Shauna Blaylock describes herself as a libertarian on economic issues and a liberal on social and cultural issues. A registered Republican in 2018, she switched to unaffiliated in 2020, saying she didn’t feel at home in either major party.
Bryce Masse is a Bernie Sanders supporter disillusioned by the “underhanded and distasteful” conduct of the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, which he said was the last straw that led him to leave the Democratic Party and register unaffiliated.
Blaylock and Masse are not alone.
At the end of November 2010, La Plata County had 7,113 registered unaffiliated voters, compared with 20,144 unaffiliated voters at the end of November 2020, a 183% increase.
In that time, registration of unaffiliated voters in Montezuma County increased by 49% – from 5,256 to 7,842. In Archuleta County, unaffiliated voters grew 84%, from 2,451 to 4,508.
Across the state, 1,113,229 voters were registered unaffiliated at the end of November 2010. At the end of November 2020, 1,784,493 voters were unaffiliated, an increase of more than 60%.
Ben Engen, a GOP strategist who runs the political analytics firm Constellation, said some voters might be disenchanted with the two major parties, but more voters are registering unaffiliated simply through legal structural changes in the way Colorado registers voters.
In 2016, unaffiliated voters, sometimes called Independents, were allowed to participate in either the Democratic or the Republican primaries. During primary elections, unaffiliated voters are sent ballots for both major parties, and they can choose a party’s primary.
Before 2016, voter numbers in all parties would dip in post-election voter purges of long-term inactive voters, but a few months before a primary, Republicans and Democrats numbers would bump up as unaffiliated voters switched to a major party to participate in a primary.
“Unaffiliateds used to switch either to Republican or Democrat so they could vote for their candidate for president or U.S. Senate, but in 2016, we took that requirement away. Now, you don’t see those spikes in the major party numbers before the primaries,” Engen said. “When you see big drops now, it’s after voter purges.”
Perhaps the biggest factor leading to the substantial rise in unaffiliated voters across Colorado, Engen said, is the advent of automatic voter registration in Colorado.
Automatic voter registration occurs whenever someone receives a new driver’s license from the state.
Under automatic voter registration, a newly licensed driver is registered as an unaffiliated voter, and county clerks send out forms to the new voter that allow the voter to align with a political party or to decline to be registered at all.
If the form is not returned within 20 days, the new voter is listed as an unaffiliated voter on the county clerk voter rolls.
“The new voter will get a little postcard in the mail. If they want to change, they’ve got to fill out an actual physical postcard and mail it back in to affiliate with a party. That’s another step you have to take,” he said. “A lot of people aren’t going to bother, and if you don’t fill out the form and mail it back, you’re on the voter rolls as unaffiliated.”
“The growth in affiliate registration really has less to do with people changing viewpoints on the party or the issues than it does with procedural changes that we’ve made here in Colorado,” Engen said.
Data are hard to correlate with any trend of expanding voter disenchantment with parties.
A slight increase in Pueblo County Democrats switching to Republican in 2016, probably tied to former President Donald Trump’s appeal to blue-collar Democrats, is about the only discernible trend in voter numbers that Engen said might not stem from procedural changes.
Jennie Peek-Dunstone, Democratic strategist with Alpine Public Affairs, said that while legal structural changes in voter registration might account for the majority increased unaffiliated voters, most of those voters retain their partisan leanings.
“We should just call them partisan and unaffiliated. That’s really an accurate characterization,” She said. “They’re voting Democrat or they’re voting Republican almost all the time. The margin in the middle that’s truly an independent voter who votes on both sides is actually very small, maybe it’s 6% of the entire population of voters.”
Statewide, the unaffiliated voters break about 60% to 40% in favor of Democrats, Peek-Dunstone said.
Gov. Jared Polis’ 53% to 42% victory over Walker Stapleton in 2018 is a good example of how unaffiliated voters tend to break statewide for Democrats in the past two election cycles, she said.
Increasing numbers of unaffiliated voters likely mean campaigns will become more expensive.
“You have to make more of an effort with unaffiliated voters to have a conversation. We always invest in having staff who are on the ground, and even in COVID times, on the ground virtually, at least on the Democratic side,” Peek-Dunstone said.
Whether it’s volunteers walking blocks talking to voters, emails, text messages and social media interactions, increasing efforts to identify supporters among those registered unaffiliated will grow, and that means more money will be spent during campaigns, she said.
“Those unaffiliated IDs are really people that you’re trying to figure out. Where are they really? “ she said. “And right now, in Colorado, they’re leaning pretty heavily to the Democratic side, and they’re actually relatively partisan, so you want to identify them.”
Kenneth Brott, a La Plata County unaffiliated voter who formerly registered as a Democrat, fits the voter described by Peek-Dunstone.
“I am becoming more disillusioned with the whole two party system, but the catalyst really was when you could register unaffiliated and still vote in the primary,” he said. “That was really the main reason. That’s when I said, ‘OK, I’m going to switch to Independent now.’ But pretty much, I vote the Democratic ticket all the way.”