Politics & Government

N.C. sees rise in unaffliated voters

Unaffiliated voters now outnumber those registered as members of one of the two major parties in more than half of North Carolina’s 100 counties.

Registration data from the State Board of Elections show unaffiliated voters have surpassed Republicans in 36 counties, and Democrats in 19.

In four counties – Currituck, Dare, Transylvania and Watauga – unaffiliated voters are the majority. While the legacy parties still dominate overall – with Democratic the most popular affiliation at 2.7 million registered members, followed by Republican at 2 million – voters are eschewing party affiliation in greater numbers.

Ten years ago, there were fewer than a million unaffiliated voters, 18 percent of the electorate at the time. Today, 1.78 million voters represent 27 percent of the whole.

The fact that unaffiliated voters can choose any party’s ballot during primary elections probably isn’t the lead attraction, said Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College.

In a phone interview, he noted the decline of more liberal “Rockefeller Republicans” and conservative Southern Democrats. “Those two species are gone,” he said. “They’re extinct.”

Remaining are two major parties with fairly clear, separate standards, and when anyone doesn’t easily identify with either, is frustrated with the system or is a newcomer, “There’s an out,” Bitzer said, “and it’s called unaffiliated.”

In Democrat-dominated Chowan County on the coast, unaffiliated voters have been catching up with Republican numbers for years. It’s a similar situation headed west in Republican-dominated Iredell County, where unaffiliated voters are increasingly on the Democrats’ heels.

In the 40 percent Democratic Wake County, there are more unaffiliated voters (32 percent) than Republicans (28 percent). In the 36 percent Republican Brunswick County, unaffiliated voters now exceed Democrats, which just a few years ago were the majority party.

In the western county of Watauga, unaffiliateds eclipse each major party – and by an expanding margin. “I think it’s because we’re a university town,” said Jane Hodges, Watauga County elections director, emphasizing that Appalachian State University essentially fills out that county.

She said unaffiliated voters became the majority about four years ago, a popularity she attributed to the voters’ college age. “I don’t think they’ve decided on a definite party yet,” Hodges said.

In coastal Currituck County, where the median age is 41 and the unaffiliated lead, party independence is probably more of a purposeful choice, said Rachel Raper, that county’s elections director.

“I feel like the attitude is they want to be independent, and they want to be able to choose which primary they want to vote in,” Raper said. “We do have active primaries here.”

Generally, though, unaffiliateds aren’t the most active voters when compared with turnout by those who identify with a major party. Ballot-casting breakdowns in North Carolina show Republicans and Democrats consistently more eager than unaffiliated voters in midterm elections, such as this year’s. One-stop voting in 2010 – the last midterm – showed a 47 percent Democratic turnout, 36 percent Republican and 17 percent unaffiliated. The numbers were similar on Election Day that year.

So which direction are these no-party voters leaning? They’re not as pliable as vote-seeking candidates might hope, reports say.

“What research has shown is that actually people who say that they’re independent or unaffiliated – if you push them and say, ‘Well do you lean one way or do you lean the other?’ they actually kind of nicely split down the middle in terms of Democrats and Republicans,” said Bitzer, noting that it’s just a small group of voters who could truly swing either way.

The other growing group recognized in North Carolina is the Libertarian Party. In the past 10 years, its registration has increased 139 percent – but its head count remains small. The latest tally of Libertarians statewide is 24,876. That’s 0.3 percent of North Carolina’s electorate.

Benjamin Brown writes for the NCInsider.com, www.ncinsider.com, a government news service owned by The News & Observer.