Unaffiliated voters can swing elections

Will ‘blanks’ decide election outcomes


This is the fourth story in a series exploring the complexities of elections, to provide a better understanding of one of Americans’ most precious privileges, the right to vote.

The number of unaffiliated voters — people who do not belong to a political party — has been on the rise in recent years, and those voters have sometimes determined the outcomes of elections. In Nassau County, the number of unaffiliated voters, or blanks, as they are called, is almost equal to the number of registered Republicans.

Although there is no space to vote as a blank on a ballot, as there is for a Republican or Democrat, the Nassau County Board of Elections can nonetheless calculate how blanks vote, and what effect they have on a race. Election officials do so by calculating who voted by party affiliation, and by comparing the overall turnout with the number of votes each candidate receives, James Scheuerman, the Democratic commissioner of the Board of Elections, explained.

“It’s more of an art than a science,” Scheuerman said. “The thought is that the Democrats do well on the Democrats and the Republicans do well on the Republicans, and the blank voters go where they go.”

The majority of voters in the 3rd Congressional District, which encompasses the North Shore of Nassau County and parts of Queens, have traditionally been registered Democrats. So when Republican George Santos won the race for Congress in 2022, handily defeating Democrat Robert Zimmerman, political observers were unsure what happened.

“Voters who are unaffiliated can swing elections,” Scheuerman said. “Blanks had an effect on the outcome of the Zimmerman-Santos race.”

It’s important to pay attention to the unaffiliated voters, he added.
According to a 2020 Gallop poll, there are more unaffiliated voters nationwide — 40 percent — than either registered Democrats, who comprise 31 percent, or Republicans, who make up 25 percent.

Why voters register as blanks

Voters often choose to be unaffiliated because they are dissatisfied with politics, so much so that they are discouraged or even angry.

“The problem with blanks is they tend to be non-ideological,” said Bill Biamonte, vice chairman of the Nassau County Democratic Committee. “They only think of what’s best for them because of that anger for who’s in power. In a presidential election, 70 percent of them turn out.”

There are other reasons why voters may choose not to register with either major party.

“People don’t want to register to vote because they think that they’re going to be called for jury duty,” Scheuerman said. “And you never know what these voters are thinking one day to the next. They think if they register blank, they won’t be bothered by petitions or emails soliciting money.”

Unaffiliated voters quickly learn the opposite is true. Both parties spend a great deal of time and money wooing them.

“The parties are looking at the blanks they feel are persuadable,” Scheuerman said. “So in the end, the blanks actually probably end up getting more information from the respective parties that they maybe were trying to avoid.”

Unaffiliated voters cannot vote in primaries in New York, as they can in Arkansas, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Rhode Island, where primaries are open. But Scheuerman said that being barred from voting in a primary may not be important to New York’s blanks, who may only care about voting in general elections.

In presidential years, blanks tend to swing Democratic, Scheuerman added, and in other years “they kind of go with the breeze.”

Some may be interested in seeing political ads before they decide on whom to vote for, or reading analyses of the candidates and their positions, or watching debates.

Michael Berg, of Huntington, has always been an unaffiliated voter. He didn’t vote much in his 20s, he said, but when he turned 30, he started paying more attention to politics.

“I’m an independent, because this way I’m free to do whatever I wish and won’t be influenced by others’ thoughts,” Berg said. “And I don’t care that I can’t vote in a primary.”

Berg said he is dissatisfied with the two parties, but these days he is leaning toward the Democrats. “That’s because they’re human beings who want to solve problems,” he said. “But I’ve voted in the past for Republicans. But now I feel like the GOP say and do outrageous things and get the Democrats angry, and then they say, ‘Look how angry the Democrats are.’”

Berg added he doesn’t disapprove of Republican policies.

The Independence Party of New York

There has been some confusion among unaffiliated voters when registering to vote. Not wanting to register as Republicans or Democrats, many check the box to join the Independence Party of New York, believing they are registering as independents.

But the Independence Party, which gained inclusion on the ballot in 1994, is not for unaffiliated voters. It endorses the major parties’ choices and does not nominate its own candidates.

“There was a lot of confusion when voters thought they were unaffiliated,” Scheuerman said, “but they were registering to be in the Independence Party.”

The confusion ended in March 2022, when the party lost its ballot-qualified status.
New York’s voter registration form gives people the option to check a box that says, “I do not wish to enroll in a party,” which allows unaffiliated voters to participate in elections other than primaries.

Who are the unaffiliated voters?

Blanks often lean Republican nationally, but in 2006 they joined Democrats, voting against President George W. Bush in a midterm election. They also supported President Barack Obama in 2008, but two years later, they favored Republicans in the next midterm election, giving them control of the House of Representatives.

A Gallop poll conducted in March 2023 found that 49 percent of Americans see themselves as politically independent, which would mean that unaffiliated voters, rather than Republicans or Democrats, are in the majority.

Gallup analyst Jeff Jones attributed the rise in blanks to young voters.

“It was never unusual for younger adults to have higher percentages of independents than older adults,” Jones said. “What is unusual is that as Gen X and millennials get older, they are staying independent rather than picking a party, as older generations tended to do.”