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More New Yorkers reject political party labels, becoming second largest voter group

Jonathan Rudes, president of Delphi Real Estate Advisors,

Jonathan Rudes, president of Delphi Real Estate Advisors, at his Woodbury home. Credit: Johnny Milano

ALBANY — Amid the partisan rancor between Democrats and Republicans in the 2020 general election were more than 3 million New Yorkers who declined to sign up with either major party and quietly became the state’s second largest group of voters.

The number of independents who registered to vote but did not enroll in any political party reached 3.03 million voters in New York, or 22% of all voters, according to figures released Nov. 1 by the state Board of Elections. Republicans, had 2.97 million voters or 21% of all registered voters, and there were 6.81 million Democrats, or 50% of registered voters.

Nationwide, 34% of registered voters identify as independents, although most "lean" toward one party, according to the Pew Research Center. That compares with 33% of voters who identify as Democrats and 29% as Republicans.

"They dislike the bickering and they don't want to be associated with political fights," Yanna Krupnikov, a political science professor at Stony Brook University, said of nonaligned voters. "They don’t like ‘partisanship’ as an idea."

Krupnikov, co-author of "Independent Politics: How American Disdain for Parties Leads to Political Inaction, said there are "some people who genuinely don't have a clear preference for a particular party. There are some people who do have a preference for a party but perceive themselves to be independent. There is also likely a group of people who … no longer feel good about their own party, but don't really support the other party either."

Jonathan Rudes, 66, a real estate executive from Woodbury, calls himself "100%" independent.

"I used to vote for basically all the Republicans. Then you had the scandals," Rudes said, referring to a series of corruption-related cases against officials including former Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano. "I started saying, ‘Wait a second, why don’t we vote for Democrats?’"

But he hasn't enrolled as a Democrat, either. He says he casts his ballots based on a candidate’s stand on issues most important to him, such as bringing jobs to Long Island and health care.

"I don’t really care if it’s a Democrat or a Republican," said Rudes. "I know there are certain benefits being able to vote in a primary, but I kind of like the idea of being an independent."

The impact of independents such as Rudes has been clear this year.

A CBS News exit poll found Democrat Joe Biden captured 14% more independents than Republican President Donald Trump this year.

In 2016, Trump won the presidency aided by a 4% edge among nonaligned voters.

In New York, the count so far shows independents outnumbering Republican voters in some of the closest state legislative races.

In Suffolk County, there are 308,974 independents compared with 390,128 Democrats and 347,250 Republicans, according to registration data.

In Nassau, there are 271,238 nonaligned voters, 431,605 registered Democrats and 335,125 Republicans.

In the last decade in both counties, more than 50,000 voters joined the ranks of voters without party affiliations.

Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies, said proof of the rise of independents is clear from campaign lawn signs — particularly what's missing from them.

"Think how hard it is to find the party label on a campaign lawn sign or even billboard," said Levy. "It’s kind of ironic, in these divisive times, that candidates are going after the most prized swing voters by putting as much distance as they can between themselves and the parties that nurtured them."

The divide on Long Island was clear this election when Trump won Suffolk County by 232 votes out of more than 726,000 cast, and Biden won Nassau by 69,788 votes out of more than 723,000 cast.

Independents "would rather focus on the merits of the people, not the party," Levy said.

Levy and other experts said enrollment figures actually may understate the number of "blank" voters. A significant portion of the 481,530 Independence Party members statewide may have thought they were registering as independent voters, the experts said.

Demographics play a role, too.

"Party, for younger people, is less relevant," said Lee Mirignoff, a political science professor and director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie. "They are more interested in some policy issue and are not interested in the party politics that is the bickering and stalemate of government."

Unaffiliated voters are a major force in suburban and upstate races where election districts are more closely divided between the two major parties, said Bruce Gyory, a Democratic political strategist in Albany who studies voting trends.

"This year the independents swung against Trump sharply, if exit polls are to be believed, and narrowly against Republicans locally," Gyory said.

"The Republican registration shares have declined to the point that in suburban towns, upstate as well as downstate like on Long Island, the Republicans need to win independents by a large margin, as if it were a part of their base," Gyory said.

This year, Republicans held most of their 10 open State Senate seats. Nonetheless, Senate Democrats posted a net gain of three seats to seal a veto-proof supermajority even as Democratic Sen. Monica Martinez of Brentwood lost to Islip's Alexis Weik in the 3rd Senate District, according to final vote tallies released Dec. 3.

The state Republican Committee didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Despite the growing number of nonaligned voters, it's unclear whether their influence at the polls will close sharp partisan divisions in government, Miringoff said.

"It’s a stalemate in the gulf between problems and solutions," Miringoff said. "Right now, we are way ahead on problems and nowhere near solutions."

He noted that, "people are getting mixed messages from government on something as simple as wearing a mask."

New York is one of just nine states that still holds closed primaries in which only party members can participate.

That can encourage election of partisans, who often lean to the far left or right, experts said. That can make across-the-aisle cooperation more difficult, feeding frustration among voters in the middle, the experts said.

"In theory, these people could get behind messages that try to go beyond partisanship and political bickering," Krupnikov said.

"But once we move away from these general terms and go to political issues, it would be difficult to find issue positions that unify this very politically heterogenous group," Krupnikov said.

Also, she said, independents often don't have the zeal of partisans for the grassroots organizing necessary to change government systems.

State Sen. James Gaughran (D-Northport) experienced the effects of the rising tide of independents this election.

On Election Day, Nov. 3, Gaughran was down by 13,842 votes to Republican Edmund Smyth as Democrats tried to hold onto the 5th Senate District seat that was safely in Republican hands for 70 years.

Gaughran eventually won the district by 13,953 votes with the help of 70,474 independent voters.

"These voters, they are a major, major force," Gaughran said.

"It should be a signal to all of us that partisanship for the sake of partisanship in government is not something that makes sense when you are trying to solve all the problems," Gaughran said. "We need to work with everybody."

RISE OF THE 'BLANKS'

The number of voters in New York who are not enrolled in a political party has risen by more than 1 million since 2000, according to state Board of Elections records of presidential election years. The rise includes:

  • Nov. 1, 2020: Independent or “blank” voters increased to 3,030,914 voters compared to 6,811,659 enrolled Democrats and 2,965,451 enrolled Republicans.
  • Nov. 1, 2016: Independent voters totaled 2,720,139 voters compared to 6,179,734 Democrats and 2,839,704 Republicans.
  • Nov. 1, 2012: Independent voters totaled 2,480,766 voters compared to 5,913,035 Democrats and 2,873,360 Republicans.
  • Nov. 1, 2008: Independent voters totaled 2,523,694 voters compared to 5,831,445 Democrats and 3,054,520 Republicans.
  • Nov. 1, 2004: Independent voters totaled 2,414,309 voters compared to 5,534,574 Democrats and 3,209,082 Republicans.

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