Young voters ages 18 to 24 are more likely to register as independents (officially called “decline to state”) or with a minor party than to affiliate with the Democratic or Republican parties, according to New Mexico voter registration data.
“Evidently, the things that drew older folks to becoming Democrat or Republican just don’t ring a bell anymore for younger adults,” said political analyst Brian Sanderoff, president of Research & Polling Inc.
Those young voters are the smallest age group of voter registrations in New Mexico, accounting for fewer than 12 percent of the state’s 1.27 million registered voters.
But political analysts say the preference of young voters for registering outside the two major parties is a sign of changing attitudes about national political discourse dominated in recent years by partisanship and gridlock.
And the trend could mean that as the more independent-leaning generation gets older and more engaged with the political process, New Mexico’s proportion of independent and minor-party voters – currently 22 percent of total registrations – will continue to increase, eroding the influence of the major parties.
Katrina Edelmann, 24, said in an interview on the University of New Mexico campus that even though being an independent voter in New Mexico means she can’t participate in primary elections, the option to not commit to a Republican or Democratic identity is worth the primary exclusion.
“It’s kind of the anti-partisanship ideal,” Edelmann said of her independent registration.
In New Mexico, 38 percent of voters ages 18 to 24 either have registered as decline-to-state voters – otherwise known as independents – or as members of a minor party, according to the most recent voter data compiled by Research & Polling Inc.
Among that youngest age group, 36 percent registered as Democrats and 25 percent registered as Republicans, according to the data.
The older the voters in New Mexico, the less likely they are to register as independents, according to the data.
The oldest voters, those ages 65 and older, were about one-third as likely to register as an independents or minor-party members. Just 12 percent of registered voters 65 and over steered away from the major parties.
“Being an independent was hardly a consideration for the older generation,” Sanderoff said. “But now, young people find it very viable, and in fact the plurality choose it as the registration of choice.”
Sanderoff said young voters who are observing routine conflict between Republicans and Democrats in national politics react by not wanting to be tied to either side.
Young voters’ views
Edelman and other young, independent voters interviewed by the Journal on the UNM campus last week explained their thinking.
They said their perception that the major parties require an “all-or-nothing” buy-in from supporters doesn’t leave enough room to disagree with the parties’ platforms.
“I don’t see why you shouldn’t be able to pick and choose where you stand on individual issues, why you should align yourself with a party,” said independent voter Kinsey Steuterman, 21.
Steuterman said she tends to agree with Democrats on issues “most of the time,” but said that’s not sufficient to warrant identifying herself as a Democrat.
“Most of the time isn’t good enough,” she said. “Why use a label if the label is not going to be correct?”
Philip Lafreniere, 22, said he registered as an independent because the all-or-nothing attitude about issues among the major parties’ supporters is too narrow. “It’s almost cult-like, it seems like from an outside perspective,” he said.
“I just don’t like being tied down to a party’s views. … I find myself going back and forth. I’m more so on the side of Republicans on a lot of the economic issues, but I’m a lot on the side of the social issues with the Democrats,” Lafreniere said.
Driven by conflict
UNM political science professor Gabriel Sanchez said the increase in independent registration among the youngest voters is in line with national trends that show younger voters bucking major party affiliation.
Sanchez said young voters are likely turned off from major-party affiliations because of the perception that conflict between the major parties is leading to inaction at both the federal and state levels.
That perception of conflict and gridlock wasn’t the norm when earlier generations cast their first ballots.
“I think that young people are likely turned off by the growing polarization between the parties, which they likely view as a main reason for policy inaction in the state and federally,” Sanchez said.
“Remember that these folks are coming of age politically at a time when political institutions such as Congress are at all-time lows in favorability, so they are likely to be very cynical about government, parties and politics more generally.”
An unanswered question about young, independent voters is whether they will be less likely to turn out to vote, as older independent voters have demonstrated in nonpresidential election years, Sanderoff said.
“They get registered, but a lot of them are not voting in nonpresidential elections like the one we’re about to have,” Sanderoff said, referring to the New Mexico general election in November for governor, U.S. senator and other state races. “They do not vote at the same level of their voter registration numbers.”
Sanderoff said independent voters are more likely to be undecided in the final days of an election and to stay home on Election Day instead of reaching a decision on major-party candidates and casting a ballot.
But young voters interviewed by the Journal rejected that generalization, saying their unwillingness to affiliate with a party doesn’t mean they’re not paying attention to candidates or plan on sitting out.
Edelmann said she thinks she’s more engaged in the political debate than many of her peers, despite considering herself an independent.
“I’m more involved in the dialogue than most people would be, I think,” she said. “I think the mere fact that I’m against this partisan system shows that.”
Lafreniere said he doesn’t see himself getting so involved in election politics that he’s out volunteering for the candidate he picks, but he said that doesn’t mean he’s not engaged.
“In the actual (act) of voting or not, I don’t think that being an independent makes me any different than if I were registered to either party,” he said.