Unless you are directly involved in politics, you likely have given little thought to your party affiliation. You may claim to be a Democrat, Independent, or a Republican simply based on your voting history or views, but as far as formally declaring your party, few people do. A search of most registered voters in Arkansas, for example, will reveal most are members of the "Optional" Party. That simply means the person has no declared party. In fact, unless you go down to the clerk's office and declare yourself a Democrat, Republican, or another party, you are likely listed as "Optional" Party.
Once you become involved in politics, you likely declare your party. Young people will going groups like "Young Democrats" or "Young Republicans." Adults will join groups like the Miller County Republican Committee or the Miller County Democratic Party. Many of them will then contact the clerk and make sure it clearly shows on voter registration a Democrat or Republican. This is usually done when someone wants to be active, run for office, or work for a specific campaign.
Whether a person is a "Claimed" Democrat or Republican based on voting history or a declared party member or voter, at some point, that person made a decision. Sometimes people join the party of their parents, grandparents, or a close friend. At other times they join a party based on the current president or an elected official. Whatever the reason, people become Republicans, Democrats or Independents either officially or unofficially.
One of the chief complaints seen by all parties is when a long-standing member of the party decides to change parties. It may be a voter changing party, a potential candidate for office, or an officeholder who chooses to switch parties. Ultimately, there is only a handful of reasons to change a party...in fact, there are only three.
The first reason to change a party is that it's not your party. Maybe you grew up as a Democrat, but you've always supported and liked Republicans. Maybe you like their platform and agree with it more than the Democrat platform, but mom and dad were Democrats, so you claim or declare that party. One day you come to the realization that you're only a Democrat because of your parents, and you decide it's time to join the Republican Party. So, your change comes because you realize it was never your party.
The second reason to change a party is that the party leaves you behind. Maybe you have been a Republican all your life, but you find that the platform of the party no longer agrees with your beliefs. You look at other platforms, and you see the Democrat platform is more in line with your way of thinking. At this point, you change parties because your current party left you behind.
The third and final reason for changing parties is election outcomes. Maybe your area has historically been pro-Democrat, and you've been a Democrat for years. One day you find that the locality where you live is now pro-Republican. You look around and see more Republican voters, more Republican officeholders, and more Republican-leaning people in your area. At this point, you evaluate your position and find that the only way you believe you can win the election is to be a Republican candidate. So, you switch parties to win the election.
History is full of people changing parties. I know of one potential candidate that has been an Independent, Republican, Democrat, and back to Republican while running for office. That candidate has never won an office. Many supporters of Ronald Reagan are surprised to learn that he was once a Democrat, but it's true, and he changed parties.
In the end, the change to a different political party simply puts money into that party's account. Those filing for office pay the party, those wishing to join local committees or parties pay money, and donations often increase when that party is popular. The only real way to know if the candidate or citizen is truly a Democrat, Republican, or Independent is to watch the way they vote, where their support goes, and if elected officials, how they vote, represent, and what legislation they support or introduce.
In recent years, Arkansas has seen a good number of Democrats change to the Republican Party. This change has upset some long-standing Republicans. Those Republicans have expressed concern because they feel like these new Republican converts are merely joining the party to win votes, and that may be true. However, Republicans must keep in mind that some of these new converts may also have seen the changes in the Democrat Party and decided they do not like those changes.
For the time being, all the Republican Party can do is accept filing fees, support the Republican candidates and monitor the candidate after he or she is in the office to see if that candidate supports Republican initiatives and pushes the platform and party views. Only time will tell if a Democrat becoming a Republican is a real change or merely a wolf playing in the field of sheep.