While a majority of voters in the United States identify as either Republican or Democrat -- the two major political parties -- a growing number of voters see themselves as independent or unaffiliated with any party.
“Personally, I've never really felt either major party represents my interest,” Ellen Moorhouse, who identifies as an independent voter, told VOA.
Moorhouse, 30, is deputy communications director at RepresentUs, a political and government reform advocacy group which aims to reduce corruption and gridlock. Thirty-five percent of Americans under the age of 30 say they are independent or unaffiliated, according to the Spring 2020 Harvard Youth Poll.
Independent Voting is one organization that connects independent voters in an effort to build a network and a movement to reform the electoral process. The group’s mission has changed significantly since its formation in the 1990s, moving away from a focus on alternative political parties.
“We made a shift at that point away from a party building orientation to what you might call a voter empowerment orientation,” Jackie Salit, president of the organization, told VOA, noting that independent voters want to vote “for the person, not the party.”
“They want to be involved in the issue, not the ideology,” Salit said.
In 2018, a poll by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, found that just over half of voters (56%) between the ages of 18 and 24 were affiliated with the Republican or Democratic party.
Moorhouse grew up in Massachusetts in a conservative Republican family. She said she was raised with views informed by a desire for less government regulation, but that the idea of taking the government “out of my bedroom” has actually shaped her philosophy as an independent.
“If we're talking about liberty and choice, you know, then it's your choice to own a gun and it's my choice to get an abortion,” Moorhouse said. “No matter how polarizing the issues, the true heart of it is liberty, and you don't get to then hand pick which choice isn't right.”
Corley, an independent voter who asked to be referred to by his last name, was raised by lifelong Democrats. He said he thinks identity politics have led him and his friends to believe they’re Democrats, too. However, a few years ago, when they did an exercise listing various issues and values on a whiteboard, he realized he may be more of a Republican.
“We’ve been tricked,” he remembered thinking.
Corley went back and conducted the exercise with his parents.
“I said ‘Mom, you’re a Republican -- you just vote Democrat!’” he recounted.
But as many as 81% of independent voters tend to lean toward one major party over the other when faced with only those two options, according to Pew research.
Data from the 2018 CIRCLE study shows that of young independents who said they are “very likely” to vote, many of them (40%) favor a Democratic candidate.
But those voters still say it is important to them to be registered as an independent.
“Even if I walk into my polling place and select a Democrat ballot every time, I think registering as unaffiliated is an acknowledgment that the Democratic Party doesn’t really represent me [and a lot of younger voters] because, in practice, they aren’t progressive enough,” Copeland, a student at Appalachian University in North Carolina, told VOA via a Twitter message.
North Carolina is one of nine states in the United States with semi-closed primaries -- which means that unaffiliated voters may choose to vote either in Democratic or Republican primaries, but those affiliated with a certain party can only vote in that party’s primary.
The rest of U.S. states and the District of Columbia have a range of primary options, from open (where voters can cast ballots across party lines) to closed (where only voters registered with one of the two major parties can vote in that primary).
Many voting rights groups say closed primaries are a kind of voter suppression, and have led to independent voter organizations and advocates to call on more states to change their systems.
“The Constitution gives us a right to vote. It doesn't say the right to vote only when you register in a party,” Javier Luque, an independent voter in New Jersey, told VOA. “No, it means the right to vote means the right to vote, and something has to be done.”
Many voters like Luque identify as independent voters because they say they’ve been disenfranchised by the system in recent election cycles. In particular, those who watched as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders twice ran for, and lost, the Democratic presidential nomination were disappointed.
Sanders campaigned on many of the issues that top the list of concerns, especially during a pandemic, for voters under the age of 30.
“Things like ‘Medicare For All,’ universal basic income, reforms to rent and mortgage that would prevent people from losing their homes or being evicted,” Luque said.
“I'm young, I have a lot of student debt,” Moorhouse said.
“Policing and access to education,” Copeland wrote.
And for all of them, voter rights and election reform.
“We feel like we're independent, neither major party represents our interests or our futures. How can we fix that structurally so that we can get those people in the pipeline so that, ultimately, our public servants and elected officials represent us?” Moorhouse asked.
“In a more desirable, functional political system, there would be more freedom to vote outside your party and doing so wouldn’t risk electing a candidate you don’t want,” Copeland wrote.