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Nonpartisan Voters Growing in Numbers, Struggling for Political Equity

April 11th, 2016

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While news about national politics and the 2016 election has focused on the increasing polarization within and between the Democratic and Republican parties, another electoral force has been steadily but quietly growing:  nonpartisan or independent voters.

Nationally, independents have been on the rise fairly steadily since the early 1960s. Since 2008, more voters have identified as independent than as Democrat or Republican, and the gap has been growing according to this graph from the Pew Research Center:

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In Nevada, 26 percent of voters were registered either as a nonpartisan or with a minor party (as of February 29, 2016). In 2008 that figure was 22 percent. Over the same time period, the state’s residents who identify as Democrats or Republicans fell by 7 and 4 percent, respectively.

A deeper look at that data reveals a striking generational gap:  38.6% of millennials aged 18-24 are independent of major parties, while that figure is just 17.5% for the 65+ baby boomers. These numbers suggest that the growth trend will continue and possibly even accelerate in the years to come.

Nevada’s Mountain West neighbors have seen similar trends in recent cycles.

New Mexico has seen independents grow from 18 to 22 percent of registered voters since 2008. During the same time period, California’s nonpartisan voter rolls gained 5 points to total over 29 percent, and Arizona voters unaffiliated with major parties shot up from 28 percent of the electorate to almost 38 percent. Colorado independents gained 3 points to represent 37.8 percent of the state’s electorate, and a full 44 percent of Utah’s electorate consists of independents.

While the growth rates and overall size vary, it’s clear that voters in western states are moving away from traditional party allegiances. The numbers tell us that as a voting block, nonpartisans have the ability to decide close elections in swing states like Colorado and Nevada. Why, then, aren’t we hearing more about this growing demographic, and why aren’t candidates trying to appeal to voters who may care less about an R or D designation and more about positions on key issues and/or the candidate’s character?

The simple answer is that our political systems have been influenced by and designed to favor the two major parties and their members. Nevada’s caucus and primary processes are closed to anyone not registered with one of the major parties, such that nonpartisan voters would have to switch their registration to Democrat or Republican in order to participate. The same rule applies in Arizona, where thousands of people who participated in the recent primary will never see their vote counted.

Even the general the election process we take for granted as normal in the United States — winner-take-all, single-member district, and only a plurality required to win — serves to reinforce the two-party system and its members.

It’s no surprise, then, that voters who identify as nonpartisan are less likely to vote regularly, as found in this 2006 Pew study. They are also more likely not to register to vote at all, indicating that even more growth in and among this demographic is possible.

The top reasons voters of all affiliations give for not participating in elections includes a lack of information, a disinterest in politics, and a lack of confidence in the government or the impact of their vote. It stands to reason that independent voters not only share these feelings of disconnection and disempowerment, but feel them even more strongly.

Recent Attempts at Reform

A 2015 bill (SB 499) that was originally intended to open Nevada’s primary elections to all voters, with the top two winners advancing to the general election, was gutted and amended such that in races that draw candidates from only one political party, the person with the most votes in the (closed) June primary advances to the general election ballot as the de facto winner. The Las Vegas Review-Journal explains.

Another 2015 bill (SB 421) would have replaced Nevada’s caucus system with a presidential preference primary.

Possible Policy Solutions

Options for reform are still available, any of which would bring greater political parity to nonpartisans and independents:

  • Many states outside the West have open primaries, where voters can pick which partisan primary they’d like to participate in regardless of their registration. Semi-closed primaries are another option that would allow nonpartisans to vote in primaries without changing their registration.
  • Four states, including California, have a different twist on primaries, where voters can pick any one candidate they like, with the top two candidates moving on to the general election regardless of party affiliation.
  • More than a dozen municipalities, including the three big Bay Area cities in California, have instituted Ranked Choice, Instant Runoff elections. Voters can rank as many candidates as they’d like in order of preference. The candidate with the lowest vote total is eliminated, and his/her votes are redistributed to those voters’ second choices. This is repeated until one candidate reaches a majority (50% plus 1 vote). This system allows candidates to run without being considered “spoilers” for the major party candidates. It also enables voters to vote their consciences because they can feel free to vote according to their real preferences, rather than feeling pressured to make a pragmatic or cynical choice between two candidates who were not their top choice. Efforts to implement this system statewide are on the ballot in Maine and have been proposed in other states, including Nevada.

Whatever the case and despite the challenges, there’s no sign that a shift away from partisanship is slowing. It’s time for civic institutions and lawmakers to take note.

Additional Resources

  • For more information on a proposal to change Nevada’s voting system, visit the Nevada Election Reform Blog.
  • A variety of proposals and analysis on reforms to increase civic participation and give political parity to nonpartisans can be found at Fair Vote.
  • For a comprehensive look at the varying election laws from state to state, head to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Updates on election reform of all types across the country are compiled at Election Line.
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