Election 2016: Year of the independent voter?

Greg Gross
  • In 1960 there were just more than 1,000 independent voters in York County.
  • Their ranks increased to just under 42,000 during the April primary.
  • Some independent voters are hopeful their presidential candidates could gain Democratic and Republican votes this year.

When Jim Lewin registered to vote in the late 1970s, he joined the Republican Party, and he cast his first presidential vote for Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Over the years, though, he became increasingly weary of the party's politics, and about a decade ago he signed up with the Libertarians.

“It’s not that I changed. I think it was the Republican Party that left me. It became far too conservative and far too right-wing for my liking," said Lewin, a bookseller who owns the York Emporium. Joining the Democrats wasn’t an option for Lewin, who was raised by staunch Democrats but believes that party has moved too far to the left.

Lewin is among the voters who don't identify with either of the two major parties and instead joined the ranks of a third party or are not registered with any party. They are commonly described as independent voters, and their numbers have grown by leaps and bounds during the past 56 years.

Growing: In 1960, there were just 1,339 York County voters who were independents. That number has grown to 42,270 — or about 15 percent of all registered voters in the county — as of the end of June, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State. The largest segment of those nonmajor party members, about 32,847, are listed as having no party affiliation.

The number of nonaffiliated and third-party voters in the county peaked in 2008, when there were just shy of 44,000. Currently, Republicans still hold the majority with 139,435 registrants, and Democrats have 99,197, as of June.

Across the state, there are about 1.1 million people who are independents out of 8.3 million registered voters, according to the state data.

But there are likely more independent-minded voters than the numbers show. A Gallup poll from January found that four in 10 American voters, or 42 percent, identified as independents, while 29 percent identified as Democrats and 26 percent as Republicans. The ratio has held steady the last five years.

Libertarians like Lewin make up just a small portion — just over 2,300 — of registered voters in the county, but the party's members are hopeful the polarizing presidential election will draw Republicans and Democrats to their candidate — former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson — on Election Day.

Coveted voters: As in past presidential elections, independent voters are expected to play a big role in November, leaving major-party candidates working extra hard to win their support.

But this year, it could be disenfranchised Democrats and Republicans casting ballots for a third-party candidate.

Jon Price, a history and political science instructor at Penn State York, said Democrats not happy with presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton might cast their votes for a Green Party candidate. Republicans looking for an alternative to Donald Trump could be attracted to Johnson, the Libertarian.

Independent voters last played a major factor in a presidential election in the tight 2000 race when Green Party candidate Ralph Nader received nearly 3 million votes, or nearly 3 percent, Price noted.

Some politicos have theorized Nader, a liberal candidate, took votes from Democratic candidate Al Gore and cost him the Electoral College and the White House. Instead, Republican George W. Bush won the Electoral College and the presidency even though Gore won the popular vote.

The impact of a third-party candidate on a presidential election has since been dubbed the Nader Effect.

If a third-party candidate for president receives 5 percent of the vote, the party would start receiving a portion of federally distributed public funds in the next election.

Former Republican-now-Libertarian Ryan Griffin, 32, of Red Lion, said he's hopeful Johnson could pull that off this year, laying the foundation for Libertarians to make inroads at all levels of government.

"I think it's a matter of time before third parties become more powerful," he said.

However, Price said third parties face an uphill battle, and he doesn't believe any will secure the coveted 5 percent of the vote this year. Third parties usually only rise to power from within an established party, such as when the Republican Party was born out of the Whig Party in the 1850s.

York College's Young Republican Club renamed itself the Conservative Forum in an attempt to win over independents who lean toward the right.

Kelly, who was a Democrat, and her husband, Brandon Griffin, who's a former Republican, are registered Libertarians.

Loyal: The independent voters often find themselves left out of the election process because of Pennsylvania's closed primaries. Voters must be registered Democrats or Republicans to cast ballots in primaries. An exception is they can vote on referendums.

Rebecca Robinson joined the Green Party when she turned 18, but she typically switches to the Democrats to vote in primaries. This year, the 29-year-old Windsor Township woman cast her primary vote for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent turned Democrat.

Some Libertarians argued the closed primaries unfairly put third parties at a disadvantage, allowing the Democratic and Republican parties to control politics.

Though some voters registered with third parties switch to Republican or Democrat for primaries, others who don't make the switch see their lack of a primary vote as a protest of sorts.

"If Libertarians can't vote, I don't vote," said Kelly Griffin, a 31-year-old West York resident who described herself as socially liberal but fiscally conservative. She switched from the Democratic Party to the Libertarian Party a few years back.

Kelly Griffin and her husband, Brandon, 35, seemingly came from opposite sides of the political spectrum. He was a Republican for about three years before he registered as a Libertarian more than 10 years ago.

"I registered as a Libertarian because there was too much in the Democrat and Republican platforms that seemed illogical to me," said Brandon Griffin, who is Ryan Griffin's brother.

— Reach Greg Gross at ggross@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @ggrossyd.