Ranks of unaffiliated voters soaring in state

Dec. 21, 2013 @ 05:05 PM

An analysis of voter registration put out last week by Democracy North Carolina says a great deal about the shifting political picture in North Carolina.

And it probably reflects the disdain for politics – or at least the major political parties –so evident in public discourse these days. 

The staggering fact that emerges in the data is the rapid growth in unaffiliated voters, those who register no allegiance to any political party.  As a news release from Democracy North Carolina puts it, “the major political parties are losing thousands of members from their peak five years ago while the number of unaffiliated voters is climbing higher for all ages and races.”

In 2008, 2,866,669 North Carolinians registered as Democrats – about 46 percent of the 6.3 million voters registered in the state.  By 2013, although total registrations had grown by more than 200,000, the number of Democrats had slipped to 2,763,885 – a loss of 102,784.  Democrats make up just 43 percent of the state’s voters today.

For Republicans, the slippage has been less, but their numbers are down, too. This year, 1,990,065 Tar Heel voters are registered as Republicans, 12,351 fewer than five years ago.  The GOP’s share of total registration has fluctuated less – down from 33 percent to 32 percent.

The ranks of the unaffiliated have soared by 306,533, to 1,698,544, or 26 percent of the electorate.

Look back 20 years, and the changes are even more striking. In 1993, although Republicans were well into their resurgence as a competitive party in the state, Democrats were 60 percent of the electorate and still held a two-to-one registration edge. Unaffiliated voters were a relative rarity – less than one in 10 voters registered with no party.

In Durham County, a bit of a political island, Democrats still hold a substantial registration edge. Today about 59 percent of the county’s roughly 200,000 registered voters are Democrats – down by only about three percentage points from 2008. Republicans are down slightly to about 14 percent and unaffiliated voters are at 27 percent, slightly more than in 2008. (The 2008 numbers counted only active voters; current county statistics are for active and inactive.)

The changing face of the statewide electorate emphasizes the reason statewide elections have become hotly competitive between the two major parties – while the Democratic edge persists, it has shrunk considerably. And candidates can and will compete furiously to attract a majority of those 1.7 million unaffiliated voters.

That unaffiliated number, as a Democracy NC news release put it,
“indicates people are not attracted to either major party.”

If North Carolina’s growth continues as expected with more and more people attracted here by the economy, climate and amenities, and with many of those being younger folks, we’re likely to see the partisan landscape continuing to shift.

“More North Carolinians, especially new residents and young voters, are refusing to embrace or perhaps even understand a party’s philosophy,” Bob Hall, Democracy NC’s director, said. “That will make it harder for parties to mobilize voters as their core supporters decline, particularly in a non-presidential year like 2014.”

It is reasonable to assume that the partisan bickering and gridlock in Washington – despite the slight thaw reflected in last week’s budget agreement – will only continue to alienate voters.

And for North Carolina politicians, it should be a reminder, as if one were needed, that it is only too easy to read into any electoral victory more of a mandate than a momentary majority assembled from archly independent voters may have intended.

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or bashley@heraldsun.com.