Unaffiliated voters in Florida say no to parties

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Signing up new voters at high schools and job fairs, Carol Davis has noticed that the registrants, especially younger ones, are increasingly choosing neither the Democratic nor Republican parties.

They instead are picking “No Party Affiliation,” and they are hardly alone.

Florida gained more than 600,000 new voters since the last gubernatorial election in 2010, and the overwhelming gains came from unaffiliated voters, not members of the two major parties. The choice not to choose was widespread: unaffiliated voters had gains in every single Florida county. The biggest jumps were in Miami and the Interstate 4 corridor, the stretch of highway from St. Petersburg to Daytona Beach that holds the key to any statewide victory.

“They say they’re tired of partisan politics,” said Davis, who does registration drives for the League of Women Voters of Florida. “Some of them said they’re just tired of being bombarded with information from a party and they prefer to be independent.”

While unaffiliated voters have been increasing around the nation for the past two decades, their rise is particularly resonant in Florida, the nation’s biggest swing state. It could play a significant role in the outcome of November’s gubernatorial election, and future presidential races, as more voters like 20-year-old Alecsa Kazenas are up for grabs. The University of Central Florida student describes herself as fiscally conservative but socially liberal. Being unaffiliated allows her to express her disenchantment with how the current political system works without giving up being an active citizen, she said.

“I just don’t feel like I’m in either category, so having to choose a party just doesn’t seem right,” said Kazenas, who hasn’t decided if she will vote for incumbent GOP Gov. Rick Scott or Democratic challenger Charlie Crist, the former Republican governor. Crist had no party affiliation when ran for the U.S. Senate in 2010 after leaving the Republican Party that year. He joined the Democrats in 2012.

The increase in unaffiliated voters in Florida is coming at the expense of Democrats more than Republicans. Unaffiliated voters now make up more than a quarter of all registered voters, up from more than a fifth of all registered voters four years ago. Democrats make up about 38 percent of registered voters, down from 41 percent in 2010; Republicans are about 35 percent, down slightly from 36 percent four years ago.

Over the past four years, Democrats lost voters in all but 12 counties, with the biggest losses in Fort Lauderdale and St. Petersburg. Republicans had losses in only 13 counties, with the biggest losses in South Florida. Democrats still led Republicans in pure numbers, but that margin has shrunk from just under 600,000 registered voters in 2010 to well under 500,000 registered voters as of the 2014 primary election last summer.

The shrinkage of the Democratic advantage over Republicans is being driven by the same factor that caused a surge in the 2008 presidential election: President Barack Obama, said Aubrey Jewett, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida. As the president’s popularity has waned, so has the Democratic advantage in Florida.

“You could argue that the rise of the unaffiliated voters is more important in Florida than most states,” Jewett said. “We’re the largest battleground state with a larger and larger pool of unaffiliated voters and the two major parties are even closer in registration numbers than they have been.”

Some voters are switching to unaffiliated because they don’t want to be labeled.

Charlie Bowie had been registered as a Republican until last year when the 29-year-old Orlando resident decided to switch to no party. Like Kazenas, he identifies fiscally with the Republican Party but likes the positions of the Democratic Party on social issues such as legalized abortion and gay marriage. He hasn’t made up his mind yet on the governor’s race.

“Being a nonparty voter made sense to me,” Bowie said.

The growth in unaffiliated voters was most noticeable among Hispanics, where it has come at the expense of Republicans, according to an Associated Press analysis. In 2010, a little under a third of registered Hispanics were Republicans and more than a quarter were unaffiliated. Those numbers flip-flopped in the past four years, with unaffiliated voters making up almost a third of Hispanics and Republicans accounting for a quarter of them.

More unaffiliated voters may cause lower voter turnout since parties spend time and money mobilizing their members. It also may lead to greater extremism in the major parties as more moderate members leave the parties. Since unaffiliated voters can’t participate in Florida primaries, parties may nominate candidates who appeal to voters with more hardcore beliefs.

As an unaffiliated voter, 26-year-old Tim Murphy doesn’t feel like he is missing out by not being able to vote in a primary. When the stand-up comedian from Orlando was asked how he will vote in the gubernatorial race, Murphy harkened back two decades to a former centrist Democratic governor.

“I’m going to do a write-in vote for the ghost of Lawton Chiles,” he said.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.