by Julie N. Chang | Morganton News Herald
MORGANTON — Reflecting a national trend, the number of independent voters in Burke County continues to grow as Democrats and Republicans see a smaller share of voters.
As of Saturday, there were 58,576 people registered to vote in Burke, according to data from the North Carolina State Board of Elections. Democrats make up 37 percent, Republicans total 35 percent and independent voters account for 27 percent of those voters. There are 157 registered Libertarians.
Independent voters have grown steadily from nearly 12 percent of Burke’s voters in 1996. By 2004, independents had grown to 19 percent of voters. And in 2008, 23 percent of voters identified as independents.
Burke County Board of Elections Director Debbie Mace said there’s no one explanation that applies to the rise in independent voters.
Some people tend to choose the unaffiliated designation because they can choose a Democratic or Republican ballot during the primary election, Mace said.
Burke County Democratic Party Chairman Marcus Key said people are not happy with the two major parties and are consequently registering as independents.
“It’s probably happening because people are sort of turned off by the gridlock situation in Washington,” Key said.
Burke County Republican Party Chairman Richard Epley said that choice appeals to younger voters because they can vote in the primary of their choosing.
“They have more options,” Epley said. “Kids of Republican and Democrat families are registering that way.”
Disagreements and arguing between Republicans and Democrats may also turn younger voters off the two parties, Epley said, which leads to more voters registering as independents.
Burke County Libertarian Party member Richard Evey said he believes people are tired of being “disenfranchised” by Democrats and Republicans.
“People are seeing that the other parties are not giving them what they want or doing what they’re promising to do,” Evey said. “That’s why the unaffiliated numbers are climbing.”
A study, released in June, by the Pew Research Center shows that, nationally, political independents are growing as Democrats and Republicans lose ground. Its surveys showed 38 percent described themselves as independents, up from 32 percent in 2008 and 30 percent in 2004.
That means the proportion of independents is higher than any point in more than two decades and more numerous than any point in the last 70 years, according to Pew’s study.
The study found the oldest age group – the Silent generation – is turning more Republican, while 45 percent of Millennials (born 1981 to 1994) identify as independents. Similarly, 42 percent of Gen Xers (born 1965 to 1980) identify as independents.
Baby Boomers (born 1946 to 1964) have also seen a slight rise in independents with 34 percent saying they are independents.
“As the number of independents has grown, the ranks of the independents include more moderates and conservatives,” the study said. “Currently 18 percent are moderate independents, 11 percent are conservatives and 8 percent are liberals.”
Fewer registering as Democrats, Republicans
In Burke, the percentage of Democratic voters has fallen steadily since 1996, when they made up 50 percent of the 46,495 registered voters. In 2000, Democrats fell to 46 percent, then to 42 percent in 2004. Those numbers fell again in 2008 to 41 percent.
Years ago, most people were registered as Democrats whether they were really Democrats or had a Republican bent due to tradition or other reasons, Key said. That’s no longer the case.
“Really the general elections weren’t that competitive,” Key said. “The real competition was within the Democratic primaries. In recent years, there’s been more of a sorting out between the parties.”
Key said he’s concerned about the decline in Democratic voters, but is confident the party will recover.
“The thing that can be done is for the national parties to start solving some problems,” Key said. “And not just kicking them down the road to the future. I think when that happens people will be brought back into the process.”
The number of registered Republicans has fluctuated since 1996. The party has seen a slight decline in the percentage of voters in Burke.
In 1996, Republicans made up 38 percent of Burke voters. That fell to 36 percent in 2000, but went up to 37 percent in 2004. In 2008, it was back to 36 percent.
Epley said he believes Democrats are losing voters and Republicans are gaining voters in Burke County, which he attributes to the conservative values of area residents.
People previously registered as Democrats because they feared for their jobs in a state with a Democratic governor, Epley said.
“To have a job in Burke you have to be a Democrat or independent – that’s what they tell me,” Epley said.
If the state were to elect a Republican governor, the county would be “overwhelmingly” Republican, Epley said.
The number of registered Libertarians in Burke has grown since 1996. In November of that year, there were five registered Libertarians. By 2004, they grew to more than 100, but dropped down to 30 in 2008.
Today, more than 150 are registered Libertarians, and a Burke County chapter of the party is forming.
Evey said neither Republicans nor Democrats are giving people what they want, so voters are turning to third parties or registering as independents.
The Libertarians advocate for smaller government and fewer taxes, Evey said, which is appealing to some voters.
The party is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, Evey said. He hopes to see more people run for office on the Libertarian ticket, which will encourage others to join the party.
If people continue to move toward third parties or identify as independents, the political landscape may change in the coming years, Evey said. As more viable candidates run on third party tickets, people will begin to look at elections differently as they will have more options.
Evey is a Libertarian candidate for the N.C. Senate 46 candidate.
Mace said regardless of affiliation, it’s always good to see the total number of registrations go up.
In 1996, there were 46,495 registered voters in Burke. Today that number tops 58,000.
“I would love to see everybody in Burke that’s eligible to register to vote,” Mace said. “That’d be fantastic.”
Election Day is just one week away, but it’s not too late to register, Mace said. People can register and vote the same day during early voting, which continues through Saturday.
Voters may go to any of Burke’s three polling locations – Burke County Board of Elections, 2128 S. Sterling St., Morganton-Burke Senior Center, 501 N. Green St., and Connelly Springs Town Hall, 1070 U.S. 70 – from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Friday. The polls will be open from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday.