Amid partisan acrimony, independent voters on the rise in Maryland

Maryland's independent voters are the fastest-growing political bloc in the state, a trend expected to accelerate after a polarizing contest between two of the most unpopular presidential candidates in U.S. history.

Voters across the country, especially millennials, have increasingly opted out of the two-party system. Maryland has twice as many unaffiliated voters as it did 15 years ago, and the rate of attrition from major parties is growing.


"This election cycle has taken on the embodiment of everything that is negative about politics and campaigning," said Matt Forman, 46, a software tester and lifelong Democrat who recently joined Maryland's 754,969 independent voters.

"You're being told that these are the best two options the American people have to offer, when in all seriousness, it's not," said Lance McGregor, a 28-year-old father who lives in Anne Arundel County. He also recently left the Democratic Party.


Democrats on voter rolls still dwarf Republicans and independents in Maryland, outnumbering each by more than 2-1. But since 2008, the legion of unaffiliated voters has grown 46 percent, a rate more than three times that of either major political party.

A Baltimore Sun analysis of voter registration data found these voters are younger and more likely to be male than the rest of the Maryland electorate. The ZIP codes with the highest concentrations of independent voters are clustered around college campuses and near military installations.

More than 35 percent of the independent voters are millennials, under 34 years old. That key demographic — a population roughly as big as the baby boomers — makes up less than 28 percent of registered Democrats and less than 24 percent of registered Republicans.

"That really represents a fundamental shift in how young people engage in politics," said Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College.

"Young people today engage around causes," she said, citing the Black Lives Matter movement. "They're certainly ideological, but they're not necessarily partisan."

The trend may be accelerated by acrimony in the presidential race, but it is unlikely to affect the outcome of the race in Maryland. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton leads Republican Donald Trump here by more than 30 percentage points, according to an average of recent public polls by Real Clear Politics.

But it could have a meaningful effect on the cost and tone of future elections.

Political analysts say the rise of unaffiliated voters means more people are disenfranchised from primary elections, which are often the most contested races in an election season. In Maryland, independent voters can't vote in a primary. Three years ago, the Maryland Republican Party weighed but rejected a move to expand its primary to include independents.


The shift could mean that campaigns will be more costly — increasing the influence of money in politics — because candidates can't rely on partisanship to easily identify their likely supporters.

"Younger folks are turned off by what they see as toxicity," said Chris Cooper, founder of the political consulting group Convergence Targeted Communications. Cooper's company worked with a lot of younger, unaffiliated voters during Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' insurgent Democratic primary campaign.

In Maryland, where Democrats in places such as Baltimore outnumber Republicans 10-1, Democratic primaries historically decide the next mayor of Baltimore, most congressional seats, many state legislative districts and, until recently, control of the governor's mansion.

Cooper said that, as many Sanders supporters discovered, an independent is "locked out of most of the races that really elect your officials."

Nick Bonadio, 32, was raised in a Democratic household. He lived in Baltimore and registered as an independent at 18, even though he knew he wouldn't have a voice in city politics. He sees the party system as causing partisan gridlock, and he refuses to even tacitly endorse it.

"It's all too easy to be told what to think by the party you identify with and the cable news outlet that reinforces that platform," said Bonadio, an attorney. "Much easier than coming up with your own position on something and learning to defend it with civility.


"People would rather surround themselves with those that agree with them and dismissively shout down those that don't."

Although these younger independents are rejecting a brand, they're not necessarily swing voters.

Tiffany Davenport is an expert on political behavior at the U.S. Naval Academy. She said more people are declaring themselves independent, but many are actually voting along a party line.

"More people that claim to be unaffiliated tend to lean Democratic," Davenport said.

While many independents are registering to vote for the first time, tens of thousands in Maryland are abandoning a political party each year.

According to an analysis of voter registration records by L2, a national voter research company, 22,438 Maryland voters switched from a major political party to independent status in 2014. In 2016, about 24,052 did.


Both major political parties appear to be losing voters to independence, though a greater proportion of Republicans have left. According to the Maryland State Board of Elections, the Democratic Party has lost 62,519 voters to the ranks of the unaffiliated since Jan. 1, 2012. The Republican Party has lost 42,722 in that time.

Most people view party politics from a national perspective, even if their local officials are more moderate, analysts said.

"When people look at the two parties, they see a very, very conservative party, and a pretty doggone liberal party, and they're not satisfied with either choice," said Donald F. Norris, director of the school of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Historically, those independent voters are less likely to show up on Election Day, Norris said. And though many lean toward one party or another, it's more difficult for campaigns to identify which of them might lean their way.

"It makes Republicans and Democrats have to work a lot harder to win elections," Norris said. "It makes them work harder to appeal to people who aren't part of their base."

Independent voter Joshua Meloney thinks that's exactly what contemporary politics needs.


To watch Republicans defend Trump's controversial comments or Democrats play down Clinton's shortcomings is "mind-boggling" to Meloney, a 34-year-old from Anne Arundel County who works in marketing.

He thinks many people who "promise to always vote for one party" are predisposed to overlook negative information about their candidates and toe the party line rather than thinking critically about issues. That party-first mentality, he said, makes it hard to compromise after ideas get branded as "Republican" or "Democrat."

"People become blinded by their party and party allegiance," Meloney said. "For me, it was always a matter of you go in with an open mind. You listen to what a campaign says, and you evaluate what you think is best and what you agree with."

Meloney grew up in a conservative area of southern Delaware, with parents who came from a long line of Republicans but occasionally crossed party lines.

At 18, then at the leading edge of what would later be dubbed the millennial generation, Meloney registered as an independent.

John Willis, executive in residence at the University of Baltimore's School of Public and International Affairs, has analyzed voter registration trends. He said part of the rise of independent voters — at least in Maryland — is driven by its large federal workforce. He said many such workers are not permitted to openly participate in partisan activities.

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Willis expects more voters to decide to be unaffiliated, but said the sheer volume of Maryland's 2.1 million Democrats means the trend is unlikely to affect a political outcome anytime soon. Independents may be growing more quickly, but there are only about 750,000 of them and about 1 million Republicans.

"The absolute margin between Republicans and Democrats is the largest it's ever been," Willis said.

Michael Brooks, 29, hopes that if enough like-minded people abandon the party system, primaries might be opened to unaffiliated voters.

"Of the people who were seeking the nomination, they picked the two worst possible people in each party," said Brooks, an editor from Potomac. He is "pretty sure" he will vote for Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson for president — "even though he's a buffoon, just as a protest."

Baltimore Sun interactive designer Jin Kim contributed to this article.