The rise of the independent voter?

Elections are more partisan than ever, but voters, not so much. Amid the culture wars and partisan bickering, more Americans than ever before are abandoning official party labels. More than 40% of all Americans now identify politically as independents. If 2018 was the “Year of the Woman,” could we see a “Year of the Independent” in our near future?

In Louisiana, voters have also been eschewing party affiliation. In 2000, independents made up 18.1% of registered voters. In the 2018 midterm election, 26.4% of Louisiana voters registered as independents statewide, an increase of 8.4%. Similar trends have occurred in Lafayette Parish. Independents have grown from 20.9% in 2000 to 28.4% in 2018. Some of the gains in independent registration has come from voters switching their partisan affiliation. Between 2000 and 2018, Louisiana saw a substantial decline in Democratic Party registration, a 16.6% drop statewide and 16.8% in Lafayette Parish; many of those voters opted out of party affiliation altogether. Some of the independent bump is from first-time voters who have increasingly registered as independents.

Here’s the thing: Politics is a lot like watching professional sports. Most people have a team allegiance. You’re a Saints fan or a Falcons fan. Even those people who only tune in for the Super Bowl find themselves rooting for one team or another on game day. Similarly, on election day, most independents find themselves cheering for either Democrats or Republicans. In the most recent Gallup poll, 42% of Americans identify as independents, but only 11% don’t lean toward either Republicans or Democrats.

Though independents are the fastest-growing political group, they are less likely to participate when compared to voters with a party allegiance. Partisans’ turnout rates outpace independents two to one, and even three to one in some cases. For instance, in Louisiana’s last major state and local election, October 2015, of the 57,794 voters, 41.8% were Republicans and 39.8% were Democrats. Even though independents made up 28.5% of registered voters that year, only 18.4% of those who actually voted were independents. That’s a significant underperformance.

Voter participation among independents remains sluggish, despite growing numbers.

Even when the items on the ballot are non-partisan, meaning only local taxes and no candidates, independents still underperform. Take for instance the December 2018 election in Lafayette Parish, which included an amendment to split the City-Parish Council alongside proposed taxes for the sheriff and a rural fire district. In that election, Republicans managed to turn out 28.9% of their registered voters, Democrats turned out 23.2% of theirs, and independents turned out only 14.9% of their voters.

The disproportionately low turnout rates among registered independents results in a skewed feedback loop between voters and their representatives. Elected officials are typically most responsive to “chronic voters,” those who participate in 80%-100% of all elections — local, state and federal. Because partisans are more likely to vote, and especially to be chronic voters, their interests and preferences are amplified. Meanwhile, independents, who have fled the parties precisely because of partisan extremism, are the least likely to be engaged, and hence their perspective is under-represented.

One reason independents are less likely to be engaged is that they are less likely to be mobilized. Political parties actively reach out to their voters through phone banks, emails, social media and direct mailing. These contact points remind voters that elections are upcoming, provide information about what’s on the ballot, and even provide direction on how to vote.

Political campaigns typically purchase voting records for everyone in their district. These voter lists do not indicate how you cast your vote in particular contests, but they do include information on your partisan affiliation and whether you participated in recent elections. Campaigns primarily spend their resources on contacting partisans with reliable voting records, and they cut costs by not reaching out to independents.

I have keenly experienced this problem. Even as a chronic voter with a 100% voting record, as someone who is registered as “no party,” I rarely receive political mailers. I rely on my partisan neighbors to share their political postcards with me so I can keep up with what the campaigns are saying. With little effort made to engage independents or even make them aware that an election is upcoming, their lower turnout rates are not surprising.

Another reason independents are less likely to engage is that few candidates run “no party.” People are more likely to follow a competition if they have a team to root for; but in politics, only a small number of candidates choose to run without a team label. Running a successful campaign as an independent is possible. In Lafayette Parish, 10 elected officials are registered no party, independent (which is actually a recognized party in the state), or other, including Carencro Mayor Glenn Brasseaux, Lafayette City-Parish Council member Bruce Conque and City Judge “Francie” Bouillion. In a bid for mayor-president, Carlee Alm-LaBar hopes to follow in their footsteps and prove that a no-party candidate can win in a parish-wide race. With low engagements rates among independents, however, that may be an uphill battle.

Independents represent not only the fastest growing trend in voter demographics, but they also represent an untapped market. As partisan polarization continues to grow and confidence in government dwindles, the growth in independents shows no sign of slowing. Candidates of all partisan persuasions and champions of ballot proposals have the opportunity to engage this underutilized segment of voters. The “Year of the Independents” depends in large part on whether campaigns realize the potential in that segment and engage those individuals who are exhausted by typical party politics.