What's a Republican to do in Chatham County in order to vote in the current election? Switch their registration, of course.
That's what more than 450 Republicans did between Feb. 1 and the March 13 deadline to be able to vote in the May 8 primary election. There are three races on the ballot, but none of them are between Republican candidates.
The most significant race is for Chatham County sheriff, which pits Sheriff Mike Roberson against Pittsboro Police Chief Percy Crutchfield. Roberson is up for election for the first time after being appointed in 2016. Crutchfield also is making his first run for office. Both are Democrats. The winner will be the next sheriff since there is no Republican opposition set for the November general election.
The salary for the Chatham County sheriff is $106,727. The Sheriff's Office employees 145 people and the budget for 2017-18 is $13.3 million.
Most of the 566 people who changed their party affiliation in Chatham County were Republicans. Of the 454 Republicans who changed their registration, 432 went unaffiliated, according to the county board of elections.
Chatham County GOP Chairman John Palermo said that number was small compared with the number who remained with the party. Chatham County has about 13,000 Republicans out of about 53,000 registered voters. There are just under 19,000 people who are registered unaffiliated in the county and about 21,000 Democrats. Among the latter, 57 switched to unaffiliated and six to Republican.
State election law allows voters who register as unaffiliated to participate in the primary of their choice. There are no Republican races in Chatham County being contested on May 8.
"I think there are people who want to vote in the sheriff's race," Palermo said. "This is their chance."
The percentage of people who changed their party affiliation in Chatham County was five times greater than for Wake, Durham and Orange counties. They saw 0.2 percent of voters change registration before the deadline, while 1 percent of Chatham voters did.
Raw party registration has little relation to electoral outcomes because voting results can be clouded by current events, said UNC Chapel Hill political science professor Jim Stimson. Political identification is more important than party registration to political scientists, he said.
"Some citizens do wander in and out of party identification with the changing sentiment of the times," Stimson said. "Although a relatively small percentage of the electorate, these voters do behave systematically and their net movements show a slight tendency to turn in the direction of the party that is going to win in the months before an election."
But he also said it was rare for people to change their party registration unless there was a reason.
"I would imagine that a significant proportion of all party changers in [Chatham County] are closely associated with [the sheriff's race] — friends and family members," Stimson said. "We know that only very unusual people care enough to go to the trouble of changing their official registration."
The trends in the other three counties mirrored a Gallup Survey Stimson provided that showed an almost 4 percent increase in the number of people identifying as Democrats since Donald Trump was elected in 2016. The ratio of Democrats to Republicans grew in each of the three counties, while the growth of unaffiliated voters outpaced both.
In Orange County, which has 111,738 registered voters, according to the Board of Elections website, there were only 265 party-affiliation changes. Republicans lost 106 voters, including 92 to unaffiliated. Democrats lost 64 voters to unaffiliated, 11 to Republican and one to the Green Party. The number of unaffiliated voters selecting a party was 77, including 58 who chose Democrat and 15 who picked Republican.
In Durham County, with 222,099 registered voters, there were 514 who changed affiliation before the deadline. Republicans lost 202 and Democrats 109 to unaffiliated. But Democrats had a net gain with 151, gaining 23 overall as they got 129 back from unaffiliated, 21 from Republican and a pair from Libertarian.
In Wake County, the largest in the Triangle with 719,934 registered voters, there were 1,568 registration changes. About half of those (786) became unaffiliated with Republicans (396) and Democrats (372) losing about the same number. But again, Democrats saw an overall net-positive growth in their numbers, picking up 117 Republicans and 410 unaffiliated voters, while losing 442.
Early voting runs through Saturday, May 5 with the election May 8.