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The Great Migration: America's Growing Exodus Away from Political Parties

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Created: 30 November, 2020
Updated: 14 August, 2022
6 min read

The mainstream political narrative would have people believe that Americans are more deeply entrenching themselves under the banner of the Republican or Democratic Party as the divide between the parties continues to widen.Yet, a closer look at registration trends shows a different story.

The Open Primaries Education Fund (OPEF) released a new report Monday titled, “The Next Great Migration: The Rise of Independent Voters.” Its findings show that in nearly every state that registers voters by party affiliation (of which there are a total of 30 states), party registration is on the decline, while voters are increasingly choosing to identify as independent in every state.

“The United States is going through a political realignment,” states the report. “Unlike past realignments, which involved the emergence, repositioning, and/or obsolescence of entire political parties, the accelerating national trend of the last thirty years is voter disaffiliation from the Democratic and Republican Parties.“

Coverage of this trend is sparse, and has largely been reserved to independent news outlets like Independent Voter News. In fact, in 2018, IVN published an article that showed that in approximately half of the states that register voters by party affiliation, independent voters outnumbered registered voters of at least one major party.

Independent voters were then and continue to be the largest registered voting bloc in 9 states, and the OPEF found that based on current registration trends, independent voters are expected to become the largest group of registered voters in 10 additional states by 2035.

“Meanwhile, party registration in both major parties is declining. In the 30 states with partisan registration, sixteen states are seeing a long-term decline of membership in both major political parties or a decline in one major party and stagnating growth in the other.23,” states the Open Primaries report. 

It is an important trend to note, especially as we look at the increasingly critical role independent voters play in the outcome of elections. However, what often gets overlooked is what these voters are sacrificing just to exercise their right not to associate with a political party; specifically, their right to a meaningful vote.

Voters in many states are warned that a choice not to register with a party will lead to restrictions at the ballot box, meaning election officials in these states not only admit the system gives an exclusive advantage to members of two private political parties, but they also use public (read: taxpayer-funded) channels to advocate for party membership.

Take the following example in the OPEF report from  a Washoe County, Nevada elections administrator Q&A page:

Why do I have to choose a party affiliation when I register to vote? 
Nevada has a “closed primary” system in which only registrants who are members of a specific political party (major parties only) are eligible to vote for the candidate of that party for partisan offices in the Primary Elections. By choosing to be a “Nonpartisan” or affiliated with one of the minor political parties, a registrant is restricted to voting only for candidates for nonpartisan offices and the questions that appear on their Primary Election Ballot. 
Remember, in a General Election, all voters are eligible to vote on all candidates, races and questions that appear on their ballot, regardless of their or a candidate’s party affiliation.”

Put simply, voters in many areas are explicitly told to join a party or don’t vote. However, as the OPEF notes, these partisan restrictions on registration and election participation go beyond county and state messages on voter registration, and extend to the administration of elections.

“In New York, for example, poll workers must be registered members of one of the two major parties,” the report states. “Independent voters cannot work the polls.30 In Arizona, and a number of other states, unlike Republicans and Democrats who can register once to vote by mail, registered independents have to request a mail-in ballot for each election.”

“Perhaps most egregious, much of the ‘fair’ redistricting debate hinges on the notion that districts be drawn with an eye not to representing every voter fairly, but to representing each party and its voters fairly. Contrast such an approach with an emerging focus of some reformers on instituting nonpartisan voter-centric redistricting commissions.”

The OPEF further notes that the current system puts significant barriers in place designed specifically to benefit the Republican and Democratic Parties at the expense of fairness, accountability, and the rights of voters. And, the parties have no interest in relinquishing the control they have over the entire electoral process.

This also affects how political pundits, consultants, media personalities, pollsters, and even political scientists talk about independent voters. Independent voters are treated as a myth because the common argument is they will always pick one side or the other. Independents are really “party leaners,” an argument that ignores the reality that most voters across the US are only given two choices -- a consequence of two-party control over the process.

And yet, neither the states’ efforts to restrict the voting rights of voters outside the two major parties nor the continued narrative to marginalize their growth has slowed the massive migration away from the parties. Independent voters will soon be the largest or second largest group of voters in almost every state. More than anything, this greatly emphasizes the need for broad voter-centric systemic reform that takes control of elections out of the hands of parties.

“The current American system of registering voters by party affiliation and allowing only party members to vote in publicly funded primary elections is no longer serving a significant portion of the electorate,” the OPEF writes.

The movements to transform the US political process continue to build momentum. In 2020, for instance, 57% of Florida voters cast a ballot in favor of nonpartisan primary reform that would include all voters and candidates. Due to how state lawmakers have changed amendment rules over the years, though, that majority support wasn’t enough to pass the reform.

However, Alaska made history in 2020 as the first state to (a) adopt a top-four nonpartisan primary, expanding on the top-two primaries that are in place in states like California and Washington state, and (b) combined it with ranked choice voting in the general election to ensure majority winners.

“We have reached a tipping point that can no longer be ignored,” the OPEF concludes.

“Discrimination against independent voters in the administration of public elections in the United States cannot be sustained without continuing to damage the very nature of our democratic system. If we are to begin to create an electoral system that treats every American equally, we must eliminate party membership as part of the voter registration process, adopt widespread use of nonpartisan primary elections, and restructure the Federal Election Commission to represent all voters equally. The evolution of political institutions in America demands equal treatment of all voters. Then, and only then, will representative democracy be possible.”

Download and read the full OPEF report here.