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Wyandotte County resident Rafael Medrano Jr. is no fan of President Donald Trump.
Commenting on Trump’s Twitter behavior, Medrado said, “I believe that (Trump) is a child trapped in a man’s body.”
Medrano explained he does not support the Trump administration’s attacks on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the 8-year-old program that protects young immigrants brought to the country as children. Medrano noted he has family and friends in the program.
But Medrano said he isn’t thrilled about the prospect of a Joe Biden presidency either.
“They created those … things where people were behind cages,” he said, referring to the Obama-era cagelike detention facilities at the southern border.
Medrano, 32, is one of more than half a million Kansas voters who are registered as unaffiliated — or independent — rather than Democrat or Republican. He’s still unsure about who he’ll be voting for Nov. 3.
When someone registers to vote in Kansas, they must declare a party: either Democrat, Republican, Libertarian or unaffiliated. Kansas does not have an open primary. This means party registration has more of an impact on primary elections, when Democrats and Republicans can only vote their respective party’s ballot. Kansas technically doesn’t have a closed primary either, because if unaffiliated voters want to participate in a primary, they may affiliate with a party on Election Day.
Through an analysis of Kansas voter registration data, The Beacon found that unaffiliated voters in Kansas, also known as independents, make up 38% of voters under the age of 40 — the largest portion of any party within that age range.
Nationwide, more people are identifying this way. The latest Gallup poll found 38% of Americans are independents, a number that has been steadily increasing since 2004.
Independents indicative of ‘cynicism about politics’
Patrick Miller, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, said the rise of young registered independents isn’t necessarily indicative of voting behavior. Rather, he said, it’s “an outgrowth of alienation and cynicism about politics.”
“People who are young today feel far more distant and alienated from a lot of our institutions of society than younger people in previous generations,” Miller said. “One way that you see that manifested in politics is in identification; a distancing from partisan labels.”
This is true for Brandon Berntsen, 36, of Allen County, Kansas. He registered as independent because he doesn’t “100% agree with one (party) or the other. … None of them can seem to agree at all, and every party wants to make themselves look better than the other party.”
2016 was the first year Berntsen voted in a presidential election, and he cast his ballot for Trump. This year, he plans to do the same.
“My family’s all Republicans,” Berntsen said, explaining that many in his family are farmers. He works on the farm in addition to his job at an oil company. He said the political response to COVID-19 is one of the key issues he’d vote on, indicating fear of businesses potentially shutting down.
“My livelihood is depending on my job, and on me working,” he said.
For some in Berntsen’s family, like his grandmother, voting is extremely important. But for him, it’s not the biggest priority.
“It’s not like, ‘Oh my God, if I don’t vote, the world’s gonna end,’” he said.
Other young Kansas independents express a lack of confidence in either party. Johnson County voter David Foster, 28, used to be registered as a Democrat. But in the last year, he switched his registration to independent. He feels like party affiliation can get in the way of progress.
“I’ve always feared extremes,” Foster said. “At a certain point … it’s not about right or wrong. It becomes biased.”
Young independents tend to be more liberal
Miller said that overall, young independents tend to vote more Democratic.
“… They just don’t want to call themselves Democrats because of that sense of alienation or distance from not just political establishment, but social establishment,” he said.
Most independent voters, Miller said, “Tend to be just as ideological as Democrats and Republicans,” and “they tend to vote straight party.”
Sedgwick County, Kansas, voter Shannon Le, who is registered as independent, said she plans to vote for Biden on Nov. 3. Le, 27, said every time she’s voted in the past, it’s been for a Democratic candidate.
“I’ve never voted Republican or even felt interested in voting for them,” Le said.
She explained she’s registered as independent because her ideologies align with some of the issues from both parties. There are stances from both parties she disagrees with, too, but this year, her vote will express what she believes to be “the lesser of the two evils.”
Le said she has considered voting third party, and she wishes third-party candidates had more publicity.
“I’m in my 20s and working full time,” Le said. “It’s really hard to seek out the information that you would need to confidently vote for someone who’s a third party.”
Could increased voter turnout in primaries address voter apathy?
Presidential primary elections historically see low turnout rates. The Pew Research Center found the national voter turnout record for a primary election was set in 2008, when just 30.4% of eligible voters cast ballots.
In Kansas this year, just 34.2% of voters cast ballots in the presidential primary. But this was significantly more than in the 2016 presidential primary, when voter turnout was 23.5%.
Davis Hammet is the founder of Loud Light, a nonpartisan nonprofit that aims to increase voter participation among young Kansans. He said if more voters participated in primary elections, then both the Democratic and Republican nominees would be more appealing to them. He believes this could address the feelings of alienation and apathy some young independent voters have.
Low turnout in the primaries can produce unappealing nominees for many voters, Hammet said, “because they’re literally chosen by … a hyper minority of usually very active political party activists.”
Low turnout can stem from a number of reasons. Hammet points to closed primary states, where voters can only participate in the primaries if they’ve registered with a political party.
“You can be locked out of the process, and that’s a whole other part of this equation,” Hammet said.
In 14 states and the District of Columbia, at least one political party conducts closed primaries. Activist group Independent Voting estimated 26 million voters could not participate in the 2016 primaries because they were not registered as Republican or Democrat.
Hammet says that while increased turnout could ultimately address voter apathy, there exists a conundrum because most political campaigns are built to appeal to “highly likely” voters. This means campaigns sometimes don’t address issues young people care about, like student loan debt forgiveness.
“Who breaks the cycle, right? If young people don’t hear issues being addressed they care about, then they don’t really have a huge incentive to vote,” Hammet said. “But politicians can’t talk about those issues because they lose then.”
Looking ahead to Election Day
As of Nov. 1, over 710,000 Kansans have already voted, and nearly 120,000 of them are registered independents. While Trump is expected to win the state again this year, some portions of Kansas are shifting more blue. Miller of KU said this is due in part to an increase in young, independent voters.
“If I take you back 20 years, suburbia was really Republican, urban America was really Democratic, and rural America was the swing territory,” Miller said.
Now, Republicans have a stronghold in rural communities across the nation. But Democrats have been gaining ground in suburban Kansas, he said.
It’s a trend seen in places like Johnson County; Douglas County, which includes the University of Kansas in Lawrence; and Riley County, which encompasses Manhattan and Kansas State University.
Miller says that even though Riley County has never voted for a Democrat for president, “it almost voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and I think there’s a very good chance it may vote for Joe Biden this year.”
Miller attributes the political shift in Kansas both to an educational realignment within the Democratic and Republican parties, and to young people moving out of rural communities and shifting suburban politics. United States Department of Agriculture data show that from 2018-2019, 48 of Kansas’ 86 rural counties saw population loss ranging from .5-15.5%. One of the two largest contributing factors, it says, is younger adults moving away.
“If younger people of this generation are more Democratic… no matter how they register,” Miller said, “then they’re going to shift the politics of those communities.”