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Voter Registration Trends, May 2010


Trends in party voter registration since the 2008 presidential election suggest that a small, but perhaps meaningful, number of registered voters are abandoning the major political parties in favor of minor political parties or are forswearing any party affiliation.

Twenty-eight states, plus the District of Columbia, allow persons to register with a political party. Among these states, the reported number of registered voters has declined by 2.6 million or 2.6% since the November 4, 2008 presidential election. This decline is expected. Election administrators remove people who have moved from their address or are otherwise no longer eligible. Absent an interesting election to stimulate new registrations, the voter rolls are not replenished as fast as they are purged of these defunct registrations.

McDonald National Party Registration Table.jpg
The Democratic Party has experienced a slightly greater absolute loss in the number of party registrations, at 1.2 million, compared to the Republican Party, at 1.1 million. However, since there are considerably more registered Democrats (a partial consequence of the universe of states that permit party voter registration, see the state numbers below) the percentage loss since 2008 of 3.5% is greater for Republicans than the 2.7% loss for the Democrats.

The number of persons registering with a minor party is actually increasing, by 52,810 or 2.4%. Further, although the number of those unaffiliated with a political party is decreasing, the pace of this decrease of 389K or 1.6% is less than that of the major political parties.

America is a long way from having a viable multi-party system at the federal level, like we are currently witnessing in the United Kingdom. However, these trends are consistent with the notion that some American voters are willing to express their frustration with the major parties by registering with a minor political party or affiliating with no party. Indeed, the increase in unaffiliated registrations is a long-term phenomenon observed since the 1970s.

Now, it should be noted that those who self-identify as "unaffiliated" tend to align themselves with a political party at the polling booth. But, this begs a question that scholars of political behavior have not adequately addressed, which is why these independents act like partisans but do not want to associate themselves with a party. Registration-based sample surveys could be used to address this by asking probing question of unaffiliated registrants. I hope that this is a research agenda someone would be interested in exploring.

Returning to the increase in minor party registrations, as discussed in Paul Herrnson and John C. Green's edited volume Multiparty Politics in America, people who identify with minor political parties tend to be more sophisticated than those who are unaffiliated with any political party. These people tend vote and volunteer for campaigns more often than the general public. Their absence from the major political parties may adversely affect major candidate campaigns, particularly where a minor party candidate is on the ballot.

This is not simply a Tea Party movement. There are a number of different minor political parties that range across the entire ideological spectrum. For example, in Maine the only state-recognized minor party is the Green Party, which has seen an increase of 8,790 or 34.1% since the 2008 presidential election. In North Carolina the only state-recognized minor party is the Libertarian Party, which has seen an increase of 3,685 or 101.3%. Maryland may demonstrate how this trend is an expression of frustration. The increase of 21,167 or 29.2% is entirely among the 23,897 new registrations with the Maryland Independent Party. A check of the Maryland Independent Party website shows little activity to account for a grassroots groundswell that trebled the party's support.

There are a number of interesting trends worthy of mention among the state statistics. In the two states where voter registration increased, Delaware and Colorado, only the number of registered Republicans decreased. The Colorado trend may be worthy to watch in the coming months since statewide elections are expected to be competitive. The only states where Republican registration increased are Louisiana and New Jersey. In 2009, New Jersey Republican Gov. Christie won a closely-watched election and Louisiana held some state and local elections. This suggests that Republican registration may yet recover during the fall 2010 elections as the campaigns gear up.

McDonald State Party Registration Table.jpg
Now, for some data notes. In the state table, I note the date of the most recent voter registration report from each state. In some cases these reports are quite recent, while for a few the last report may have been for a fall 2009 election. I report active plus inactive registration statistics, where available. Inactive registrations are people who have not voted recently, but because they are registered to vote, I have chosen to include them. There are eight states that do not have statistics for minor party registration, because the state did not provide separate statistics for minor party and unaffiliated registrants in 2008 or their current report. Among these states, the unaffiliated registration tend to be either increasing or is not experiencing as steep of a decline as the major parties, suggesting that minor party activity is hidden within these numbers.

Finally, some caveats. Partisan registration is not a perfect measure of the state of national partisanship for several reasons. We cannot know from these statistics what is happening in the twenty-two states that do not have party registration. People who identify themselves with a political party in surveys may not register with a party because they do not intend to vote in primaries. They may wish to vote in another party's primary because that party dominates in the general election and they want to cast a more meaningful vote in that party's primary. They may not run out and change their party registration whenever they change their party self-identification. Despite these limitations, none satisfactory explain why we would observe an increase in minor party registrations and, in my opinion, do not adequately explain why unaffiliated registrations would show less of a decline than major party registrations.

 

Comments
Brian Bittner:

As a Maryland resident and third-party activist, I contend that the growth of the Maryland Independent Party is not due to any measurable political trend except that Marylanders believe that they are registering as “independent” voters, not as a member of an “Independent Party”. Maryland ballots have an “unaffiliated” option meant for voters to check if they do not wish to affiliate with a political party. But voters check the “Independent” box instead, not knowing that they are affiliating with a party. There is no organized "Independent Party" in Maryland.

The Maryland Independent Party website linked to in the article is not the political organization recognized by the state as the "Independent Party". The organization recognized by the Maryland Board of Elections was formed by Ralph Nader's 2008 Presidential campaign. He chose the "Independent Party" name in Maryland and several others states. Although he and his supporters have not been organizing campaigns in Maryland since that election, the party continues to grow for the reason above.

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Michael - this is great stuff. Have you considered making the table available for download? Either as an Excel file or as a Google Spreadsheet?

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Tyler:

@ Brian - The Maryland State Board of Election's site duly notes that the "Independent Party" is in fact a state recognized party, and is affiliated (via the party website itself) with Alan Keyes and is currently active.

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I wonder why the chart doesn't include Utah, which has had party registration for over 10 years now.

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