More voters registering as Independent

March 21, 1998|By BRENDAN KIRBY

More voters registering as Independent

Republicans have registered more voters than Democrats over the last four years, but the real winner may be Independents.

Amid a rising Republican tide in southcentral Pennsylvania, Western Maryland and the West Virginia Eastern Panhandle, the number of voters declining to affiliate with one of the major parties has nearly doubled since the primary election in 1994.

Political analysts said the trend indicates a weakening of party loyalty, while several Democratic activists said the new group represents an opportunity to regain the upper hand.

In Washington County, the number of voters who registered either as Independents or members of a minor party shot up from 3,613 in September 1994 to 7,254 this February.


"They're the ones that are jumping up," said Dorothy Kaetzel, the Washington County election director.

Republican gains

Over the last four years, Republicans have widened their registration lead in Franklin and Fulton counties in Pennsylvania, Frederick County, Md., and Morgan County, W.Va.

At the same time, The GOP has overtaken the Democrats in Washington County and has cut into their advantage in Berkeley and Jefferson counties in West Virginia.

The Republicans have made gains despite a Democratic president who has presided over a booming economy.

Democratic party leaders attributed GOP gains in the 1980s to the Reagan effect. But they have not been able to reverse the trend with President Clinton in office.

Rick Hemphill, chairman of the Washington County Democratic Party Central Committee, said negative publicity surrounding Clinton - while having negligible effects on his approval ratings - may discourage first-time voters from registering Democrat.

Some analysts said party registration trends simply reflect the historical conservatism of the area. Even when Democrats dominated Washington County, voters did not always vote for them, experts said.

"The party ID is catching up with what has always been the prevailing ideology," said Spring Ward, an assistant professor of political science at Hagerstown Junior College.

Democratic Party leaders said the party needs to target Independents.

"Independents are probably individuals who would have been Democrats in another era and are probably more Democratically inclined than they would like to believe," Hemphill said.

Winning them over will be the key to regaining their majority, Hemphill said. But he said it will be no simple task given the complex and varied factors that determine people's registration choices.

William Butts, chairman of the Franklin County Democratic Committee, said he tries to convince Independents that their votes carry more weight in primaries, which are open only to party members. He speculated that voters choose not to affiliate in order to keep their options open.

"I guess they can just more or less sit back and play it by ear. But so can a Democrat or Republican," he said.

Hagerstown City Councilwoman Susan K. Saum-Wicklein, who chairs the Washington County Republican Party Central Committee, disputed the notion that Independents lean Democrat. She said a majority are more in tune with the Republicans.

Saum-Wicklein predicted Republicans would continue to make gains.

"As the Republican Party becomes more successful on the state level, you will find a strengthening of the party in the county. It's kind of a chicken and egg syndrome," she said.

Declining loyalty

The rapidly growing number of Independent and third-party voters reflects a growing disillusionment with the major parties, according to those who study the American electoral system.

People identify far less with Republicans and Democrats, and that has had profound effects on the country, experts contend.

"It's more popular. More and more, it's the thing to be. The political parties are in decline," said Walter Lackey, a political science professor at Frostburg State University. "Really, the decline has been going for decades."

Lackey said voters increasingly feel the parties are concerned more with ideology than with problem-solving. He said this causes more voters to leave the parties, which in turn weakens the parties, which causes even more to leave.

"It's a vicious cycle. It's a downward cycle," he said.

While leaders of minor parties may welcome this disintegration, Lackey argued it is bad for the country.

Weak parties encourage personality-driven campaigns, which produce a government in which it is difficult to solve problems, Lackey said.

"Without strong parties, we can't govern," he said.

Not everyone thinks the rise of Independents is an irreversible trend.

Bart Stevens, chairman of the Franklin County Republican Committee, said he thinks people will return to the major parties when they perceive integrity has been restored to the White House.

"There's scandal after scandal coming out of Washington and that's going to affect people," he said. "That's not good for either party."

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