Claudia Duff started her new life in Florida a few months ago by joining a growing movement of voters who could reshape the state’s politics simply by declaring their independence from the two-party system.
Tired of Beltway bickering, turned off by labels, or not ready to be Republicans or Democrats, they are NPAs, voters with no party affiliation who are rejecting both parties in record numbers and fueling a national trend.
Since 2010, Florida’s voter roll has expanded by more than 500,000 voters, to 11.7 million, and nearly 90 percent of the growth is in unaffiliated voters. During the same period, the size of the two major parties has remained relatively stagnant.
Combined with voters who belong to minor parties, no-party voters now outnumber Republicans in the state’s big three counties of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach, in addition to Orange, the heart of the I-4 corridor in Orlando.
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They account for 3 million voters or one of every four voters in Florida, making them potentially decisive in a close 2014 race for governor — if they vote.
Duff, 48, a banker with Wells Fargo, was an active Democrat in her native Iowa, but she wasn’t ready to join either party in Florida when she and her husband traded the snow of Des Moines for the sunshine of St. Petersburg.
“Not knowing anybody here and not knowing what they are all about, I wanted to learn that before I went with a party,” she said, voicing only a vague familiarity with Gov. Rick Scott.
Like many newcomers to the state, Duff registered to vote the day she got her Florida driver’s license. She said she voted for President Barack Obama, but now says the country is in need of change and plans to vote in November, when the ballot for governor will be unusually crowded with three candidates with no party affiliation and a Libertarian.
“I think it’s important as a citizen,” Duff said.
That’s the big question about Florida’s rapidly expanding pool of no-party voters: Will they vote? By refusing to join a party, they have made clear they are turned off by partisanship.
“It’s a national trend,” said Scott Arceneaux, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, which has data showing young people and Hispanics are most likely to reject the two parties. “We do know that your propensity to vote is determined by a party. If you join a party, you’re more likely to vote.”
No party voters
Many unaffiliated voters are young and registering for the first time. Of the 5,000 newly-registered NPA voters in Hillsborough County in the first four months of this year, nearly one-third are 25 or younger.
Dorian Betancur, who turned 18 in May, will soon enter the University of South Florida to pursue a career in medicine. He decided to keep an open mind as a first-time voter.
“My mentality was if I picked no party, I can look at both sides, Democrats and Republicans,” he said. “I want to be able to choose who makes the rules. I want to be able to have my own say.”
As a member of the Hispanic middle class, Betancur said he leans Democratic, but called Scott “underrated” as a Republican governor. He said the issues he cares about are education and immigration and he was glad to see the state grant in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants this year.
Born in Rhode Island, Betancur lives in Osecola County, south of Orlando, in the shadow of Disney World. A transient place with a mobile workforce tied to tourism, it has the largest percentage of no-party voters of any county, nearly 30 percent.
“It’s amazing,” said Mary Jane Arrington, Osceola’s supervisor of elections. “I think the message is that the political parties aren’t working together. It’s just not working.”
Domenic Marrone, 46, of St. Petersburg, said he feels more “objective” as a voter without partisan ties.
“I don’t think either party has a handle on anything,” Marrone said.
The growth of no-party voters is most obvious in South Florida.
In Miami-Dade, Republicans now comprise 28 percent of the electorate, compared to 29 percent who belong to no party or a minor party, and 43 percent who call themselves Democrats.
Bernardo Pla, 20, of Miami, a junior computer science major at Florida International University, is one of the county’s newer unaffiliated voters.
“It was really a matter of not relating with either party,” Pla said. He said he likes candidates who emphasize technology, education and medicine.
Nelson Diaz, a young lawyer and chairman of the Miami-Dade Republican Party, said more voters are rejecting both parties because of frustration with Washington gridlock and partisan infighting, but they will “come home” and make partisan choices at the polls.
“Voter registration doesn’t determine election outcomes. Votes do,” Diaz said. “The vast majority of people will vote for Republican or Democratic candidates.”
Diaz said Republicans have to do a better job of connecting with independents.
To the nonpartisan League of Women Voters, which promotes voting, the growth in no-party voters is a positive sign.
“I see it as a good thing,” said League President Deirdre Macnab of Winter Park. “It’s a sign of a more demanding electorate. It’s an intriguing opportunity for candidates to persuade voters through the power of their ideas.”
Unaffiliated voters usually can’t vote in party primaries. But they can cast ballots in nonpartisan races for city offices, county school board seats and state judgeships.
Daniel Smith, a University of Florida political scientist who closely studies voting patterns, said the biggest drop in early voting between the 2008 and 2012 elections in Florida was among voters of no party. He said that’s because the major parties direct political messages at their own voters, not independents.
“They’re not getting steered to cast absentee ballots. They’re not getting mobilized on Election Day,” Smith said. “If you’re registering as an NPA, the two parties are less likely to think that you can be persuaded.”
It may take some persuasion to win the vote of William Hollis, 87, of St. Petersburg, a retired auto mechanic and a former Democrat from New Jersey.
“I’m not happy with the politics in this world,” Hollis said. “I think they’re all liars and thieves and they steal every nickel and dime from a poor person.”
Tampa Bay Times researchers Carolyn Edds and Natalie Watson and Miami Herald reporter Alexi Cardona contributed to this report.