Sunday, Jan. 15, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Daniel Walton, a 24-year-old prep chef, was a Democrat until last year, when he hit a breaking point with the ideological war between political parties.
Fred Lokken, a 55-year-old professor of political science, was a Republican until 2010, when his party nominated Sharron Angle for U.S. Senate. To him, it was a sign that the party had drifted too far right.
Walton, Lokken and thousands of others are part of a growing share of Nevada voters who have rejected the Democratic and Republican parties and registered without a party affiliation.
“Nonpartisan” — sometimes called “independent” in other states — voters have reached their highest share since 1985, which is as far back as available voter registration data goes.
As of last month, about 16 percent of active Nevada voters — 171,000 people — were nonpartisan, up from about 14 percent in 2000. In 1985, just 7 percent of Nevada voters were registered nonpartisan.
Including minor parties like the Independent American Party — an ultraconservative group that some confuse with independents — the share of voters unaffiliated with either of the two major parties rises to 22 percent of active Nevada voters.
Political observers from both parties acknowledge that harsher political discourse and polarization, nationally and in Nevada, have alienated voters.
“It’s not just here, you’re seeing it across the country,” said David Damore, professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
“Politics has always been nasty, but the difference is it doesn’t stop — there’s constant campaigning. Both parties are appealing to their base. It’s why compromise is a dirty word.”
While some nonpartisan voters are moderates, not all are, Damore said. Many vote in either direction.
Democrats, who hold a 50,000-voter advantage statewide, believe the demographics of nonpartisan voters indicate they lean Democratic. In fact, Republicans need a strong showing among nonpartisans to win statewide races.
As a group, nonpartisans tend to be Hispanic and young. More live in a household with a Democrat than a Republican.
Zach Hudson, a spokesman for the party, said Democrats have pushed for “pragmatic solutions,” while Republicans tend toward “Tea Party extremism.”
Dan Hart, a Democratic political consultant, said it’s too early to know how independent voters will break this year. But, as usual, they will play a key role.
He said President Barack Obama appealed to them “masterfully four years ago, and I believe he converted some of them to Democratic registration. This year, I don’t think any of us feel the same enthusiasm. Obama has to draw a stark choice between himself and whoever the Republican nominee is.”
Ryan Erwin, a Nevada Republican consultant and early supporter of likely Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, noted polling in December that showed Romney edging Obama among the state’s nonpartisans. He said nonpartisan voters will reject Obama for failing to deliver on promises he made in 2008 to change the tenor of Washington.
“Voters were promised the moon, were delivered the bill, and never got the moon,” he said.
Damore said the parties have rigged the system with “closed primaries,” which allow only registered Democrats to pick a Democratic nominee and only Republicans to choose a Republican nominee. The 2011 Legislature cemented the closed-primary system with Assembly Bill 81, sponsored by Secretary of State Ross Miller. Miller said the bill clarified an ambiguous law.
Some states have open primaries, where voters can participate regardless of registration, and others allow nonpartisans to choose one party’s primary or the other. That, some Nevadans say, would result in candidates who are less beholden to the ideological base of the party and more willing to compromise.
Catana L. Barnes, founder of Independent Voters of Nevada, said her group wants open primaries.
“People want … to focus on candidates and issues rather than the ideology of a group,” she said.“They don’t want the system controlled by the ideology of Democrats or Republicans.”
She believes many voters join a party only so they can participate in primaries.
The last bill to open primaries to nonpartisan voters was in 1989. It was sponsored by then-freshman state Sen. Dina Titus, who is running for Congress in a heavily Democratic district. Titus now says she supports closed primaries.