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Beyond Binary: Unaffiliated Voters Growing in Numbers

One of the fastest growing demographics in eastern North Carolina is also one of its least defined. Since the turn of the 21st Century, the state has witnessed a dramatic uptick in unaffiliated voters.

They’re threatening to break the 2 million mark by the November election, but just how independent are “independent voters?”

Chris Thomas has more.

A former, long-time resident of Onslow County and the daughter of a Marine – Dee Bigalow – considers herself a “God and Country” conservative who gives issues like strict interpretations of the Constitution and traditional marriage laws high value.

“We have a government that has a constitution. And we have delineated roles for each branch of our government and I feel like those have become all mish-mashed and people have been sort of doing their own thing and I would like to see us get back to what our Constitution is all about and paying attention to the clearly defined roles that each branch has.

But, unlike many conservatives, she believes marijuana laws should be repealed, an opinion shared by Tony Mercando, a Pitt County resident originally from Massachusetts.

He holds, primarily, leftist ideals with socialist leanings and prefers diplomacy to combat.

“I find war and combat to be very interesting, but at the same time I realize that’s not the way things should be…we’re supposed to be better than this. We fought two world wars, countless people died. We shouldn’t be resorting to dropping bombs as easily as we do.”

They come from different backgrounds, different generations, and different ends of the political spectrum – but they have at least two things in common: they have roots in eastern North Carolina and they’re both part of a national, political trend: the rising tide of unaffiliated voters.

Thomas Eamon is a political science professor at East Carolina University and says unaffiliated voters in North Carolina are diverse, though they tend to be white, young, and born elsewhere.

“A disproportionate number of people who move in from out of state, and a lot of people are doing that, choose the unaffiliated path.”

According to a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, registered independents surpassed members of both political parties at about the start of the Obama Administration and their ranks continue swelling.

North Carolina is a key example of this trend and statistics from the State Board of Elections show the number of unaffiliated voters has doubled since 2004.

It serves as a source of hope for C.L. Cooke of Elizabeth City.

“There does seem to be a groundswell of people who are finally waking up and pretty well disgusted with national politics as usual.”  

Reasons for breaking from the two major parties vary widely.

Like many unaffiliated voters, Mr. Mercando hasn’t found a secure home in the political parties found on North Carolina ballot. He remembers a broader variety of choices back in Massachusetts and favors the democratic-socialist leanings of Dr. Jill Stein and her Green Party.

They, and similar parties, will be on the ballot throughout New England, but probably not in North Carolina – though a petition for their inclusion is active until June 1.

“Also, there’s a lot of flexibility in saying you’re unaffiliated because if for some reason, some candidate that I completely agree pops up in the other party…then it gives you the flexibility to drift where you need to drift where you need to without actually having to go in and file a whole bunch of paperwork.”

For her part, Ms. Bigalow said it was combination of personal, political philosophy and the state’s semi-open primary system. 

“I don’t always fit within the lines of either party but I have liked candidates from each, so I can be able to vote for the people who I think should be running regardless of what their party affiliation is.”

Many unaffiliated voters feel they don’t have a place in either political party, like Tea Party Conservatives and right-leaning populists who tend to side with Donald Trump. The latter carried most counties in eastern North Carolina during the last GOP primary.

The rate of growth among unaffiliated voters has grown at a swift clip in the east. The sharpest increases observed were in Greene County – at 187 percent – and Ms. Bigalow’s former home in Onslow County – at 145 percent.

But across the board, Mr. Cooke believes people are sick of a system that’s nearly as old as the nation.

“They feel it’s pretty much a rigged system. We want to be more independent minded and we’re looking for candidates, I think, that won’t be puppets of the central committee or the Democratic National Committee or the Republican National Committee or the state parties.”

This is new territory for North Carolina, once one of the most reliable states in the union for Republicans and Democrats at different times.

