Parties should take heed of rising unaffiliated voters

It should be a wake-up call for the Republican and Democratic parties in North Carolina. Unaffiliated voters now outnumber registrants of one of the two major parties in more than half of the state’s counties.

The State Board of Elections shows that unaffiliated voters, who are allowed to vote in primaries of either party, are in greater numbers than Republicans in 36 counties and ahead of Democrats in 18 counties. In four counties, unaffiliateds are in the majority.

Texts will be written to analyze the reasons, but some seem obvious: Popularity polls, or perhaps that should be unpopularity polls, show Congress at a low ebb with the public and show great cynicism as to the effectiveness of state legislatures as well.

The harsh partisanship and great divide that have increased in the last two decades have eliminated moderates in the GOP, who used to be called “Rockefeller Republicans,” and moved conservatives out of the Democratic Party and into the Republican Party and perhaps to the unaffiliated ranks.

Interestingly, when unaffiliated voters are pressed for which party they lean toward, the breakdown is pretty evenly divided.

In addition, younger people who used to follow their parents’ political affiliations aren’t so inclined anymore. College towns tend to be home to more unaffiliated voters.

There is a disturbing aspect to the increase in unaffiliated voters: They don’t vote as often as those aligned with a major party. Does that mean the unaffiliated voter tends to be more apathetic?

Major parties have at their disposal all kinds of information that enables them to light a fire under their voters, to put the heat on to build turnout, to try to unite their voters behind the “party’s candidate.”

There are many in North Carolina in middle-age who can remember when the state was so solidly Democratic that victory in a Democratic primary for governor, for example, was equivalent to election, and the Republican candidate was little more than a sacrificial lamb. And in the General Assembly, Democrats reigned in the majority at such high numbers that Republican proposals, even on fairly harmless issues, were struck down simply because they were put forward by Republicans.

The consequences of that kind of rule have been felt since Republicans took control of the General Assembly. They’ve occupied themselves with ideologically driven legislation such as reduced levels of public education funding and a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage.

The major parties, frankly, should be alarmed by the increase in unaffiliated voters and do some soul-searching. The increase is a testament to the fact that far from offering a “big tent,” the parties have shrunk their tents to the pup variety.

The GOP is dominated by the extreme views of the tea party, even though it’s a minority relative to the general population. But any national Republican candidate has to pander to that extreme to have a chance of winning his or her party’s nomination. The GOP also suffers from a gender gap that seems to be growing.

Democrats fare a little better, but there is a lack of tolerance for social and fiscal conservatives.

When there is this kind of sharp divide, what happens? Voters and potential voters become disenchanted and vote, as the old saying goes, with their feet. Only that means they walk away from the major party registration tables and, more troubling, the voting booth itself. That is not a good omen for elections that produce a constructive dialogue on how to solve a state’s, or a nation’s, problems.