Nearly a milllion people have added their names to the North Carolina voter-registration rolls in the eight-and-a-half years since Barack Obama was first elected president. That’s a testimonial to two things: this state’s rapid growth and the commitment of its citizenry to the democratic process.
Here’s the remarkable thing about all those new voters: They’re rejecting party membership. Fully 80 percent of them are registering as unaffiliated voters. That’s this state’s fastest-growing voter category, on its way to overtaking Republicans as the second-biggest group of voters. And the unaffiliateds have only about 600,000 (out of 6.7 million total voters) to go before they’re a bigger group than the Democrats.
I get why that’s happening. I’m one of the unaffiliated voters. As an opinion page editor, I believe that’s necessary. I don’t want to pledge allegiance to any of the major parties, so I can cast critical comments at either without any question about my own alliances.
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But truth is, I wouldn’t be a member of either major party today anyway. And I know them both pretty well – I’ve been part of each one at various times in my life.
I started out registering as a Democrat, like a majority of my young-voter peers back in the Nixon administration.
Later, as I became a homeowner and a father, I had a falling-out with the tax-happy party. I was living in Massachusetts, during Mike Dukakis’ time as governor, when the state deserved its mocking nickname, “Taxachusetts.” I took issue with the bloated, inefficient government that my taxes were supporting. So I changed my registration to Republican and supported Republican Bill Weld, who turned out to be one of the best governors I’ve seen anywhere, improving the quality of government while slashing its cost.
But I chose to leave Massachusetts and the Republican Party in the late 1990s. I left the state to move to the South and I left the party because it was overrun by wing nuts who were systematically purging the sane moderate wing.
A lasting stamp?
Back to North Carolina: Bob Hall, who heads the voter-advocacy group Democracy North Carolina, believes all those new independent voters are going to steer the state away from the intense partisanship it endures today. Half of those unaffiliated voters are under age 41, Hall found in his research, while only a third of the Democrats and 30 percent of the Republicans are in that age group. Hall believes this will lead to “a notable bias for candidates outside the mainstream.”
“Ironically,” Hall says, “while the General Assembly is busy passing laws to add party labels to more statewide and local elections, new voters are rejecting the major parties as a record rate.” He points to studies showing that independent voters strongly support redistricting reform and keeping special interests out of our court system.
The growth of unaffiliated voters will take its toll on traditional politics before long. Intensely partisan lawmakers are likely to give way to new generations of pragmatists who seek the best solutions and want to create the best quality of life for everyone. I may be wrong – the two parties may undergo intense reforms of their own as younger voters begin to take them over. But it’s more likely that the independent voters will put a lasting stamp on North Carolina politics and government in years to come.
And that would be a wonderful outcome, because the two traditional parties are showing us every day that they’re not up to the challenge of governance anymore.
Tim White is the editorial page editor of the Fayetteville Observer.