Taylor Batten

A riddle: What has 1.8 million mouths but no voice?

In case you hadn’t noticed, Americans are increasingly turned off by both Democrats and Republicans. From Hillary Clinton to Bob Rucho, they’re as popular as Greg Hardy at a debutante ball.

But what choice do voters have? In North Carolina and many other states, precious little, because the laws are stacked against independents.

Consider Lee Roberts. Please.

When state Treasurer Janet Cowell announced this month that she would not seek reelection, Roberts’s name popped up immediately as a potential candidate. As Gov. Pat McCrory’s budget director and the scion of a political family, he made a lot of sense.

The catch? Roberts is registered unaffiliated. He can’t just sign up to run when filing opens in December, like Democrats and Republicans can. He’d have to amass about 90,000 signatures of registered voters and have them come from at least four different congressional districts. No thanks.

The ranks of the unaffiliated are swelling far faster than that of either party, but an antiquated and incumbent-protecting system leaves them on the outside looking in.

Consider: According to data from Republican consultant Paul Shumaker, unaffiliated voters now outnumber Republicans in 33 of 100 N.C. counties (including Mecklenburg). They outnumber Democrats in 16 counties and they outnumber both in four counties.

Over the past 10 years, Shumaker says, Republicans have lost ground in 66 N.C. counties. Democrats have lost ground in 99 counties (the one county where they haven’t? Mecklenburg!). Unaffiliated voters, in contrast, have gained ground in all 100 counties. Soon there will be more registered unaffiliated voters than Republican ones statewide.

What do they have to show for it? One unaffiliated legislator among 170 – and he switched only after being elected as a Democrat. Zero unaffiliated candidates elected to statewide office. Zero unaffiliated candidates elected in Charlotte or Mecklenburg.

The signature requirement is one big reason (an independent who wants to be Charlotte mayor would have to secure about 20,000 signatures of registered voters within the city). Also, voters are accustomed to using parties as a cue and can be reluctant to vote for independents. And the two big parties have all the structural advantages, meaning money.

So North Carolina’s 1.8 million unaffiliated voters are forced to vote in a Democratic or Republican primary and be represented by them. Those voters grow increasingly disillusioned with politics while the parties, helped also by gerrymandered districts, increasingly cater to the two competing extremes.

At least unaffiliated voters in North Carolina can vote in the party primaries. That may be at risk, though, as some party activists, armed with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling from 2000, want to close their primaries to only members of their party. If that happens, independent voters – who will soon make up a third of the state – will have no voice at all.

There are ways to give independents the voice their numbers warrant while also producing more moderate politicians. North Carolina could establish a “top two” primary like California’s, in which all candidates run and the top two advance to the general election. Or it could establish a third primary for unaffiliated candidates, with much smaller signature requirements.

Next time a Democrat or Republican opposes these kinds of ideas, know he’s protecting his own cancer-causing bacon.

Reach me at tbatten@charlotteobserver.com; on Twitter @tbatten1.