How will rising number of unaffiliated voters play out in August primaries? Party leaders share their thoughts

Republican and Democratic party leaders in Johnson County are keeping an eye on how the rising number of unaffiliated voters here will play out come the primaries.

The June 1 deadline for registered voters to change party affiliation is now passed. But in the months leading up to the deadline, the number of unaffiliated voters in Johnson County continued to grow more quickly than any other category, as we previously reported in March.

It’s notable given that the total number of unaffiliated voters had fallen slightly — by 2,263 registrants — from June 2016 to June 2017. Since last year, though, the number of unaffiliated voters grew by 5,506, from 113,849 in June 2017 to 119,355 today, a 4.8 percent increase. Unaffiliated voters now make up just under 30 percent of registered voters in the county. And the unaffiliated voter category saw the largest increase in voters between this April and today, moving from 118,506 to 119,355, an addition of 849.

During that same period, Democratic voter roles grew by 664 to 97,984. And Libertarian voter roles grew by 50 to 4,273. The number of registered Republicans has actually fallen by 256 voters since April — but Republicans maintain a massive advantage in the number of registered voters with 177,799, or 46 percent of the total.

Mike Jones, chair of the Johnson County Republican Party, said he doesn’t think the increase in unaffiliated registration will have much effect on the primaries because he thinks voters who typically vote in primary elections would be less likely to register as unaffiliated before the primaries. Unaffiliated voters can declare for a party at their polling place on election day and participate in a primary. But Jones thinks people switching to unaffiliated might not be inclined to redeclare for one party or another to participate in the primary.

“I’ve never really understood the idea of registering unaffiliated in a state with closed primaries,” Jones added. “I get the idea of frustration and anger with a particular party, but in Kansas, by registering unaffiliated, you limit your ability to speak at the voting booth.”

He also said the size of the increase in unaffiliated voters is relatively small in the big picture.

“I think we would be hard pressed to call a minimal increase like that over 12 months a trend,” Jones said.

Nancy Leiker, chair of the Johnson County Democratic Party, attributed the increase in unaffiliated voters and those registering as Democrats “a Trump thing.”

“I think we’re seeing a lot of people become disenfranchised with the Republican Party because of heat happening on the national level, so we’re thinking that might be part of it,” Leiker said.

Leiker said she thinks some voters who had been registered as Republicans “don’t agree with what’s going on at the national level and, therefore, they’re changing back to unaffiliated.”

July 17 is the last day to register to vote in the Aug. 7 primary election. New registrants can declare a party affiliation at the time of registration.