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May 26, 2015 4:32 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Voter Enrollment Leans Toward Independence From Major Parties

May 26, 2015 5:18 PM

As the fall election race begins with this month’s nominations of Town Board candidates by the major political parties in East Hampton and Southampton towns, the evolution of the political landscape on the East End, and the role it may play in this year’s elections, are being eyed closely.

As has been the trend in the last few election cycles, the role of the third-party endorsement and politically unaffiliated voters appear likely to be deciding factors in the town elections yet again.

In both towns, the registration rolls for the two major parties have fallen compared to 2013, albeit only slightly. At the same time, the number of registered voters with no political affiliation—known as “blanks” in political circles—climbed slightly in both towns.

In East Hampton Town, the number of blanks actually has surpassed the number of registered Republicans to become the second-largest block of voters, behind registered Democrats.

In Southampton Town, there is virtually a three-way dead heat between the two major parties and a third group, those with no affiliation or who are registered with the Independence Party. Even party officials have acknowledged that party enrollment is based to some degree on people who intended to have no affiliation with a party, but were added to the Independence Party numbers when marking their voter registration cards “independent” instead of “no affiliation.”

But the Independence Party has established itself as a political force on its own, thanks to the success of its candidates, four of whom hold elected office in Southampton Town. Along with its own candidates, all of whom were cross-endorsed by the Democratic Party in the last election cycle, the party has cross-endorsed candidates from both parties, with significant success.

In East Hampton Town, the Suffolk County Board of Elections enrollment summaries show 6,360 voters registered as Democrats, compared with 3,922 Republicans, as of May 1. Both parties saw slight drops in their overall registration numbers compared to 2013, while the number of unaffiliated voters remained about steady at 4,393. Just over 1,000 are registered with the Independence Party.

In Southampton Town, Republicans maintain a slight edge of 600 registered members over Democrats, 12,251-11,651. There are 10,118 blanks and 2,169 Independence Party registrants.

To what extent blanks and Independence Party voters are actually “swing voters” is the question on the lips of many political observers.

“If you look at the congressional election last year, it was decided by those swing voters,” said State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., an Independence Party member. “They go back and forth between the parties from one election to the next. The two parties still have the advantages as far as affiliation goes, and even affiliated voters are still accustomed to voting for candidates on one of those top two lines.”

And there are some who say that even the major party registration rolls say less about what can be expected on Election Day than they would appear. There have been some hints that the Republican Party is slightly better at getting its members to the polls on the East End, for example.

Analysis of the ballot cards cast by voters through electronic voting machines since 2012 has shown that voters in town elections commonly jump from line to line in casting
their votes.

“The real question is: Is everybody enrolled in a party a dedicated party line voter? And the electronic voting machines have showed us that is often not the case,” said Tom Knoble, chairman of the East Hampton Town Republican Committee and the party’s nominee to challenge Democratic Supervisor Larry Cantwell this fall. “If you look at East End voters, they are notably independent. For the most part, East End folks have rewarded those [candidates] who have shown independence and their own voice.”

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