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Published Sunday, October 17, 2004
THE OTHER PARTIES

Political Affiliations in Polk Stretch Way Beyond Republican and Democrat


shelley.preston@theledger.com

James Russell Smith of Lake Wales is the only person in Polk County registered with the British Reformed Sectarian Party. When a reporter asks him what the party's platform is, he laughs and says, "I couldn't tell you, maybe you can tell me. Can you find out? I have no idea."

Smith, 57, says he chose the party after browsing through party codes when he registered to vote. He says the name seemed to fit his Anglo-American background as his parents were British.

"It was a whim," says the 57-year-old self-employed artist.

Smith may have a sense of humor when it comes to choosing a party affiliation, but others are serious about their allegiance to minor parties.

When Victor Mansfield of Lakeland goes to the polls on Nov. 2, he won't vote for George Bush and he won't vote for John Kerry; in the box for president, he'll mark the name of someone not many people have heard of.

At 82, he says he's been around long enough to be jaded by mainstream politics. As a member of the America First party, he knows his candidate, Michael Peroutka, will not win the election, but he can't bring himself to vote for anyone else in good conscience.

"My wife asked me if I had to vote for either Kerry, Bush or Nader, who would I choose? I said I wouldn't vote: I won't vote for any evil or the lesser of two evils."

Mansfield and Smith are two of more than 52,000 Polk County residents belonging to minor parties or having no party affiliation -- approximately 18 percent of registered voters. Most of those voters consider themselves to be independent. But more than 2,000 residents belong to little-known parties, such as the Family Values Party, Vets Party of America and Independent Democrats of Florida. Though their platforms are as varied as the contents of a bag of trail mix, what they have in common is a disgruntled view of mainstream politicians.

"More people are registered these days with third parties," says Stephen Craig, a professor of political science at the University of Florida. According to statistics from the Florida Department of State, in August 2000, 1.5 percent of registered voters belonged to minor parties. In August 2004, it was 2.6 percent.

The numbers are undeniably small in the big picture, but as the presidential election in 2000 taught us, every vote counts -- or in Florida's case, is counted and recounted. A Gallup poll released Tuesday reported how close the presidential race is: John Kerry had 49 percent of likely voters on his side, Bush 48 percent, and Ralph Nader 1 percent.

Since the beginning of political history in the United States, Craig says, the country has always had two strong major parties with a few minor ones thrown in. In times of unrest, Craig says, interest in third parties rises. In 1992, Ross Perot became the most successful third-party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, with 19 percent of the popular vote. Fans viewed the billionaire as an antidote to the ailing economy under George H.W. Bush.

While most eyes are on Nader again as the potential monkey wrench in the upcoming election, Richard Scher, also a political science professor at the University of Florida, says Libertarian Party candidate Michael Badnarik is the one to watch.

"Like most third-party voters, the Libertarians use their vote as a protest against the Republicans and Democrats," Scher says, "But, they may have more of an impact on the election than all other third parties combined."

Almost 300 voters in Polk County are Libertarians.

Ralph Swanson, an administrator for the Libertarians in Winter Park, says they have received less than 1 percent of the vote in past presidential elections, but expects to see anywhere from 2 to 5 percent in Florida based on growing interest in the party he has noticed. Swanson is also optimistic that they will see more of their candidates on future ballots. "Just being on the ballot is a victory," he says. Libertarians say they favor cutting back the size and cost of government, rolling back taxes and reversing laws that control people's personal choices.

In Polk County, there are 7,724 registered with the Independent Party. There is no way to know if some of those voters intended to register as No Party Affiliation, says Judy Walker, outreach services coordinator for the Supervisor of Elections Office in Polk County.

Ernie Bach of Largo, who took over the party's chairman position in July, says he hopes to take advantage of the large number of people registered as Independents and create a legitimate party.

"These are people who have nowhere to hang their hat," Bach explains. "If NPAs had a real moderate choice, they will come to us in droves."

As of yet, the Independent Party of Florida has no candidates on the ballot.

Other examples of groups with equally strong convictions are the America First Party, to which Victor Mansfield of Lakeland belongs, and the Constitution Party. Both parties contain former Republicans who think the GOP isn't conservative enough and consistently violates the founding principles of the original constitution as it was signed in 1787.

On the left side of the minor-party spectrum are the Independent Democrats of Florida, whose goal is to make Hillary Clinton president in 2008, and the Green Party. The Greens are dedicated to grassroots democracy, sustainable living and global demilitarization.

However, someone's chosen political party is not an indicator of how they will vote when they get their ballots, says Scher.

"Right now is not a very suitable breeding ground for third parties -- not with the country being as worked up as it is and as polarized as it is," he says, "Everything is seen in red or blue (Republican or Democrat)."

As a case in point, Smith, Polk's sole British Reformed Sectarian, will vote for Kerry on Nov. 2.

For others, such as Libertarian Ralph Swanson, he'll continue to march to a different drummer.

"It's tempting to be frustrated," Swanson says, "But we can make it into a fun game. When we sit down to talk to someone and they say, `Hey, that makes sense,' it's a victory."

Shelley Preston can be reached at 863-802-7517 or shelley.preston@theledger.com.


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