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C. Eugene Emery Jr.
By C. Eugene Emery Jr. July 12, 2010

Gemma says Democrat ranks are thinning as voters shed party ties

Anthony Gemma, one of four Democrats running for the 1st Congressional District seat being vacated by Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, was vying for the party's endorsement on June 28 when he spoke about the percentage of registered Democrats and suggested that the party's share was declining.

"What's at stake for the Democratic party in the upcoming election and beyond? Today 41 percent of Rhode Islanders are registered Democrats. Forty eight (percent) are unaffiliated. It is the common political wisdom that the trend away from the Democratic party to non-affiliation will continue and intensify. But I have the courage to be your congressman. I will lead the fight to reverse that trend, to reinvigorate [the] populism that has never left the heart of the Democratic party."

It certainly seems that more voters are unwilling to sign up with a party these days. But is the trend really there?

So we checked with the secretary of state's office.

The numbers provided to us by spokesman Chris Barnett seem to show that Gemma misspoke a bit. He should have said that 41 percent of registered voters are registered as Democrats. Not all Rhode Islanders are registered to vote.

The actual percentage as of June 18: 40.9 percent of the 701,180 registered voters are declared Democrats. Unaffiliated voters make up 48.6 percent and Republicans have 10.4 percent. (The Moderate Party had 312 registered voters, or 0.044 percent.)

But we were interested in the trend.

Barnett supplied numbers going back to Sept. 12, 2006. Looking at those, it's hard to see where Democrats have been losing ground.

On Sept. 9, 2008, Democrats essentially made up the same percentage of voters: 40.8 percent. The percentage of unaffiliated voters was also a bit lower than today, at 48.2 percent.

Two years before that, on Sept. 12, 2006, 35.2 percent of the voters declared themselves as Democrats, a significantly lower ratio. The unaffiliated made up 54.5 percent of the voting population, higher than today.

So, if anything, the popularity of the state Democratic party has grown since 2006 and the share of unaffiliated voters has declined.

When we asked the Gemma campaign about the claim, spokesman Ray Rickman, who served as deputy secretary of state from 2001 to 2002, said Gemma's staff was harking back to an earlier era. "Two or three of us have been around forever and we remember when 60 percent of everybody, or even higher, were Democrats and the number of unaffiliated was 12 percent, or whatever," he said.

He said the campaign was unable to find earlier numbers, a problem Barnett in the secretary of state's office had also brought up. Until the last several years, "they didn't collect it because it changes almost weekly," Rickman said. "And people only wanted to know what the vote was, not what the registration was."

The only way to get such numbers would be to compile historical records from all 39 municipal canvassing boards, which would be cumbersome, he said.

So we dug a little deeper, and found a Providence Journal story from March 7, 2000, reporting that then-Secretary of State (and now Congressman) James Langevin tracked the number of eligible voters going back to 1970. The story included a breakdown of the 2000 numbers by party. The data: fewer than 9 percent were Republicans, 56 percent were unaffiliated (far higher than today) and 35 percent were Democrats (significantly lower than today).

Gemma is citing a trend that doesn't exist -- not in recent history, not going back 10 years. So we rate his statement as False.

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Gemma says Democrat ranks are thinning as voters shed party ties

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