Disillusioned With Dems and GOP, Independents Now Largest Voter Group in the US

Winding 336 miles through Maricopa, Pinal and Pima counties, the Central Arizona Project supplies water from the Colorado River to 80 percent of the state’s population and 40 percent of its farmlands. A drought has prompted the U.S. Department of Interior to implement a Tier-1 shortage for the first time, which will cut 18 percent of Arizona’s water supply from the Colorado River. But during Arizona’s legislative session thus far, bills to address the water shortage have been overshadowed by the 140 bills aimed at preventing so-called election fraud.

Arizona residents like Perri Benemelis, a white 61-year-old water policy analyst, are tired of “election fraud” talk, and many are turning away from the Republican and Democratic parties and registering or identifying as independents.

Benemelis cited proposals for a desalination project in Mexico and the monitoring of groundwater pumping in Mojave County as ways to address the water shortage, but is doubtful it will gain ground in the state legislature.

“Considering the focus on election law probably means we’re not going to see a lot of substantive legislation addressing water availability,” Benemelis said. “We [Arizonans] keep chasing this fantasy that there was fraud in the last election that needs to be addressed. And because of this obsession by our Republican legislature, substantive issues — important issues to the citizens of the state of Arizona — are being largely ignored.”

Independents now make up the largest voter group in the country. As of mid-January, 46 percent of those surveyed by a Gallup poll reported they identify as independents, 28 percent identify as Democrats and 24 percent as Republicans. According to 2018 figures, Independents are most likely to be younger, male and white, but more recent data show their numbers growing among other demographic groups. This group is deciding election outcomes — or at least making election results less predictable. Independent voters, pivotal in swing states including Arizona, Michigan, Georgia, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, favored Donald Trump by 4 percentage points in 2016 and Joe Biden by 13 percentage points in 2020.

Since April 2021, President Biden’s approval rating among independents declined from 68 percent to 36 percent, according to a recent NBC poll. And if the early Texas primaries are any indication for other upcoming primaries later this year, twice the number of Texan independents came out to vote for Republican Gov. Greg Abbott than Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke. Republican primary turnout exceeded the Democratic primary turnout by nearly 74 percent, far greater than the 45 percent difference in the 2018 midterm elections. Most independents polled are opposed to efforts to remove books from schools and a total abortion ban.

What this means is that while most independents are opposed to culture war politics and extreme political views, which prompted their abandonment of Trump in 2020, the disillusionment with the Biden administration among independents may result in low voter turnout rates for Democratic candidates. Independents could unwillingly propel Republicans towards a congressional majority this year and in 2024 if the Democratic Party does not capture the energy of this growing group of voters.

For the first time in Maricopa County, registered independents and third-party voters, at 35 percent of the total number of registered voters, exceeded the number of registered Republicans and Democrats. Statewide, independents and third-party voters make up 34.2 percent, just behind Republicans but ahead of Democrats, according to the Arizona secretary of state’s voter registration report. The Open Primaries Education Fund, a nonprofit organization that advocates for reform of the primary election system, projects this trend to continue and for independents and third-party voters to reach 43 percent of the state voting population by 2036.

Projected numbers of Arizona voters by party registration from 2020-2036
Projected numbers of Arizona voters by party registration from 2020-2036

Hugh McNichol is one of many veterans who identify themselves as independent. According to a March 2020 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America member survey, 41 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans identify as an independent or third-party voter, 36 percent as Republican and 22 percent as Democrat.

McNichol, who is a 39-year-old white man, resides in Lansing, Michigan, where he owned his own mechanic shop before being hired as a mechanic by Tesla. Prior to this, McNichol served as a mechanic in the U.S. Army for eight years and was stationed in Iraq from 2006 to 2007. McNichol says he voted for Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein in 2016 and Libertarian Gary Johnson in 2020, because they didn’t support the Iraq War.

“Veterans are realizing that neither one of the major parties have our best interests at heart,” McNichol told Truthout. “The vast majority of people in our country don’t care about what’s going over there…. But the politicians who sent us over there, they should be obligated to us, they should be obligated to those people there too. And I don’t feel like they held up their promises in either case.”

McNichol started to observe that promises to build infrastructure in Iraq turned into profits for private contractors, particularly for Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR), which received $39.5 billion in war-related contracts. Dick Cheney was the chairman and CEO of former KBR parent company Halliburton until he became George W. Bush’s vice president in 2001.

