Why do voters switch affiliation?

A Herald analysis of voter registration looks at who changed and why

Durango resident Dwight Stovall, 66, has been a lifelong registered Democrat.

But that changed earlier this year.

“I decided I was finally going to get that damn ‘D’ off the back of my name,” said Stovall, now a Republican.

A Durango Herald analysis of voter registration rolls from the last two years, October 2010 to August 2012, showed that Republicans benefited more than Democrats from voters changing their affiliation, but the category that grew the most was independents, or unaffiliated voters.

This was the breakdown:

131 Democrats and 228 unaffiliated voters went Republican.

68 Republicans and 182 unaffiliated voters went Democratic.

388 Democrats and 297 Republicans became unaffiliated.

Voters have different reasons for switching parties. Some have ideological reasons – a particular candidate or issue has fired them up. Others want to vote in a primary election and must register with a particular party in order to do so. One man said he switched parties to indulge a girlfriend.

Stovall said he was 18 when he registered to vote, and he didn’t understand the difference between Democrat and Republican. He did what most of his friends were doing and became a Democrat.

As he grew older, Stovall said he realized he is a conservative. He doesn’t vote by party lines, but he tends to side with Republicans.

“Democrats want to spend, spend, spend. They have no idea about saving,” Stovall said.

Being a registered Democrat never bothered Stovall that much until this year, after watching Barack Obama’s first three years in office, he said.

“He’s deceptive, and he lied,” said Stovall, who did not vote for Obama. “The things he said he was going to do when he was running for office – he has done none of it.”

Bayfield resident Richard Gorman finds himself on the flip side of the political spectrum.

Gorman, 67, has considered himself an “independent” or unaffiliated voter for most of his life. But when he moved to Colorado from Washington in 2007, he was told he needed to register with a political party in order to vote in the primary. He registered as a Republican but has since switched his affiliation to Democrat.

“I have gotten more liberal as I’ve gotten older,” he said.

What concerns Gorman is the Republican Party’s social agenda, especially as it relates to woman’s rights. Gorman has three daughters in their 30s.

He said the Republican Party wants to prevent women from using contraception, having abortions and accessing services at Planned Parenthood.

“They don’t want to provide any kind of child’s health care, they don’t want to provide any kind of education for the children and they basically tell the young woman, ‘Have a great life, see ya,’” he said.

“I wouldn’t vote for a Republican for dog catcher,” he said.

Many voters switch before a primary election to vote for a party’s candidate, said La Plata County Clerk and Recorder Tiffany Lee Parker.

Some want to vote for the candidate they like most, she said, but others want to sabotage an opposing party’s primary by voting for a candidate who is least likely to beat their preferred candidate.

“They’re very open when they come to the counter and say why they’re doing it,” Parker said. “That always surprises me more than anything – that they’re that vocal to say, ‘I want to get in the weaker of the other candidates.’”

It is unlikely enough people are doing this to make a difference, she said.

Another reason people switch political affiliations is to try to stop annoying phone solicitations, Parker said.

“They’ll come in and complain to us about all the phone calls they receive,” she said. “They believe that if they go unaffiliated, it will reduce it. From our understanding, it increases it because then they get it from all sides.”

Regardless, Parker, a Republican, said she is committed to keeping her office nonpartisan.

What surprises her is the number of lifelong party devotees – Republicans and Democrats – switching sides.

“I’ve done this since 1996, and this is the most I’ve seen of that,” she said.

Others have grown so frustrated with the political climate that they have asked to withdraw from the voter roll, Parker said. She discourages people from doing that.

People who switch for ideological reasons tend to be more focused on national politics than local politics, she said.

The number of voters switching parties during the last two years would suggest a shift to the right. But La Plata County remains fairly evenly split between Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters, Parker said.

The number of Republicans and Democrats was split almost evenly in July 2010. Republicans gained their largest majority – 8,712 Republicans to 7,834 Democrats, a difference of 878 voters – in February 2012. But Democrats since have narrowed the gap to a difference of 669 voters, as of last week, according to voting records.

Local Democrats who have switched parties are disappointed with Obama, who promised hope and change when he was elected 3½ years ago, said Velbeth Jones, chairwoman of the La Plata County Republican Party.

Democrats are asking themselves if they’re better off today than they were 3½ years ago, and the answer is “no,” she said.

But Denise Bohemier, chairwoman of the La Plata County Democrats, said the frustration is not with Obama, but with Congress.

“People have short memories,” she said. “They blame all this joblessness on Obama and forget it started well before Obama. It takes more than three years to undo eight years of a mess.”

Bohemier said she switched from being a Republican to a Democrat in 1982, during the Ronald Reagan years.

“I woke up and realized the Republican Party didn’t represent my views,” she said.

Not everyone is so ideological when it comes to politics.

Jade Lutgen, 25, said he switched from Republican to Democratic to appease a girlfriend.

“If you’ve ever dated a girl that you’ve made sacrifices for, you’d understand,” he said. “Basically, once that was done with, I went back to what I actually thought.”

Jarrell Wilson, 28, of Durango, said he switched from Democrat to Republican on a whim about two years ago.

“I’m teeter-tottering,” he said. “I’m not committed like most people are. I could go either way.”

At least two people interviewed for this story said they switched their political affiliation to Republican earlier this year so they could vote for Republican candidate Ron Paul in the primary election.

“I just like his ideas about a smaller government and stuff like that,” said Jarred Tucson, 31, of Durango.

Luke Mulligan, 24, who voted for Obama in 2008, said Paul would have added an interesting perspective to the election.

“I really think the dialogue that would have been created out of a national election between Obama and Ron Paul would have been a lot more revealing than this whole Mitt Romney thing because I feel like it’s more of a façade – it’s kind of a show,” he said.

Some voters are fed up with both parties.

Hari Baumbach switched from Democrat to unaffiliated to take a “more neutral position,” she said.

Baumbach grew up in Brazil and finds the political climate in America “strange.”

“Unfortunately, in this country, you have to choose between the two major parties,” she said. “I hope that one day we really can have a true democracy in which there really are more options than that.”

She was unaware that unaffiliated voters can’t vote in primary elections.

“I wish it didn’t have to be that way,” she said, “and maybe that’s something that should change.”

shane@durangoherald.com

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