene
legislature had failed to address for
something new, who can innovate.”
several sessions.

Mark Gerzon, President of the Mediators Foundation9

9
Unite America Institute interview, 5 June 2018.

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03
CHAMPION GOOD
GOVERNANCE AND
POLITICAL REFORMS
While independents are not
bound by a rigid ideology or a
traditional party platform, many are
united by a commitment to ensuring
the electoral and legislative process
serves the people. This commit-
ment includes supporting initiatives
“Sometimes lost in today’s political
to reform redistricting, campaign
finance, primaries, and voting— discourse are Maine’s independent voters,
reforms that are often ignored or the largest single voting group in the state.
opposed by the major parties. These moderate voices are precisely the
For example, when both parties ones needed for the daily blocking and
in the Maine legislature attempted
tackling of government … Ranked-choice
to sabotage the “Ranked Choice
Voting” system adopted by Maine
voting tends to temper the divisiveness
voters at the ballot in 2016, the six of partisanship and elect people who are
independents in the legislature more interested in solving problems than
joined together to defend it. picking partisan fights.”

State Reps. Ackley, Casas, Grohman, Higgins (I-ME)10

10
The Press-Herald, “Ranked-choice voting is the people-
approved, court-certified election process” 7 April 2018.

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04
INTRODUCE IDEAS
THAT BOTH PARTIES ARE
UNWILLING TO INITIATE
Today’s partisan divide creates
an environment where necessary
but unpopular reforms can be
impossible to pursue, even if both
parties agree that the legislation
is necessary. This is because the
parties will by nature always look
“I reduced the permanent fund dividend
for opportunities to gain a politi-
cal edge on the opposition going in 2016 so that the Legislature would find
into the next election. With greater the courage to pass a fiscal plan compro-
insulation from zero-sum partisan mise … It was the hardest decision I’ve ever
warfare, independent leaders can made, but I think it’s easier to make hard
introduce new ideas to tackle press-
decisions as an independent as they are
ing but intractable challenges, and
give political cover for both sides to
not reflective of a particular party. I can
come to the table to discuss solu- just do what’s best for Alaska.”
tions.
Faced with a $3 billion deficit
in 2016 after oil prices cratered and
state revenue fell by 80%, indepen- Governor Bill Walker (I-AK)11
dent Governor Bill Walker of Alaska
decided to take matters into his own
hands after the legislature failed to
act. He became the first governor
to cut the annual Permanent Fund
Dividend that each Alaskan receives
in an effort to protect its sustainabil-
ity. The following year, both parties
passed a long-term restructuring.

Press Conference at the National Press Club, 12 July 2017.


11

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05
IMPROVE THE
POLICYMAKING PROCESS
AND ELEVATE THE DEBATE
When independents engage
on issues, they are able to focus on
the substance of the matter—using
facts, reason, and common-sense to
come to their conclusions, in a civil
and thoughtful way. This can have
a positive effect on the rest of the
legislature, improving floor debates
“Party line votes are expected of members
and, ultimately, individual pieces unless they have forewarned their leader-
of legislation. ship otherwise. This disallows flexibility of
In Maine, the state legislature thought when new information or amend-
considered a last-minute consumer ments are introduced during floor debate.
protection law in the 2016 session
Those of us who are independent are able
in response to a new federal law
which enabled internet service to listen and participate in the debate,
providers to sell information about giving more credence, more credibility to
subscribers. Because the deadline it, especially in close votes. We aren’t just
to submit new legislation through taking directive from the party about what
the committee process had passed,
our vote should be.”
the bill had to be offered through
the Legislative Council, which is
evenly split between the two parties.
Rep. Barbara Murphy (I-VT)13
Democratic leadership immediately
assumed that Republicans would
not cooperate or allow the bill to
be considered through the Legis-
lative Council and, holding the
majority, decided to pursue “work-
around” options to force consider-
ation of the bill. Believing that the
normal processes of the legislature
should be followed, independent
State Representative Owen Casas
brokered a solution, gaining Repub-
lican support to have a hearing for
the bill through the Legislative
Council. When asked how he did it,
Casas replied, simply: “I just went up
12
Unite America Institute interview, 7 August 2018.

and talked with them.”12 13


Unite America Institute interview, 20 June 2018.