“While I was there, I started hearing things like KBR gets $100 for a bag of laundry, KBR gets $100 for a plate of food, $6 for a can of soda, all these inflated expenses. And they weren’t keeping their promises of getting the infrastructure back up and running,” McNichol said.

Like McNichol, some veterans of the Afghanistan War report they feel as if they broke a promise to Afghans when U.S. troops withdrew from the country. Meanwhile, when McNichol returned home, he found the Department of Veterans Affairs inundated and unprepared to help returning soldiers.

McNichol worries about the lack of affordable housing and pollution in Lansing’s water sources. For years, the city has given tax cuts and subsidies to General Motors (GM), which polluted Lansing’s groundwater with dioxane, an industrial chemical that GM uses to clean oil off car parts. The pollution was discovered after the Revitalizing Auto Communities Environmental Response Trust was established by the federal government to take over the GM sites following the company’s bankruptcy in 2009. Earlier this year, GM announced it would invest $7 billion in manufacturing sites across Michigan. In Lansing, GM would partner with LG Energy Solution to spend $2.6 billion to build a new battery cell plant in Lansing and offer 1,700 new jobs to the area.

However, McNichol is wary about the long-term impact. “These toxins from the GM plans are still not cleaned up. They have no plans. The politicians in Lansing don’t care. They just want GM to come back again,” McNichol said.

Independent voters Truthout interviewed described a “rigged electoral system.” Despite the growing numbers of independents and third-party voters from diverse demographic and ideological groups, these voters face hurdles at the ballot box. Twenty-three U.S. states — including the battleground states of Arizona, Florida and Pennsylvania — have closed presidential primaries. Fifteen states, including Florida and Pennsylvania, have closed congressional and state primaries. Thirty states — including Arizona, Florida and Pennsylvania — require voters to declare a party affiliation upon registration. Those registered as independents are thus excluded from the two major parties’ closed primary elections, which, according to data from Ballotpedia, determines 35 percent of state legislative elections. In 11 states, more than half of all state legislative seats did not have major party competition in 2020. Registering with the two major parties often dictates the drawing of electoral districts, and poll workers are often only chosen from voters who register with the two major parties.

Advocacy groups such as Independent Voting and Open Primaries Education Fund want to see voter registration without party affiliation, nonpartisan primary elections and a restructuring of the Federal Election Commission to ensure nonpartisan election operations. According to the National League of Cities, 73 percent of the largest cities in the country already hold nonpartisan municipal elections.

“Independents began to see that the control of the electoral process by the two parties was fused with the larger economic and social circumstances in the country,” said Jacqueline Salit, president of IndependentVoting.org. “They began to feel that this was a country being run by a set of insiders, that the insiders had control over the political apparatus, and that unless and until we could change and transform the political apparatus, we weren’t going to be able to address issues of economic instability.”

Beyond open primaries, those interviewed support electoral reform measures, such as independent redistricting and having the top two or top four winners from primary elections compete in general elections. California, Washington State, Alaska, Nebraska and Louisiana already have such a system. Others support ranked choice voting, already adopted in 23 jurisdictions.

In Florida, for all the mainstream media talk of Latinos shifting their loyalties to the Republican Party after Trump made gains among Latino voters in Arizona, Texas and Florida in 2020, the data on independents present a less certain picture. According to the Florida Department of State’s October 2020 voter registration records, 36.5 percent of Latinos in the state registered as a third-party member or unaffiliated, behind Democrats and well ahead of Republicans. Data from earlier this year show independents now make up 28.7 percent of all registered voters statewide. If this trend continues, the state’s independent and third-party voters will exceed Republicans and Democrats by 2035.

Jose Torres, who is 65 years old, identifies as Hispanic, and lives in Jacksonville, Florida, begrudgingly voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, Andrew Gillum for governor in 2018 and Biden for president in 2020. Torres describes himself as economically conservative and socially liberal. He identifies as an independent and advocates for open primary elections in Florida because he is tired of having to vote for the “lesser of two evils.”

“The Democrats have taken Hispanic voters for granted for 20 years. We are not monolithic,” Torres told Truthout.

Torres says that Republicans were able to use anti-communist rhetoric to make gains among Cubans in South Florida. Even though he doesn’t buy into this rhetoric, Torres says that the Democratic Party has also failed to address issues of concern to him: high prescription drug prices, stagnant state minimum wages and climate change, citing rising sea levels that threaten to immerse parts of Miami two feet underwater within the next 40 years.

