No party? No more as voters shift toward Democratic Party

Their reasons are as varied as Donald J. Trump and Andrew Gillum, and Republicans say it's no big deal.
Colleen Branam, center, switched her allegiance in 2018 from no party affiliation to the Democratic Party [Facebook]
Colleen Branam, center, switched her allegiance in 2018 from no party affiliation to the Democratic Party [Facebook]
Published Oct. 8, 2018|Updated Oct. 8, 2018

Colleen Branam of St. Petersburg was one of the 3.5 million voters in Florida with an independent streak. She was registered with no party affiliation, the fastest-growing segment of Florida's electorate in recent years.

But when Branam realized that independents can't vote in Florida's closed primaries and her voice would be limited to November, she became a Democrat.

Asked why, the 60-year-old grandmother and former hospital secretary didn't mince words. "I can't stand Trump," she said.

Tens of thousands of Florida voters have made the same change in recent months. What effect these party-switchers will have on the outcome will depend largely on turnout on Nov. 6, four weeks from Tuesday.

Upset with the president's treatment of women, Branam became a Democrat on July 30, the last possible date she was able to vote in the Democratic primary. She was one of nearly 4,800 no-party voters to make the switch in Pinellas County, compared to 860 in the same time period in the last midterm election four years ago.

Branam says she will vote for Andrew Gillum for governor and likes his support for Medicare for all. She said her insurance ran out and she won't qualify for Medicaid until January.

"I am uninsured right now, and that scares me," Branam said. "I've never been uninsured in 60 years."

She said she became disabled after 25 years at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg and fears spending her savings on medical bills. "If anything happens to me, I have to pay all my doctor bills out of pocket, and I don't think that's right," she said.

In a state with more than 13 million voters, the number of switchers is not huge, but Florida has a long history of close elections. Gov. Rick Scott won re-election in 2014 by a margin of less than 65,000 votes statewide.

In Hillsborough County, 6,297 no-party voters switched to the Democratic Party this year, compared to 1,404 in 2014.

In Osceola County, in the shadow of Disney World, home to an expanding Puerto Rican community, 3,181 former independents became Democrats compared to 349 four years ago. Totals are as of mid-September.

The trend is partially offset by other switching patterns. For example, 1,913 Osceola voters switched from Democrat to no party, 817 Democrats became Republicans and 588 Republicans became Democrats.

But in most places, the most common switch is from no party to Democrat, including 8,675 in Miami-Dade. Fewer than half as many no-party voters there became Republicans through mid-September (4,235).

Pasco, where President Trump remains popular, is not part of this trend. Through Sept. 18, 1,787 no-party voters became Democrats and 1,804 became Republicans.

READ MORE: Trump voters in this bellwether say don't bet on a 'blue wave'

No-party voters are becoming Republicans, too, but there are fewer: 3,025 this year in Pinellas, 3,586 in Hillsborough and 1,064 in Osceola according to county data. The state does not track party-switchers in all 67 counties.

Republicans note that they have registered more voters in recent years and that the possible effects of the party switchers is overblown and largely a result of a crowded Democratic primary for governor where candidates recruited their own supporters.

"Sensible Floridians continue to #WalkAway from the radical policies of the Democrats," said party chairman Blaise Ingoglia, who noted that 14 Florida counties have flipped from a plurality of Democrats to a plurality of Republicans in recent years.

Most of those are small rural counties. The only two that are significant in statewide elections are Polk and Volusia.

From 2014 through August of this year, Republicans gained 444,000 voters and Democrats gained 248,000.

Democratic strategists have complained for years that their party has not had a more aggressive and coherent voter registration program in years when no elections are held.

In Pensacola, Teniadé Broughton, 40, a historic preservationist, joined the Green Party because she didn't like having an allegiance to a major party.

But she became a Democrat, saying she wanted to vote for Gillum in the primary. Like Gillum, she's African-American and a graduate of Florida A&M University and said a local candidate convinced her to switch.

"I got tired of not being able to vote in primaries," Broughton said.

In Sarasota, Garrett Murto, 24, switched from no-party to Democrat this summer after he was hired to manage the campaign of a Democratic candidate for county commissioner, even though he had no previous experience in politics.

"I felt like the Democratic Party was going in a new direction,  a fresh direction with new ideas that really aligns more with who I am," said Murto, who got an anthropology degree in 2016 from New College in Sarasota.

Florida voters also switch between the two major parties, but those changes offset each other. For example, so far in Hillsborough this year, about 2,900 Democrats became Republicans and about 2,100 did the reverse.