In the course of commenting on voter turnout today, HoCo Rising complained about use of the term “unaffiliated” to describe voters who don’t register as Republicans or Democrats:

Do you get the feeling that Boards of Election went out of their way to give a more passive word like “unaffiliated” as opposed to the affirmative stance of “independent”? Reminds me of an Orwell essay.

I’ll mildly disagree with HCR on this point. I don’t think “unaffiliated” is that bad an example of bureaucratic language, and it’s certainly not an Orwellian euphemism on the scale of, say, referring to “taxes” as “revenue enhancers.” It has the advantage of being precise, and of not claiming more than the evidence warrants: These are simply voters who have chosen not to be affiliated with a political party, no more, no less.

The problem with taking an “affirmative stance” and calling these people “independents” is that it claims more than it should. The word “independent” has positive connotations in the context of US history (the Declaration of Independence and all that), so calling these voters “independent” causes us to think of them as being somehow special in the context of present-day US politics. Other positive connotations of the word “independent” (e.g., as in “independent thinker”) also lead us to believe that these voters act in a way that is qualitatively different and in some sense better than party members, for example, evaluating and voting for the best candidates without much consideration of their parties.

However as I’ve previously written (and will keep repeating until someone provides a convincing argument to the contrary), the available evidence seems to suggest that most “independent” voters are simply closet Republicans or Democrats who for whatever reason don’t want to declare a formal affiliation with either of these parties. In addition, those people who are truly “independent,” i.e., have no real party preference, are typically less politically engaged than the “leaners” and turn out at lower rates. They’re essentially “independent” because they don’t care all that much about who gets elected.

So the bottom line is that in my opinion use of the word “independent” in a US political context promotes sloppy thinking, and it’s better to use a word like “unaffiliated” to help prevent sloppy thinking.

Two more points: First, in my opinion the correct terminology is really “unaffiliated and other,” since there are in fact other political parties than the Democratic and Republican parties, though the deck is stacked against them given the current structure of the US political system. However the Libertarian Party and Green Party in particular have been able to maintain national and state party structures, field candidates at all levels, and even get them elected in some cases. (At present the Libertarian Party has no elected office-holders in Maryland, while the Green Party has a handful at the local level.)

Finally, it’s an interesting footnote in Maryland political history (which I discovered while researching Maryland turnout statistics and looking at the report for 2008) that in fact there is (or at least was) a Maryland Independent Party that managed to attract a fair number of registered voters who thought they were declaring themselves as “independents.” It was unceremoniously dispatched to that big voting booth in the sky just a few months ago; for the complete (and quite entertaining) story see the Frederick News-Post article “State elections board dissolves Independent Party.”

HoCoRising ( - 2010-10-28 00:30

I’m starting to wonder about your sense of humor, Frank.

hecker - 2010-10-28 01:20

Sorry, I’m on a crusade about this “independents” thing. You’ll just have to bear with me until my zeal burns out.

HoCoRising ( - 2010-10-28 01:42

But what is so different between being Un-affiliated and independent of any party? If you were affiliated, that is an affirmative term. Independent is an affirmative term. Unaffiliated is negative. It’s all semantics, but in this context, I think the politics of the English language absolutely comes in to play, intentionally or not. (Ask most “unaffiliateds” and they will say they are “independent”)

hecker - 2010-10-28 02:44

Good points. (I did say my disagreement was mild.) I think it’s really matter of perspective and motivation: Are people turning away from formal party membership out of disgust (negative action)? Unaffiliating as a way to stake out a personal political space for themselves apart from the main parties (positive action)? And so on. For what it’s worth, if the US had more major parties than the “big two” I think the unaffiliated/independent set of voters would be smaller. But I think the possibility of that happening is slim.

JessieX - 2010-10-28 04:17

brilliant distinction between “independent” and “unafilliated,” mr hecker

HoCoRising ( - 2010-10-28 11:02

But at the end of the day, the word is invoked with regard to “party identification” not “what the government recognizes you to believe”. If someone identifies themselves as independent, then that’s what they are. Unless we are going to start pumping out some regulations on this topic…which would be horrible.