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INDEPENDENTS
AS A GOVERNING
COALITION
Independents can become While there is no perfect exam- one Republican and two Democrats
dramatically more influential ple of this yet happening, we have have decided to unaffiliate from
when, as a coalition, they are able seen signs of its power and potential their parties. In Alaska, a coalition
to deny both political parties an in both Alaska and Maine. As Rep. of Democrats, Republicans, and
outright majority and become the Jason Grenn (I-AK) and Rep. Owen independents caucus together. This
fulcrum upon which the balance Casas (I-ME) wrote in a joint op-ed: has put substantial pressure on both
of power rests in a legislature. In major parties to work toward finding
the U.S. Senate and 31 state legis- “Thanks to independent coali- common ground.”15
lative bodies, just five or fewer tions shifting the balance of power
independents could comprise this in our respective chambers, no As a coalition, independents
crucial governing coalition and piece of legislation in the Maine or could have enormous leverage in
gain enormous leverage within a Alaska state house can now pass their decision of both how to form
system otherwise dominated by the on a straight party-line vote. In a majority within their legislature
two-party duopoly.14 Maine, since the start of session, and how to vote together as a bloc.

“Imagine, if you can deny both McConnell and Schumer the


number 50 in the Senate, those 3-4 independent can become
the most powerful bloc and you force compromise.”

Chuck Todd, Moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press

14
Unite America Institute research; cross-referenced against Ballotpedia, “Partisan
composition of state legislatures” Accessed 1 August 2018.

The Hill, “Independents can bridge the partisan divide” 14 July 2017.
15

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STATES WHERE A FULCRUM COULD BE ESTABLISHED BY 5 OR FEWER INDEPENDENTS

FULCRUM FULCRUM
POSSIBLE IN BOTH POSSIBLE IN ONE
LEGISLATIVE CHAMBERS LEGISLATIVE CHAMBER

In the U.S. Senate and 31 state legislative bodies, just five


or fewer independents could comprise this crucial governing
coalition and gain enormous leverage within a system
otherwise dominated by the two-party duopoly.

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LEVERAGE IN
FORMING A
MAJORITY
01
DECIDE THE LEADERSHIP OF
Each legislative body at the
state and federal level is governed
THE MAJORITY AND COMMITTEE
by different norms and rules that ASSIGNMENTS
impact how the legislative process
functions—beginning with the criti- Independents could influence the selec-
cal decision of which party, or what tion of individual candidates both parties put
coalition of members, achieves forward for leader—opting for one who would,
majority control. for example, commit to running the institution
In some legislative bodies, like in a way that incentives bipartisan cooperation.
the U.S. Senate, the “majority” for Or, one of the independents themselves could
the purposes of deciding control become the leader. Through this process, inde-
is deemed to be the party with pendents could also ensure their placement on
the most affiliated members; that committees, which is typically decided by the
party’s internally elected leader majority leadership.
is then recognized as the Senate When the Main State Senate was divided
Majority Leader. (Note: In the U.S. 17-17-1 after the 2000 election, the lone indepen-
Senate, choosing which party to dent Jill Goldthwait negotiated a power-sharing
affiliate with for the purposes of agreement whereby the parties would trade the
electing a leader is distinct from role of Senate President after the first year and
choosing a party to “caucus” with— would take turns naming committee chairman-
which is not required of indepen- ships. Senator Goldthwait became the chair of
dent members.) the powerful appropriations committee.
In other bodies like the U.S. Goldthwait explained the value of splitting
House, the leader of the institu- committee chairmanships between both parties:
tion—the Speaker of the House, in
this case—must be elected by an “It invested what would have been the
outright majority of members voting minority party in governance. When you don’t
for a candidate; balloting would have any chairmanships, what can you do except
continue indefinitely until a Speaker be an obstructionist? But if you’ve got some of
is elected.16 the chairmanships, you are responsible for that
Because both parties’ top prior- policy section of the legislature. And it makes
ity is to be in the majority, the deci- you much more invested in outcomes, instead
sion of which party to affiliate with of killing everything.”17
for the purposes of electing a leader
gives an independent coalition
enormous leverage to use in three
key ways.

