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Looking for a Voice 

The number of independent voters in Louisiana has exploded, but that doesn't mean they're playing a larger role in the election process.

Mainstream candidates rarely know how to approach them, a vast majority don't have a national platform, and all serve an underappreciated role in the American election process. Over the past 10 years, hundreds of thousands of voters have made the switch. Today, there are nearly 610,000 independent voters in Louisiana -- those with no ties to either major political party. That's up from 360,000 in 1997, when Ross Perot's Reform Party was reaching its peak in popularity.

In the election game, this shapeless mass is referred to as simply "The Others." But the tag can be misleading, especially given independents' explosive growth in recent years. Even in Orleans Parish, where hordes of voters were displaced following the 2005 hurricane season, a healthy increase in independents can still be seen. According to post-election statistics from the secretary of state's office, roughly 44,000 independent voters were registered in New Orleans in 1998, but only 4,200 voted. During the special statewide elections last year, the number of independents casting votes in Orleans more than doubled, to nearly 11,000.

While independents in Louisiana are nowhere close to closing the gap with the 1.5 million registered Democrats, they have only 83,500 fewer members than the Republican Party. Despite their large numbers, independents are rarely tapped for judicial appointments or asked for input. Additionally, in the course of their research, political scientists focus more on voting behavior than party identification. It's just one of many factors making it difficult to gauge the impact of independents in Louisiana, says Ernie Roberson, a Caddo Parish native who became Louisiana's first nationally certified registrar of voters in 1999.

When the National Voter Registration Act was adopted 14 years ago, enabling people to become voters through offices of motor vehicles, Web sites, libraries and other means, many hurriedly signed up and left their party affiliation blank, says Roberson, thus making them an "other" on the rolls. "The biggest surprise we saw in those early years was how many people just didn't pick a mainline party at all," says Roberson, who has served on two federal election task forces. "That's what makes them difficult for candidates to approach. That's why neither of the parties can make headway in getting converts. It's so hard to measure because there's so much we don't know about them."

Furthermore, there are countless registered Democrats and Republicans who consider themselves independents but have never switched. That comes as heartening news to Michael S. Wolf, secretary of the Louisiana Libertarian Party. It means there is room for growth. Arguably the most active independent party in the state, Libertarians frequently run candidates for statewide office and Congress -- 24 contenders since 2000 -- but they're placing a larger focus on state legislative seats this year. The move could prove to be a boon for the group's grassroots structure.

With more than 2,500 voters on the rolls, Wolf says the Libertarians, along with the Green and Reform parties, which are also recognized by the state, offer independent voters a place to call home. It's the surest way independents can unite to offer an alternative to the status quo, although many will find it equally attractive to stand firm and remain autonomous. "Parties in Louisiana have historically been futile, but that's changing," Wolf says. "Voting has been about relationships and personalities. Everybody had to join a team, but there are alternatives."

Candidates running as independent were allowed to place their party's name near theirs on ballots for the first time last year, as long as their party met certain criteria -- at least 1,000 registered voters and a presidential candidate that pulled down 5 percent in a recent statewide election. Many groups, such as the "Independent Party," didn't make the cut when the law took effect in 2005, despite its 30,000 members. Neither did the Black Panther Party nor the Aerosmith Party, both of which had only a small handful of members.

Since the mid-1970s, Louisiana's unique open primary system has encouraged more independent thinking. Independents (and Republicans) were placed on equal footing with the long-dominant Democrats. But, starting next year, Louisiana will revert to the closed primary system for federal elections (Congress and the U.S. Senate). The two dominant parties will have to decide whether to allow independents to vote in their separate federal primaries. Independents could get shut out of primaries, though they will be able to vote in November general elections.

Wolf isn't convinced the new federal primary system will set back non-affiliated voters, but he's holding off judgment until the 2008 election cycle wraps up. Dr. Robert Hogan, a professor of American politics at LSU, says the independent movement in Louisiana over the past decade can't be ignored, but the next few years may define the political currents more clearly. "The congressional races are changing, the Legislature is in play and Katrina is still upsetting the applecart," Hogan says. "These factors could very well go against this upwards trend."

Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

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