Projected numbers of Florida voters by party registration from 2020-2035
Projected numbers of Florida voters by party registration from 2020-2035

Young first-generation Latino-American voters have even less affiliation to either of the major parties. According to the Open Primaries Education Fund report, 60 percent of Latinos in the U.S. are under the age of 35 and over 50 percent of Latino millennials are independents.

Dariel Cruz Rodriguez, currently a 17-year-old senior at Colonial High School in Orlando, Florida, will vote for the first time this year. Rodriguez identifies as an independent. He said he will probably vote for Democrats this year, because of the state’s Republican-dominated legislature’s efforts to restrict voting rights, but he is also frustrated with the Democrats and the Biden administration.

“I supported Joe Biden, mainly because I wanted to get the other guy out. But Biden made a lot of promises on the campaign trail, and failed to follow through with a lot of them, especially on student loan forgiveness, which is really important to me and a lot of my other classmates,” Rodriguez told Truthout.

Besides student loan forgiveness, Rodriguez wants to see the government address climate change and improve public transit. He also opposes Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which recently passed the State House Legislature.

“Politicians are using Florida’s children and students as playing cards in the state legislature,” Rodriguez said.

Originally from the city of Ludowici in southern Georgia, Ron Dumas, a 23-year-old Black man, is currently finishing up his bachelor’s degree at the University of North Carolina in Asheville. He is majoring in ethics because, as he states, “I care about what is right.”

Dumas describes his hometown in Georgia as lacking in educational opportunities and job mobility: “I always say that there’s just a gas station and a high school in Ludowici.” Ludowici, with a population of 2,442, according to 2020 census figures, is 56 percent white and 36 percent African American, and votes largely conservative. Dumas says the Democrats “abandoned the community when they believed they couldn’t compete for the vote.”

Dumas’s mom is a medical assistant and his stepfather a veteran and truck driver. He recalls being 9 years old when his mom allowed him to stay up late to watch Barack Obama’s 2008 inauguration ceremony. It was the first time his parents had ever voted — his mom told him she didn’t vote in 2004 because “it would not have mattered.”

Dumas voted for the first time in 2020, supporting Bernie Sanders in the primaries. He noted that there was less excitement among his peers when Biden had become the Democratic nominee.

Dumas’s and Rodriguez’s sentiments echo the findings of a September 2020 survey conducted by Politico among Gen Z voters. Almost half of the Gen Z respondents reported they voted more against Trump, rather than for Biden. Forty-two percent of the poll’s Gen Z respondents identify as independent, 39 percent as Democrats and 20 percent as Republican.

“There is a consensus that people are tired of polarization and tired of the sort of politics where you’re always voting against something and never for something,” Dumas said. He wants to see Biden follow through with his promises on voting rights legislation, affordable health care, affordable child care, affordable housing and passing the Build Back Better plan.

While on the campaign trail, Biden ignited backlash and had to apologize to Black voters when he said, “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me, or Trump, then you ain’t Black.” But more than a quarter of Black voters registered as independent and may be looking for an alternative to both major parties. Since last April, the president’s approval rating has declined from 83 percent to 64 percent among Black voters.

Like Dumas, Jarrell Corley, a 35-year-old Black man, emphasizes that Black voters are not a monolith and that there are more than two sides to an issue.

Corley identifies as an independent because he says he is tired of seeing nothing change for the Black community under Republican or Democratic administrations. He voted for Clinton in 2016, but did not vote in the 2020 presidential election, saying, “There was no point in voting. I didn’t have a dog in the fight.”

Corley is originally from Chicago. He cites that in most urban centers with large Black populations, local governments are dominated by the Democrats, but conditions, including displacement and police brutality, are getting worse.

“The only reason Black people don’t feel comfortable voting for Republicans is because the Democrats are a mouthpiece for the issues of Black people. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything is getting done,” Corley told Truthout. “If you look into all these major cities run by Democrats, what’s going on? Gentrification. They’re displacing poor, marginalized groups of people for new high economic development. So you may talk about progress and police brutality and all these issues, but what are you really doing? It’s all a facade. Using Black tragedy as a means to galvanize power.”

At the University of Wisconsin (UW) in Madison, Sam Clayton, a 21-year-old white student, studies horticulture. Clayton is nonbinary, using they/them pronouns, and is the treasurer of the campus’s chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America. Clayton recently led the UW-Madison local chapter to work with other organizations to stop a city attempt to shut down homeless encampments in Madison’s Reindahl Park and instead helped push the city to use federal COVID relief money to construct shelters there instead.