16
Unite America Institute interview with former
Congressional parliamentarian Charles Johnson,
7 August 2018.

Unite America Institute interview, 2 August 2018.


17

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02 03
SHAPE THE POLICY AGENDA OF SET THE RULES OF THE
THE LEGISLATIVE SESSION INSTITUTION ITSELF
Independents could influence the specific Finally, independents could influence
policy agenda that the majority party pursues specific rules of the institution to ensure the
in a given legislative session, to focus on issues legislative process is open, fair, and collabo-
where broad bipartisan agreement can be found. rative. (This would be more difficult in bodies
In addition, independents could force consider- that require super-majority support for rules
ation of specific policies that may not attract a changes.)
majority of either party but could win support A package of potential rules changes for
of a majority of all members. (These policies are the U.S. House put forward by No Labels, for
often otherwise prevented from getting to the example, includes many other ideas to foster a
floor for a vote). more collaborative legislative process, includ-
In Alaska, independent Jason Grenn, previ- ing: giving reasonable notice for all legislative
ously a lifelong Republican, decided to join markups, guaranteeing the ability for members
the Alaska House Majority Coalition and vote to make floor amendments, and returning the
for a Democratic member as Speaker specif- budgeting process to “regular order”via appro-
ically because the coalition agreed to adopt priate committees.18
comprehensive fiscal reform as its primary issue
to pursue.

Importantly, the independents could hold the majority


accountable by reserving the right to switch their alignment
at any time if a party fails to uphold agreements made.

For more, see: No Labels, “The Speaker Project”.


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LEVERAGE AS
A SWING
VOTING BLOC
01
MAKE PROPOSALS AND MEDIATE
Even if an independent coali-
On any particular issue where there is
tion did not have sufficient votes to
policy alignment among the coalition, the
decide the majority, independents
independents could propose ideas, find where
could still exercise significant influ-
common ground exists, and build support for
ence in the legislature, especially
compromise legislation.
one that is narrowly divided.
A group of five independent lawmakers in
Virtually all of the indepen-
Maine did just this in the 2017 legislative session
dents interviewed for this proj-
on the issue of how to bring the state’s tax law
ect described a dynamic in which
back into conformity with the recently changed
both parties actively sought their
federal code.
co-sponsorship of legislation due
As Maine Public Radio reported at the time:
to the fact that their support was
“The independents’ plan has something for
always up for grabs and would lend
everybody to like and to oppose. It includes tax
a valuable endorsement for the
breaks for business, as well as lower personal
legislation from outside the party.
income taxes. [Independent State Rep.] Norm
There are two key ways a unified
Higgins says the whole idea is to get members
coalition of independents could
of both parties back into negotiations.”19
impact policy during the legislative
process.

