A growing number of voters in Schenectady County would rather have no affiliation than align themselves with a political party.
Over a five-year span, those residents who have registered with no party affiliation, have grown 13.9% to 26,256 active voters as of February 2021, up from 23,049 active voters in November 2017, according to state enrollment figures.
The trend is not just evident in Schenectady County; it can also be found at the state level. During the same time period, New York saw a growth of 15.1% in voters choosing to have no party affiliation.
It’s also a national trend, said Zoe Oxley, a political science professor at Union College.
Stepping away from parties
“One of the drivers, I would say, is definitely that younger people are less likely to identify with a party than their older peers,” Oxley said. “We’ve been seeing that trend nationwide for a while now.”
Part of the reason younger people are moving away from parties, she said, is because those voters grew up in a world of partisan politics, with little compromise on display.
Those actions send “a message to them that parties aren’t useful vehicles to get much done in the political world, and they are much more likely to be dissatisfied,” Oxley said.
But the number of those choosing no party affiliation isn’t the only growth in the county: The Democratic Party added voters as well.
Over the same five-year period, Democrats saw 9.6% growth to just over 39,500 voters as of February 2021. That’s up 3,000-plus voters from November 2017, according to state figures.
It’s the party’s message that is grabbing people, according to Joe Landry, county chairman for the Democratic Committee.
Much of the party’s message played out at the national level and had to do with former President Donald Trump’s actions, the response to the pandemic and the Capitol insurrection.
“The 2016 election on the national level energized a lot of people to get out and work for the Democrats because they were very disappointed with the selection on a national level for the presidency,” Landry said. “They were just disappointed in who the president was and the message coming out of the president. The message from the Republican Party was something they didn’t like — how the president presented himself in public and what issues the president made a priority.”
Landry said the party doesn’t solicit unaffiliated voters, but when the opportunity arises to talk to them they remind those voters of the value of being aligned with a party. That includes the ability to vote in primaries, Landry said.
State enrollment numbers for the Republican Party in the county tell a drastically different story, one that GOP Chairman Chris Koetzle insists isn’t just based on the spotlight of national politics.
GOP stays stagnant
The number of those registered with the GOP in the county has decreased slightly — about 0.1% since 2017.
“I think national politics always plays a role in enrollment, even on a local level, obviously,” Koetzle said. “So we’re not going to discount that folks didn’t like the president or folks didn’t like some of the things that have happened, but I think that’s cyclical and I think that’s baked in.”
Koetzle said people are also leaving the county and taking their party enrollment with them.
“Upstate is moving out and downstate is moving up, and they’re bringing their voter enrollment with them,” he said.
Many of the residents who live or have lived in downstate or in the New York City area have tended to vote along the Democratic line.
“A lot of GOP-enrolled folks, a lot of Republicans, are looking for more friendly tax climates in other counties or other states,” Koetzle said. “We’re seeing a lot of that. I mean, Schenectady County isn’t an easy county to live in if you don’t like high taxes.”
Koetzle said that locally there’s not a lot that can be done to persuade someone to enroll in a party. His focus is on the candidates he chooses, he said.
“We’ve always been focused here, at least I have been as chair and also as a candidate, to cross-appeal to as many people as possible, including Democrats,” he said.
Party committees are striving to showcase party candidates who can garner votes, whether it be from an unaffiliated voter or voters in other parties.
Party brand vs party candidate
“Anecdotally, you do see the cycles and you do see people reacting to national politics, and people will say, ‘You know what, I’m not happy with the Republicans but I like what you’re doing in my town and I’m going to stay with you,’” Koetzle said. “I can’t control Washington or Albany or anything else, but we can continue to put forward people that appeal to a diverse group of folks in the background.”
Koetzle said the party has to react to changing times and find candidates who fit what voters want while still pushing the ideas of the party.
“For example, I see a lot of people today who are more socially liberal but more fiscally conservative,” he said.
While candidates play a significant part in how people decide to vote, the party brand, as well as the messages coming from that party, remain significant, Landry said.
Koetzle said he believes the number of unaffiliated voters will continue to increase, while Landry said he anticipates a change coming in the next gubernatorial or presidential election.
That change is already happening with people deciding what parties to align with, he said.
Some of those options for voters include joining the smaller parties such as the Conservative or Working Family parties, which also saw some growth over the past five years.
The Working Families Party saw a notable 20.4% increase even though the number of enrollees remains far below that of the Democratic or Republican parties. The Working Families Party recorded 750 registered county residents as of February 2021, compared with 623 in November 2017.
State committee member Chad Putman said the committee has not gone out and actively solicited people to enroll in the party. Instead, he said the increase likely comes from the visibility the party has sustained over the past two or three years.
“I think the fact that we endorsed a candidate that was challenging Andrew Cuomo in the Democratic primary brought a lot of notoriety to our party and that we weren’t a rubber stamp to the larger Democratic Party,” Putman said.
The fact the Independence Party is no longer a state-recognized party may have also played a role, he said. A change in election law in 2020 meant it was harder for smaller parties to get on the ballot because the law required those parties to receive at least 130,000 votes or 2% of the vote in a presidential or gubernatorial election to remain on the ballot. That number is up from the previously required 50,000 votes.
The change meant those in the Libertarian, Green and Independence parties had to choose a new party to align with or remain unaffiliated.
Putman said he believes the party will continue to see its numbers increase as its penchant for choosing progessive candidates continues to show.
The Conservative Party has also seen some small growth — 3.6% over the last five year.
County committee chairman Jim Barrett said the organization hasn’t actively held any gatherings due to the pandemic. He also noted the party’s enrollees have fluctuated over the years. However, state numbers from the past five years show the party saw only a slight decrease in voters — six people — from 2017 to 2018, but has otherwise grown since then.
He did not comment on why some people choose to enroll in a party while others don’t.
Nonetheless, Union’s Oxley said the growth of unaffiliated voters means political parties, whether locally, at the state level or nationally, have to work harder to attract votes.
Getting the vote or the voter
“It becomes harder for the parties when it is time to mobilize voters when Election Day is approaching because they rely on party lists to know who is affiliated with their party and who tends to be a frequent voter or not,” she said.
Oxley said that means someone who is unaffiliated is less likely to receive some sort of mailer urging them to vote for a particular candidate or get a knock on the door from any of the parties.
But parties can still reach those voters by analyzing demographic trends to determine ways to target those voters with advertising and other information.
Oxley said parties would simply look back at past voting numbers to determine who unaffiliated voters might choose at the polls.
For example, she said, “You can look at the number of people who affiliate with the Dem party versus unaffiliated and you can look at the vote totals for the past few years, and then you can make a guess as to what percentage of the unaffiliated have been voting Democratic.”
However, Oxley said, people still tend to vote for candidates from one of the major parties come Election Day.
And because many election laws tend to favor the two major parties in the U.S. it’s unlikely that any of the smaller parties could ever take over, Oxley said. She said it would take a significant number of unaffiliated voters moving into current smaller parties, as well as voters from either of the larger parties moving into a smaller party, for the country to shift away from a two-party system.