Clayton said they voted for Biden in 2020 out of “duress” and with “no excitement,” and has not seen any improvement in their material conditions.

Millennials were reported to be the first generation to do worse economically than their parents, a trend that has continued for Gen Z as housing and college costs soar. Clayton describes how their parents paid off college expenses and bought their first home by the time they were in their 20s. “It’s generally hard for young people to imagine a good future. And the Democrats don’t inspire much confidence in anything other than the status quo,” Clayton said. “The Democrats rely on this assumption that because they’re using progressive language, that’ll translate into youth voters. But more and more people that I talk to, even folks who are not politically inclined, don’t like what’s going on. The phrase ‘settled’ encompasses how people feel about voting for Democrats.”

While Politico reported that young voters are less likely than registered voters of all other age groups to consider voting impactful, they are just as likely to believe they can affect politics and political affairs. Young voters are more likely to support protests than older voters. Millennial and Gen Z voters interviewed for this article expressed a distrust of the government to address the country’s problems, and believe they must rely on their communities instead.

Clayton is worried about rising temperatures, housing prices, utility bills and student loans. As a nonbinary person, they do not feel they would be safe under a Republican administration, but believes that the Democrats may lose in 2022 and even in 2024 because young people are not relying on the electoral system to affect change.

“I think the Democrats have done a very good job of turning young people off from voting because they haven’t done much for us,” said Clayton. “But there is an increase in people’s political militancy and political agitation in terms of protesting, not necessarily just at the ballot box.”

In Pennsylvania, which holds closed presidential, congressional and state primaries, several bills to open up primary elections have stalled in the state government. According to January 2022 voter registration data from the Pennsylvania Department of State, 14.8 percent of voters registered as unaffiliated or “other.”

Third-party or independent candidates lack access to voter rolls and funding that the two major parties have. Furthermore, they often face legal challenges from the two parties who fear a third-party candidate will draw voters away from them or “spoil” their race.

Matt Nemeth, a 27-year-old white man and chair of the Green Party Allegheny chapter in Pennsylvania, regrets his vote for Clinton in 2016 and expresses frustration with the argument that their members are “spoiling” the vote, as both Clinton and Trump “serve private interests.”

Nemeth’s parents voted for Trump twice because he promised to bring manufacturing jobs back to Pennsylvania. Nemeth, on the other hand, says that manufacturing jobs should not come at the cost of corporate accountability and clean air, a promise he believes that both Democrats and Republicans have not delivered on.

Last year, U.S. Steel canceled plans for a $1.5 billion upgrade to bring three plants in Pennsylvania’s Monongahela Valley up to health department regulations. The regulations were implemented after two fires erupted, releasing benzene and hydrogen sulfide into the air and causing asthma-related emergency visits among residents. While the plants currently remain idle, U.S. Steel is challenging the Allegheny Health Department’s regulations.

“Both parties made promises that they don’t want to keep or can’t keep, and then every four years, we switch to another party, and the cycle repeats,” Nemeth told Truthout.

If the voices of this growing group of independents and third-party voters are excluded or unheeded, it could spell further volatility in our elections in the coming years.

In Chattanooga, Tennessee, independent Amber Hysell, a 37-year-old white woman, is making another bid for a seat in the state’s 3rd Congressional District. Hysell is a working mom still paying off student loans for a college accounting degree she was unable to finish when her financial aid ran out with only two classes left to take. For much of her adult life, she worked graveyard shifts in service and retail jobs so that she could have time to spend with her child during the day.

Fed up with issues of concern to her being overlooked — wealth inequality, child care, health care, underfunded schools and affordable housing — Hysell decided to run for Congress. When she was courted by the Hamilton County Democrats in 2020, she was given a Democratic strategy book from the 1970s.

“The way they described how a campaign is supposed to work, it made me feel like they didn’t realize they were in Tennessee, that they were just incredibly out of touch with the problems in this district and in this state. It really did not seem to me to have an actual plan or the actual desire to win down here,” Hysell told Truthout.

As an independent, Hysell doesn’t automatically get access to voter contact information or funding sources as candidates from the two major parties do. But when asked why she was bothering to run when there were so many hurdles, Hysell replies: “Life is going to be difficult for the next generation. We’re not addressing climate change. We’re not addressing inequality in any meaningful way. Republicans and Democrats are two sides of the same coin and neither one of them is paying the bills. They have created a system that blockades anyone who doesn’t fall on one side or the other. And the best thing that I can do for my kid is do whatever I can to change that outcome.”