Tuesday, March 22, 2016 | 2 a.m.
Going into the Nevada caucuses, 49-year-old Catana Barnes wanted to help Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders win the state.
But that's not what happened.
The Sanders campaign and the state’s Democratic Party had spent weeks reminding nonpartisan voters, like Barnes, that they could register to vote as Democrats in order to participate in the state’s closed Democratic caucuses on Feb. 20. They could even show up on caucus day and register to vote.
But Barnes opted against registering. Instead, she said she showed up the caucus site at Dilworth Middle School in Sparks with a sign-up sheet and signs identifying her as a "conscientious electoral objector" and saying “I can’t caucus today, ask me why." She said she wanted to provide information to her fellow nonpartisan voters — often called “independent” voters in other states — and remind them what it meant to be nonpartisan.
“There were a lot of people who approached me,” Barnes said. “There were some folks who questioned — some of them did stay and caucus and some of them looked at what I was doing, questioned whether or not what we were doing was appropriate, and they did leave.”
Although Barnes wasn't in the majority at Dilworth, she wasn't alone among the electorate. The number of nonpartisan voters has been on the rise both nationally and here in Nevada, and the largest share of voters nationwide identify as independent rather than with the Republican or Democratic parties. In a Pew Research Center study, 39 percent of voters identified as independent compared with 32 percent Democrat and 23 percent Republican.
In Nevada, one in five voters identifies as nonpartisan. With third-party voters added in, that number jumps to one in four Nevadans who do not identify with one of the major two political parties.
They’re a critical segment of the voting population — they can be the make-or-break group in the general election — but due to the state’s closed caucus and closed primary systems, don’t participate in deciding who makes it to the November ballot.
“That’s the tradeoff they make. When they choose to register as a (nonpartisan), they know they’re surrendering their ability to help make a choice in a primary frame,” Republican political consultant Greg Ferraro said. “But they’re so frustrated with these two parties they’re willing to say, ‘This is less important to me than being affiliated with one of those two parties.’”
Nonpartisans in Nevada are a diverse group, and the right-leaning, the left-leaning and the truly apartisan number are among them. And a growing number of people, feeling disenfranchised by the two-party system, are adding to their numbers.
Over the past decade, the number of nonpartisan voter registrations in Nevada increased by 86,000, compared to 79,000 for the Democrats and 31,000 for Republicans, making nonpartisans the fastest growing share of Nevada’s electorate.
Barnes has gotten to know a number of these voters through her role as president of the Independent Voters of Nevada.
“We’re not any one thing. We’re not all the way left, all the way right, we do vote across a ballot,” Barnes said. “Compromise shouldn’t be a bad word. We need those blurred lines to be able to reach across those differences and come to a good consensus.”
Still, UNLV political science professor David Damore said he sensed that nonpartisans in Nevada tended to lean more Republican and more conservative, due to a growing number of people feeling alienated by the Republican Party.
“A lot of people are disaffected with the Republicans,” Damore said. “You figure moving forward in ‘16, some of them will be right for Trump. They left the party because they didn’t think the party was representing their views and dominated by the establishment.”
The same is also true on the other side. There are a number of Democratic-leaning nonpartisans with whom Sanders has done well in states where nonpartisans were allowed to participate in the state’s caucus or primary process, Damore said.
Nonpartisans in Nevada have not yet been able to participate in this year’s electoral process. Unable to caucus in February or cast ballots in partisan primaries in June, their first chance to vote for offices ranging from president all the way down through the Legislature is in November.
The question is, how will nonpartisans begin to line up in the coming months? The answer is, no one has a clue.
“I can say this with absolute certainty: Independent voters this cycle are probably following the campaign more closely than they have in any election,” Ferraro said. “There are more of them, and a rising frustration with either of the two parties. But they have a pattern of voting, an interest in voting, and they know they may be able to help one or the other in the fall.”
One factor that could affect nonpartisan voters is whether Donald Trump tops the Republican ticket, as seems increasingly likely. The state’s Democratic Party views a Trump nomination as a potential boon for Democratic candidates up and down the ticket, with the thinking being that Democrats will turn out to defeat him.
“He’s not only going to mobilize Democrats to turn out, but he’s alienating a lot of Republicans and completely turning off independent voters who are looking for somebody who’s actually going to get results,” state Democratic Party spokesman Stewart Boss said.
Ferraro agreed that Trump would struggle with nonpartisan women, but added that Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton would struggle with nonpartisan men. The unknown is to what extent each of those things will happen.
“Nevada has a very deep and wide independent streak,” Ferraro said. “Those independent voters, nonpartisans, start to move in one direction, that tips the scale and moves the election. You’ve got to pay close attention to nonpartisan voters. They matter.”
In previous elections, nonpartisans have played a decisive role. Democratic strategist Andres Ramirez pointed to the 2010 election, when Democratic Sen. Harry Reid won re-election at the same time that Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval won his first term.
“It comes down to the candidate or the issue and how they campaign and market themselves to the electorate,” Ramirez said. “It’s no secret that Reid had the support of several Republicans and Sandoval had the support of several Democrats.”
He also pointed to the 2004 election, in which Nevada chose George W. Bush as its presidential candidate and also legalized medical marijuana.
“You have these consistent patterns in which statewide elections don’t necessarily make sense on voter turnout,” Ramirez said. “You have what’s considered ideological opposite positions both winning the same percentage in the same cycle with the same electorate.”
Nonpartisans will have to wait until November to make their mark on the electoral process. But Barnes says that the nonpartisan movement only continues to grow, particularly through social media and among millennials. Nonpartisan millennials narrowly outnumber Republican millennials in Nevada.
“They’re a lot less tolerable of the ‘Don’t tell me what to do’ kind of thing. 'We’re going to make our decisions, and we’re going to make them on our own and in our own way,’” Barnes said. “It’s not a bad thing. I think that’s great. We need to have a lot more question marks than exclamation marks.”