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Kicking off the official start of this year’s presidential election, the Iowa Caucus on Feb. 1 invited registered voters across the state to discuss and vote for their party nominees.

Far from first, Florida will hold its presidential primaries on March 15. At UCF, some students are feeling "the Bern," some want to make "America Great Again," some want anything to "trump" that option, but come the Feb. 16, anyone who is unregistered to vote in the primaries will be unable to participate in an integral part of the election process.

Florida’s status as a closed-primary state means that voters must be registered with a political party for at least 30 days prior to the primary in order to participate.

But a growing trend among young voters reflects a shift toward independence from America's two-party system.

“We have seen a big increase in the number of voters who don’t identify with either of the major political parties, and a lot of that trend is being driven by voters 30 and under,” said Aubrey Jewett, an associate professor of political science at UCF.

Florida voters are registered by major, minor or no party affiliation, leaving independent and no-party voters with little to no influence in the first part of the election process.

The number of registered voters who identified outside of the two major political parties increased by 12.3 percent from the 2012 presidential primaries to 2014, according to the Florida Department of State Division of Elections. 

“What this means is that a number of younger voters are not having as much of a say in primaries because we see a disproportionate amount across their age group,” Jewett said. “The parties are less likely to represent the views of younger voters because there are not as many young voters in their party as there used to be.”

Elaine Sarlo, president of College Republicans at UCF, said that while a majority of students who register to vote with her organization tend to align with Republican beliefs, the group often engages with students of political beliefs across the spectrum.

“While we have learned there are many more conservative students on campus than commonly thought, many of the students we encounter either consider themselves independent or are not sure of their political affiliation,” Sarlo said.

While many of these voters may not be able to reflect their first choice in candidates in the primaries, Sarlo said she anticipates that non-party affiliated voters will have a significant impact in the general election.

Although the number of non-party voters is growing, their voting behavior in the general election is not entirely independent. Jewett said that, based on his research, most independents lean towards one major party and usually vote that way fairly consistently.

“There very few true independents,” he said.

Jewett himself has never been registered with a major political party.

“I don’t feel comfortable with the party label,” he said. “I just choose not to align officially for either party even though I know I wont have any say in the primary election, and I suspect a lot of people are the same way.”

Nikki Mariutto, president of College Democrats at UCF, said that although she does not feel that non-party voters are detrimental to the election process, they can play a significant role, particularly in Florida.

“Since Florida is such a swing state, the closed primary can unfortunately keep some voters from voting for their preferred candidate,” she said.

Student wishing to change their party affiliation or register to vote in the primaries can do so before Feb. 16 in front of the Student Union on Market Wednesdays, or online.

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Daniela Marin is a digital producer for the Central Florida Future. Follow her on Twitter at @dan__marin or email her at DanielaM@CentralFloridaFuture.com.

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