The parties over?

Published 8:22 pm Thursday, March 17, 2011

Many voters changing status to unaffiliated

On Dec. 30, 2005, Beaufort County was home to 4,025 unaffiliated voters.

As of March 12 of this year, the county had 6,167 unaffiliated voters.

Anita Bullock Branch, the county’s deputy elections director, estimates around 80 percent of local voters seeking to change party affiliations before an election opt to go unaffiliated.

In North Carolina, both major political parties let unaffiliated voters take part in their primary elections, and it’s been reported that some voters are encouraged to leave the parties when they discover this fact.

The ranks of unaffiliated voters have seen explosive growth statewide in recent years, and Beaufort County is no exception to this trend.

The question is: What are the reasons behind this trend?

“There are two different answers I get, if someone gives me an answer,” said Kellie Harris Hopkins, Beaufort County’s elections director.

“First, they’re sick of all the parties and don’t want to be affiliated with any party,” Hopkins said.

The second reason given by the newly unaffiliated is they want the flexibility to participate in either the Democratic or Republican primaries, she related.

The Beaufort County Board of Elections doesn’t ask voters who change affiliations to give their reasons for doing so, but some voters volunteer their motivations, Hopkins pointed out.

The elections director agreed she expects this trend toward unaffiliated registration to continue based on numbers from recent partisan elections.

The changes can be charted over relatively short spans of time.

On March 5, Beaufort County had 15,996 Democrats, 9,673 Republicans, 31 Libertarians and 6,164 unaffiliated voters.

On March 12, the county had 15,995 Democrats, 9,683 Republicans, 31 Libertarians and 6,167 unaffiliated voters.

The reasons behind the short-term losses or gains were unknown, and the long-term numbers appeared to be more reliable measures of change.

“What it tells me is (there is) tremendous disillusionment with the Democratic Party,” said Greg Dority, chairman of the Beaufort County GOP.

“Over the last 20, 30 years, (there has been) tremendous decay in interest in the Democratic Party,” Dority said. “The Democratic Party is no longer responsive to the needs of the people as we move into the 21st century. The Democratic Party just is no longer relevant anymore. Naturally, we would like to have these unaffiliated register Republican.”

What matters more than registration is how unaffiliated voters mark their ballots, Dority said, adding he believes many of these voters lean toward being moderate Republicans.

“Voters in the center keep both parties in check,” he declared. “That’s part of the checks and balances.”

Robert Cayton, a Democratic Beaufort County commissioner, sees unaffiliated-voter growth as less an indictment of the Democrats than a slap at both leading parties.

“I think there has been somewhat of a blurring of the line between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party,” Cayton commented. “I think both parties have, in good intentions, made promises that they could not fulfill, and that has caused some of the electorate to become disillusioned.”

Voting swings tend to be cyclical, and a mood that helps one party in a particular election cycle may hurt it in the next, he said.

“We are basically a two-party system in the United States,” said Cayton, adding that both parties have a duty to articulate their positions and fulfill their promises to voters.

According to Branch, the deputy elections director, the people who are switching aren’t exiting a single party in greater numbers than adherents to a competing party, and they’re speaking out about the reasons behind their exodus.

“It’s not just one party,” she said. “They just don’t want to be with a party at all.”