America celebrates Independence Day this week with fireworks, vacations and celebrations of all types. The nation’s “Independents Day” is scheduled for later this year when we go to the polls.
Or at least that’s how we should begin referencing our national elections.
The number of voters identifying as affiliated with either the Democratic or Republican parties has reached a historic 75-year low. Self-described independents, hovering at 40 percent in recent polls, are now a plurality of all voters.
A broadening tally has become alienated from both political parties. This trend is particularly evident among voters under 30, now half of all Hispanics, other demographic segments and extending into the ranks of LGBT voters.
Those living in the Washington area are perhaps more accustomed to the dull background sound of the two political parties endlessly bickering at high volumes while accomplishing little. We are also more prone to sit through the harsh high-octane talking head dichotomy between party surrogates on TV and consider that normal.
Outside our unique cultural environment, however, the opposite reaction is more pervasive than ever. The sharp ideological divides between diminishing numbers of true political party adherents have become decidedly off-putting for many. In a country with a bitterly hardening discourse and evenly split political brand loyalty, independent voters are the ones candidates hope most to influence and woo.
The percentage actually registered as independent is greatest in the 22 states that do not require voters to register by party. In some of those jurisdictions, they constitute an outright majority. As more states eliminate or loosen party registration requirements coupled with open primary voting, expect significant increases in the number of unaligned voters.
If current trends continue, it will not be long before a national electorate measuring complex issues and often conflicting political priorities while simultaneously disassociated from both parties will comprise a majority of the voting-age populace. With little realistic possibility of viable alternate national political parties developing, or having much hope of success, voters will increasingly be left to balance their positions on a range of issues with declining affinity for party labels.
Of course, disdain for that process or dismay with the choices will lead more to simply opt out. Projected turnout this year anticipates a return to percentages lower than the last presidential election, perhaps the two before that, with little more than half of eligible voters exercising their franchise.
LGBT voters, while strongly supportive of Democratic candidates, have demonstrated successively increasing diversity when voting in recent elections – especially as our assimilation becomes more the norm and civil equality expands. Exit polls in the 2010 congressional mid-term election indicated that one-third of us, a record number, voted for the Republican candidate.
While it’s true that some independent voters are more “independent” than others, with only about 15 percent of the total electorate not leaning toward one party or the other, there is a genuine fluidity greater than ever before. As in the LGBT community, a growing group struggle balancing positions on social and economic issues, other concerns, and personal and professional considerations, often reluctantly committing to a political party when voting.
Conventional wisdom posits that President Obama’s recently announced support for state approval of marriage equality laws, as well as significant legislative and administrative initiatives benefiting gays and lesbians, will stall growth in non-traditional voting patterns in our community. However, with economic and other issues expected to dominate the election for all voters – with social issues secondary evaluations – the progression may continue this year.
Voters are also cognizant that there are only a small number of locales where the outcome is not largely predetermined. Geographic majority alignment and intensive statistical gerrymandering have made non-competitive single party dominance the federal election norm in most of the country. Analysts predict that the Electoral College outcome in the current presidential race will be determined by fewer than a quarter-of-a-million voters spread out over specific areas in fewer than 10 states.
Given the level of dissatisfaction with the hyper-partisan constructs promoted by the two parties, general intolerance for a diversity of views within each party and largely predictive regional outcomes, it’s amazing that cynicism isn’t greater and voter participation isn’t lower.
That’s worthy of pondering as we celebrate our independence.
Mark Lee is a local small business manager and long-time community business advocate. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.