Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett says few independents vote in primaries.

Ross D. Franklin / AP 2012

PHOENIX — Independents now outnumber both Republicans and Democrats in Arizona as voters continue to abandon the two major parties.

But that actually could lead to further political polarization on both ends of the political spectrum, at least in the short term.

New figures Monday from the Secretary of State’s Office show there are now 1,134,243 people registered to vote who have chosen not to belong to any of the four recognized parties. The other two are the Libertarian and Independent American parties; the Green Party failed to maintain enough voters.

In Pima County, the number of registered Democrats and Republicans both declined by slightly more the 8,000 since the 2012 general election. The number of independents increased by nearly 5,000 during the same period.

The overall number of registered voters in Pima County has declined by 12,200 since 16 months ago.

The numbers are no surprise, as more and more Arizonans are “disaffected” by the two major parties, said pollster Earl deBerge. Those who choose not to register with them want a more moderate path, he said.

But deBerge noted that independents just don’t vote when it really counts: in the primary.

Secretary of State Ken Bennett agreed. He said it’s not unusual to have 60-plus percent of people registered with parties actually vote in the primary. 

So who’s left in the party — and who turns out — are the true die-hards.

“As the parties shrink ... moderates move to the center and become independents,” deBerge said. That is happening with both parties.

“As that happens, there’s no doubt that the parties will become more ‘dogmatic’ by virtue of the fact that the people who are left are more dogmatic,” he said.

That’s also the contention of pollster and political consultant Bruce Merrill.

“The people that stay in the parties are increasingly going to be more ideological,” he said. “It’s the people that are kind of disgusted with what’s going on with both the Democratic and Republican sides that leave the party.”

Pollster Michael O’Neil also has watched the trends from the time two decades ago when independents were fewer than 15 percent of the electorate.

“I think it kind of reflects a general disgust in the culture,” he said. “As people are registering to vote, they’re saying, ‘I really don’t like either of these guys.’ ”

But O’Neil, while agreeing that independents do not turn out as much at the polls, is not sure that the declining numbers of those identifying with the major parties  will create more extreme politics than what already exists in Arizona.

Bennett, though, said he can foresee the possibility of the disaffected voters leaving the parties — and the primaries — to the true believers.

He noted that the primary becomes the de facto election in the vast majority of legislative districts where one party or the other is so dominant that the other party’s candidate really stands no chance in the November general election. So the ultimate winners become the candidates who appealed to those who continue to remain registered with their parties.

That left Bennett, who also is in a crowded Republican primary for governor, to plead for more independent participation in the primaries.

“We encourage a better turnout amongst this very important group in our primary elections,” he said.

There is an alternative that could make independents more relevant: a top-two primary, where all candidates run against one another and all voters get to make their choices. Then the top vote-getters face off in the general election, even if it turns out that both are from the same party.

Voters had a chance to create such a system in 2012, but the measure was rejected.

Merrill thinks the problem will resolve itself as older voters — the ones most linked to parties — die off and candidates realize they cannot count on party affiliation to get them elected.

Reporter Joe Ferguson contributed to this story.