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Who are the independents, and will they change Arizona politics?

Editor’s Note: This story was informed by sources in the Public Insight Network. To share your perspective, click here.

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Mick Dalrymple, a research manager in Phoenix, has always been a registered independent. He calls his political views a mix of Democratic and Republican ideals, but he said he understands the decision to be an independent voter today has much to do with general dismay about government gridlock.

“I think it reflects a dysfunction of parties and people’s dissatisfaction of these parties gravitating towards the extreme rather than middle on issues,” he said. “People want solutions, and parties are not coming up with solutions.”

As of March 1, Dalrymple is part of Arizona’s largest voting bloc. Independents, with 1,134,243 registered voters, or 34.9 percent, have moved past Republicans. They passed registered Democrats in early 2011.

But does the rise of independents signal a change in Arizona politics toward more moderate candidates and elected officials?

Probably not, two political experts say. In fact, they say having more independents could lead to more elected officials with viewpoints at the extreme ends of the political spectrum.

“More independents probably equals more partisan politics which equals more polarization,” said Joseph Garcia, director of the Latino Public Policy Center at Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy.

Garcia said a big part of the reason is the fact that independents are less likely to vote in primaries.

“What has to happen is an understanding of independents that not only can they vote in primaries but they need to vote in primaries,” he said. “They can have an impact, but they are the No. 1 no-shows when it comes to primary elections. And you can’t wait until the general election if you want to have your vote count.”

Independents are able to vote in Arizona’s primaries but must pick one party’s ballot.

Barbara Norrander, University of Arizona political science professor, said turnout among independents may be especially low in state legislative elections, as information about candidates and their stands on issues is less readily available or sought out.

“Primary elections are important because they do predict who will be on the general election ballot, but these elections are harder to make decisions for,” she said.

Dalrymple said he and other registered independents can change things if they become more involved in primary elections.

“Republicans have an edge over Democrats and Republicans will tend to win more, but there’s absolutely no guarantee if they continue to put up very far-right candidates,” he said.

Rick Fifield, a registered independent who works for UPS Inc. in the Valley, said having more independents in Arizona means political parties will need to focus on more than playing to their base constituencies.

“Hopefully it becomes more of a national trend to play more to independent voters and have more moderate candidates because things might actually get done,” he said. “People are tired of party politics, and certainly candidates will have to become more nuanced about how they become elected and run their campaigns.”

The Morrison Institute’s Garcia noted that all statewide officeholders in Arizona are Republicans, suggesting that many independents lean that way. However, he agreed with these independent voters that parties will need to broaden their messages.

“It’s a matter of messages that reach a very vast spectrum of voters without losing your core constituency of a Democrat or a Republican voter,” he said.

Registered independent Ariel Motz, a Peoria resident who works as a paralegal, said she thinks independents tend to lean more toward one political party, though that doesn’t apply to everyone.

“I do tend to lean one way, but I do think that the advantage of being independent is that there are some subject matters and beliefs that are solely just mine,” she said. “Independents show a great leniency when listening to candidates, showing that they are unbiased rather than just voting for someone with a D or an R next to their name.”

Garcia said it is hard to predict what the future holds for independents in Arizona, in part because current laws work against empowering them.

“There very well could be election laws in coming years that empower the independent voter more, and if voters come across a proposition that gives more power or influence to independents I imagine they would go for that,” he said.