Like much of the south during the early to mid-20th century, Democrats dominated politics on the state and national level.

That changed during the Nixon administration, as Republicans deployed their “southern strategy,” targeting social conservatives who were once out of reach – known as “Dixiecrats,” once the core of the eastern North Carolina contingency

Dr. Eamon describes the shift in the state.

“For many, many years, the Democrats held control of North Carolina. Finally, in 1972, a Republican – a Moderate Republican – Jim Holshouser was elected governor of the state and then in the 1980s, Jim Martin – Republican – was elected governor of the state both in 1984 and in 1988.”  

But, something happened in North Carolina in 2008.It turned purple.

The state shocked the electorate and gave, then, Senator Barack Obama his narrowest victory of the night.

Meanwhile, North Carolina’s unaffiliated voter count grew by nearly half-a-million from the previous, Presidential election – from about 900,000 to a little more than 1.4 million registered voters by the end of 2008. 

The trend continued into 2012 and as of May 21st, the count has risen to 1.9 million individuals.

Dr. Eamon believes if this continues, North Carolina will be in unchartered, political waters.

“If the present trends continue and if the political parties remain as polarized as they are now, I could see the unaffiliating voters overtaking both the Republicans and the Democrats perhaps in just a few years.” 

That’s the kind of future Mr. Cooke, a Libertarian, is hoping for.

He believes the two-party system’s success has been at the expense of the underprivileged districts, like his.

According to statistics from the Center for American Progress, about a quarter of residents in the 1st District – covering northeastern counties like Bertie and Halifax – live below the poverty line, though those are based on the former Congressional map.

“The microcosm part of it has to do with the choices that the delegation and/or the representatives have made to improve their own quality of life by aligning themselves with their donors, rather than working for the needs of the population that resides in the Congressional district.”

But Mr. Cooke still has his doubts about third parties, independent candidates, and their chances in North Carolina on the national level. For now, he only sees one party making headway on the state level.

“Statewide, I don’t see enough of an influence, outside of the Libertarians, to win any seats.”

That may not be the only problem facing voters disenchanted with the two-party system.  

ECU’s Dr. Eamon believes the number of truly “independent” voters – those who don’t favor one political party over another – is small. Though their voter registration documentation says “unaffiliated” many are, in reality, a Democrat or Republican in everything but name.

“It includes people on the left and the right, especially the moderate left and the moderate right – but there are some, genuine independents. Genuine swing voters who can, in Presidential races and in other races go either way. But, I would say that the genuine independent would be down around 10 percent. Some even argue lower than 10 percent.”

This is a drawback to the independent trend in Mr. Mercando’s opinion. As fractured as the two, major parties are, they still give members something to rally around.

He says independence gives him flexibility but not empowerment.

“Last Presidential Election, I wanted to vote Green, but Jill Stein was not on the ballot. And being independent and generally leaning toward a third party, you inherently feel powerless…I don’t want to put my name behind something I hate and get it.”

On the other hand Ms. Bigelow believes unaffiliated voters are becoming an increasingly powerful bloc and an answer to partisanism in the American Republic, present since the first, modern Congress met 227 years ago.

“We’re the United States of America. We’re supposed to be united. We have one President for everyone. We don’t have one president for the Democrats and one president for the Republicans that are going to wait until he gets out of there and breathe a sigh of relief and then we can all breathe a sigh of relief and put our guy back in, you know?”

North Carolina has always had an independent streak and now it is among the most unpredictable states on the electoral map. President Obama won and lost the state in 2008 and 2012, respectively, by the narrowest of margins. Counties with the closest margins both years included Nash, Lenoir, and Hyde.

Pollsters seem stumped when discussing the Old North State and it seems unaffiliated voters play no small part in that.

Who can say which candidate will receive the state’s 15 electoral votes? North Carolina may even surprise the nation – even the likes of C.L. Cooke – and give them to a third-party candidate.   

I’m Chris Thomas.