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Unaffiliated voters seek more options in a two-party system

James Brown
Major party affiliations in Monroe County over the last two decades.

Mai Abdullah is civic-minded. She’s a Sudanese immigrant and an Arabic court interpreter. The mother of three also serves on the Rush Henrietta school district's Board of Education. 

She’s also part of a growing population in Monroe County: She has no political party.

“And I thought about joining, like declaring myself and saying like I’m a Democrat,” said Abdullah. “I’m a part of the Democratic Party, and then I looked deeper at issues that are important to me and pertain to me and I thought the Democrats are not doing enough.”

Monroe County Board of Elections data shows Abdullah isn’t alone. The number of unaffiliated voters has been on a steady climb for much of the last two decades. There are a little more than 112,000 registered no-party voters locally. For comparison’s sake, there are only 13,000 more registered Republicans in the county. There are nearly 200,000 Democrats.

The numbers are similar statewide. The state Board of Elections said 2.5 million voters are unaffiliated, and 2.65 million are Republicans. 6.5 million registered voters are Democrats.

Timothy Kneeland chairs the political science and history departments at Nazareth College. He said that unaffiliated voters can be the difference in tightly contested races. Kneeland also said they're more likely to see themselves outsiders.

“They’re gonna vote like the major parties,” said Kneeland. “But they don’t see themselves as being connected in any way, culturally or historically, with any major party, and they feel by not endorsing a major party, they have more freedom.”

Credit Provided
Mai Abdullah, center, and her three children.

For Abdullah, the choice came after careful consideration. Abdullah said the Democrats break campaign promises too much. She also said they compromise on major issues like health care and the environment. 

Abdullah is a fan of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and was hoping for a third left-leaning major party to emerge in his image. But without that party, she shifted her focus to voting President Donald Trump out of office. And whether she likes it or not, she said she’ll rely on Democrats to get it done. 

“ I can barely say Trump’s name with everything he stands for,” said Abdullah. “He needs to go. I’m willing to compromise myself to make sure that he doesn’t get a second term.

Credit Provided
Steve Weisenreder has had a change of heart about the Republican Party.

Kneeland said many suburban voters like Abdullah have been angered by the Trump administration.

“It's no longer the Republican Party of 2012,” said Kneeland. “It's the Trump party now. It's been remade in his image. The policy, the politics, and the sorta vicious rhetoric, clearly comes from the top on down.”

For lifelong Republican Steve Weisenreder, Trump was the final straw. The East Rochester resident said he's lost what little faith he had left in the party.

“Basically when they nominated Donald Trump to be president,” said Weisenreder. “I said even though I’d like to vote for you guys, I can’t have that letter next to my name.”

He works for a local nonprofit and calls himself “very political.” As an LGBTQ voter, Weisenreder said his values are now in line with the Democrats -- but he’s not ready to commit just yet..

“It feels like a very deliberate,’ I'm on your team,’” said Weisenreder. “As opposed to, ‘I support you because you represent my interests, you have to continue to earn my support.’ ”

This is part one of a two part series on unaffliated voters. Part two is here.