Maine Public Radio, “Maine Independent


19

Lawmakers Propose Compromise Tax Conformity


Plan” 26 April 2018.
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02
AGREE TO A PROBLEM-SOLVING
PROCESS
Given their ideological diversity, Level the Playing Field’s Peter The most desired outcome is
it may be difficult for a coalition of Ackerman explains: likely to occur when the two parties
independents to stay united on remain uncertain about which
every legislative issue. “The way to do this is for the party’s proposal the coalition would
As Kay Rand, Chief of Staff to coalition to solicit the views of each pick. Then what motivates the two
Senator Angus King (I-ME), said: party on a specific piece of legisla- parties to work with the coalition is
“No two independents are created tion. The coalition can initially lay out the fear of not being selected and
the same, and that’s the problem general principles to provide some left with the worst possible result.
with trying to organize indepen- guidance. Then each party can (if With the risk of loss becoming immi-
dents … Not all Republicans or they choose) mold their positions nent, both parties would be pres-
Democrats are created the same as close as possible to those held sured to negotiate a compromise.
either, but there are a common set by the coalition. The leaders of both This process resembles the ‘base-
of principles and priorities that bind parties would be told that the coali- ball negotiation’ used in arbitration
them together.”20 tion will not mediate between the between owners and athletes.”21
Thus, an independent coali- party’s positions, but will instead
tion may be more effectively held at the critical moment select either
together by an agreed upon process one position or the other to support
than by a specific set of policies. thereby creating a majority.

20
Unite America Institute interview, 18 July 2018.

Ackerman, “The Senate Rules Project” January 2016.


21

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CONCLUSION
The fundamental dysfunction of Independent leaders who are pieces of legislation, forcing greater
our increasingly polarized and parti- untethered to political parties and compromise and cooperation.
san political system is that elected special interest groups are pioneer- Although there may be only two
officials of both parties show up ing a new governing model for the dozen independent leaders serving
to govern already having prom- 21st Century. Despite the dominance in office today, independent voters
ised their core voters and donors of the two-party duopoly within our comprise the largest and fastest
to not work with the other side to governing institutions, indepen- growing segment of the American
solve problems. dents are finding ways to be effec- electorate. If independent voters
Broken political incentives have tive and make a difference. are able to translate their electoral
led election cycles to almost entirely As individual lawmakers, inde- plurality into just a few independent
consume governing cycles. pendents have made an impact by lawmakers within key legislatures,
Charles Wheelan, a senior breaking free from the influence they may ultimately be successful in
lecturer of public policy at Dart- of party leaders and putting their transcending the growing partisan
mouth College and board member districts first. These leaders are find- divide and dramatically improving
of the Unite America Institute, puts ing common ground and building governance.
it this way: bipartisan coalitions, champion- If this white paper aims to illu-
ing good governance and political minate one idea, it is that this trans-
reforms, introducing new ideas both formation is not only possible but
“You would be hard pressed parties are unwilling to initiate, and already underway.

to find another institution improving the policymaking process


itself by elevating the debate.
that would ever set itself up In the future, relatively few
independent leaders could make a
in this way, as two teams disportionate impact by controlling
that meet separately and are the balance of power between both
political parties in narrowly divided
constantly trying to unseat legislatures—especially in the 31

one another. You would state legislative bodies and the U.S.
Senate, where five or fewer inde-
never run a school board pendents could comprise this crit-
ical governing coalition.
that way or a company that These independents could use
way. At some point we need their leverage in deciding the major-
ity to influence leadership positions,
to stop taking these things committee assignments, and the

as normal that are actually rules of the institution. Moreover,


they could use their leverage as a
not normal.”22 voting bloc to influence individual

Unite America Institute interview, 4 June 2018.


22

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ABOUT THIS WHITE PAPER
This white paper is a preview of a more
in-depth report that the Unite America
Institute will soon publish. The paper is
based on primary interviews and historical
research undertaken over the past year. Our
research and writing team included: Kyle
Butts, Cassidy Lichtman, and Nick Troiano.

ABOUT THE UNITE AMERICA INSTITUTE


The Unite America Institute is a 501(c)3
non-profit organization that encour-
ages broad-based non-partisan civic
engagement and political participation
and engages in research and scholarly
analysis on important issues of public
concern including the legal, regulatory,
political, social and other systemic barri-
ers to voting, running for and serving in
elected office by independent voters
and candidates.

The Unite America Institute receives fund-


ing from both individuals and foundations.
Copies of our 990 filings with the IRS are
available online, including under our previ-
ous name, the Common Sense Coalition.

www.UniteAmericaInstitute.org

Contact
720.638.3631
hello@uniteamericainstitute.org

Location
6000 E Evans Ave
Suite 1-121
Denver, CO 80222

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