Their numbers may have decreased, but unaffiliated voters in Douglas County remain crucial to the two major political parties.
"Democrats and Republicans know they must attract the `leaning' voters to win all the time," said Allan Cigler, an associate professor of political science at Kansas University.
Unaffiliated voters people who do not declare a party preference when registering but must do so at the polls to vote in primary elections number 12,644 in Douglas County, or 33 percent of the county's 37,679 registered voters. The figures were released by the county clerk after voter registration closed for the Aug. 7 primary election.
In a strict numbers matchup, Republicans win in the county. Republicans have 15,028 or 40 percent of the registered voters. Democrats account for 27 percent of registered voters with 9,991 voters. Far back is the Libertarian Party with 16 registered voters.
But while unaffiliated voters make a substantial voting bloc, unaffiliated registrations are down from 1986, the last year of a primary in a non-presidential election year. Four years ago, unaffiliated voters were a majority in the county, with 14,112 people, or 39 percent of the electorate. Republicans were second with 12,836 voters for 36 percent and Democrats had 8,827 people registered for 25 percent of the electorate.
AND IN 1974, a period of political disillusionment during the post-Vietnam, Watergate era, unaffiliated voters were a commanding majority with 58 percent of the county registered voters. Republicans represented 30 percent and Democrats had 12 percent of the voters that year.
However, the slippage in the unaffiliated ranks and subsequent increases in the major parties does not necessarily mean that Douglas County voters are losing their independent streak.
Cigler has analyzed state voter registration and found that the presidential preference primary 10 years ago shifted many voters from unaffiliated to one of the parties.
"Party registration jumped up in 1980 when Kansas went to the primary system," he said. "It was a major jump. But the parties are not as strong as they used to be.
"THE CANDIDATES today run fairly independent campaigns. In the Republican party you have a guy (Nestor Weigand) taking on the governor (Mike Hayden) and the established party."
County Clerk Patty Jaimes said she thinks one reason for the decline in unaffiliated voters was that many people simply forgot to change their status back to unaffiliated after declaring a party preference at the polls in a primary election.
Officials for both parties were pleased to see increases in their registrations. Republicans showed an increase of 17 percent in registrants from 1986, and Democrats gained 13 percent during the same period. These gains came at the expense of the unaffiliated voters, which dropped 10 percent.
"I THINK IT'S a good sign for Republicans," said Sandy Praeger, a legislative candidate and county vice chairman of the Republican party. "I think the Republican party is attractive to many people."
Garth Burns, chairman of the Douglas County Democrats, said he did not expect as big of an increase as his party posted.
"The greater than 10 percent gain surprised me, and the 10 percent loss (of unaffiliated voters) surprised me," he said. "People value their independence. The trend has been away from party preference."
It is that independent tendency of Douglas County voters that keeps both parties mindful of the influence wielded by the unaffiliated. The county, while having a strong Republican tradition, has often elected Democrats to office. Three of the four local state representatives are Democrats.
"DEMOCRATS and Republicans know they must attract the `leaning' voters to win all the time," Cigler said.
Burns' strategy for the Democrats is to pursue Republicans as well as the unaffiliated voters.
"Even though they have an `R' by their name on the registration rolls, they still are pretty independent," he said of Republican voters. "I think Republicans have long outnumbered Democrats in registration, but we've consistently elected a lot of Democrats in the county and the statehouse and even statewide candidates."
Praeger, a former Lawrence mayor and city commissioner, will get to practice what she preaches about attracting voters from outside to the Republican party. She is running for 44th District seat in the Kansas House of Representatives being vacated by Democratic Rep. Jessie Branson.
"IN MY CAMPAIGN I'll try to appeal to what the majority of people in Lawrence want regardless of party affiliation," Praeger said. "Voters are more independent in Lawrence, so candidates run a more broad-based campaign."
Overall, voter registration has increased in Douglas County by 5.3 percent from 1986. Both Cigler and Jaimes concurred that the increase could be attributed to a similar 5.4 percent gain in county's estimated population from 1986 to 1988.
Jaimes said the increase also might be from increased interest in this year's primary, but primaries are not known for always drawing lots of votes to the polls. Only 25 percent of the county's registered voters participated in the 1986 primary.