Chatham’s unaffiliated voters now outnumber party

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Christine Mayfield has been a registered Democrat since she was old enough to cast her first ballot.

Now, at 70, she’s decided to make the switch from “D” to “U” — becoming a registered unaffiliated voter after coming to the conclusion that her political party of choice failed to make meaningful change, even when it had power in the legislature.

“I wanted to send a signal to both parties that I don’t see them as representing my true interests,” Mayfield, a Pittsboro resident, told the News + Record. “In particular, I wanted to signal to the Democrats that I don’t identify with the centrist, neoliberal forces that dominate the Democratic Party now. I am 70 years old and have been a Democrat since I was 18 years old, but I am fed up.”

Following a statewide trend, unaffiliated voters like Mayfield now outnumber the number of registered Democrats and Republicans in Chatham County, according to the most recent data from the Chatham County Board of Elections.

The data, released on Aug. 1, shows Chatham County with 23,599 unaffiliateds — more than its 21,286 registered Democrats and 14,133 registered Republicans. Pandora Paschal, director of the Chatham County Board of Elections, said the figures headed into November aren’t surprising.

She said across North Carolina, unaffiliated voters are the fastest growing group, outpacing both parties. Just because they aren’t registered to a particular party, however, doesn’t mean they don’t lean one way or another, Paschal said.

“It really only matters in the primary,” she told the News + Record. “[Unaffiliated voters] have been rising ever since I took over as director in 2016. As long as I can remember it’s been trending up throughout the state.”

Increased polarization leads to pushback

One reason more people may be registering as unaffiliated as opposed to choosing a political party is due to increased polarization. According to a 2020 study from Brown University, polarization in the U.S. is accelerating much faster than in other countries.

The study found that in 1978, the average American rated the members of their own political party 27 points higher than members of the other major party. By 2016, Americans were rating their own party 45.9 points higher. In that time polarization had also risen in Canada, New Zealand and Switzerland but to a lesser extent. In the U.K., Australia, Germany, Norway and Sweden, polarization decreased.

The U.S. is a unique case and North Carolina is no exception. Chatham County Republican Party Chairperson Terry Schmidt agrees. He said he believes more people are registering as unaffiliated voters on the local level because of that perceived polarization.

“One of the reasons people are leaning unaffiliated right now is because their perceptions, driven by the major media news organizations, is that both political parties are too extreme,” Schmidt said. “People want to be able to pick and choose their candidates.”

The News + Record queried readers about why they chose to switch their registrations to unaffiliated; many said they agreed with Schmidt. They said the parties are becoming too polarized, and voting “straight ticket” isn’t as appealing as it once was.

“I don’t want the party telling me who to vote for,” said Siler City resident George Fowble. “I’m a Conservative. That being said there are people I view as Conservatives in the Democratic party, though right now it’s hard to find them. I still want the choice of picking from either party. That to me is the American way.”

Several readers said they recently changed their registration because they see neither party as making effective progress; nowadays, they’re more inclined to vote for candidates on either side of the aisle.

‘No such thing as unaffiliated’

As November draws nearer, Schmidt said he isn’t looking at unaffiliated voters as swing votes. He said he believes most unaffiliated voters usually have their minds made up when they step in the voting booth.

Liz Guinan, the director of the Chatham County Democratic Party, agreed with Schmidt. She said a big reason people choose to be unaffiliated in North Carolina is because voters can choose which party to vote in for primary elections.

“There really is no such thing as unaffiliated,” Guinan said. “Your values are always your values and you’re going to vote your values. Those don’t typically change just because you went from Democrat to Unaffiliated or vice versa.”

N.C. is considered a partially closed primary state. This means state law permits political parties to choose whether to allow unaffiliated voters to participate in their nominating contests before each election cycle. In this type of system, parties may let in unaffiliated voters, while still excluding members of opposing parties. This system gives the parties more flexibility from year to year about which voters to include.

Guinan said the increasing number of unaffiliated voters isn’t a concern because neither major party sees unaffiliated as conflating with swing voters. She said parties pay more attention to surveys and data that show values, more than voter registration totals.

People change their affiliations for a litany of reasons. Several readers who reached out to the CN+R said they switched from Republican to Unaffiliated in the wake of the Jan. 6 riot in Washington, D.C. Others said they switched from Democrat to Unaffiliated because they lost belief in the party’s ability to govern well.

“Both parties have gotten too extreme,” said Sue Crook, a reader who reached out. “Eighty percent of America is not extreme right or left wing, yet our representatives vote to the extreme every time. It is ridiculous.”

Every election is local

Schmidt said party affiliation and registration is often tied to national issues, but he believes every election is local, regardless of who is on the ballot. He said regardless of party, most people care about having good schools, clean water and putting enough food on the table — all policies that get predominantly created and approved on a local scale.

“A lot of people are trying to put [former president Donald] Trump on the ballot in one way or another,” Schmidt said. “He is not on the ballot. We need to focus on local issues — school excellence, housing, water, the environment, growth, new industry — unaffiliateds should know that’s what our party stands for.”

He said voters need to understand issues that impact the individual, then choose the candidate based on if they align with personal values.

Guinan agreed. She said all elections matter, even if the candidates lack big name recognition. For the upcoming November election, Chatham County Democrats are prioritizing their efforts on “midterm skippers,” or people who ordinarily wouldn’t vote in the midterm election.

“We want those skippers to be a lot more energized to come out and vote,” Guinan said. “We are doing everything we can to get the candidates out there. We want everyone to sit down, shake hands and get to know this year’s candidates.”

Voter registration for the upcoming election closes on Oct. 14 with early voting set to begin Oct. 20. For more information on November’s midterm election, visit the Chatham County Board of Elections website. Voters must complete a Voter Registration Application and mail or deliver it to the elections office at least 25 days prior to an election.

The News + Record plans to host two local candidate forums, one in September and another in October.

Reporter Ben Rappaport can be reached at brappaport@chathamnr.com or on Twitter @b_rappaport.

Chatham County Board of Elections, Unaffiliated voters, Elections 2022, Democrats, Republicans, Pandora Paschal, Terry Schmidt, Liz Guinan

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