Unaffiliated voters – the fastest-growing registration in the state – now outnumber Republicans in Mecklenburg County, according to county data.
Democrats still hold a strong lead with 45 percent of the county’s 659,918 registered voters, but unaffiliated registrations are gaining.
Unaffiliated voters passed Republicans as of the Sept. 29 voter registration count by the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections. The change mirrors a statewide surge that saw unaffiliated voters increase five times faster than their Democrat and Republican counterparts since 2004.
There are now 178,977 unaffiliated voters in Mecklenburg and 178,319 Republican voters.
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The reasons behind the rise of the unaffiliated voter range from disenchantment with the two political parties and a desire to remain above the fray of partisan bickering to a preference for regularly crossing party lines.
“Partisanship on both sides of the aisle has become so calcified that things aren’t getting done,” said Susan Roberts, associate professor of political science at Davidson College. “It’s the degree of disgust with hyper-partisanship in Washington that people are choosing to be unaffiliated.”
Northern and southern Mecklenburg County precincts hold some of the county’s highest concentrations of unaffiliated voters, according to a Charlotte Observer analysis.
Unaffiliated voters make up more than 30 percent of a precinct’s registered population in many areas north of Huntersville and south of Pineville-Matthews Road.
They’re even pushing into neighborhoods along Park and Providence roads, communities that tend to be Republican strongholds.
Gary Bartlett, director of the state board of elections, said that many voters don’t subscribe to the extreme partisanship that seems to characterize this political era.
“People are tired of the parties’ bickering,” Bartlett said, “and would like to see more emphasis on the common good.”
Then there are those voters who feel comfortable with the Republican position on some issues and the Democratic view on others.
“I hear that all the time,” Bartlett said.
Sherry Laurent, 68, described herself as a lifelong Republican.
But after eight years of a George W. Bush presidency, the Ballantyne-area resident said she became “disenchanted” with the party.
Laurent said she was eager to distance herself from Republicans because of their stance on the environment, Planned Parenthood and other issues.
Now Laurent said she leans more liberal, although she has no intentions of changing her registration again.
As a registered unaffiliated, Laurent enjoys the option of voting in either primary each election, she said.
“It gives me more flexibility as a voter,” she said.
A clear trend
Since 2004, unaffiliated voters in North Carolina have grown at a far faster pace than voters in either party, according to state Board of Elections data.
In fact, the increase of unaffiliated voters outpaced the increase of Democrats and Republicans in all 100 counties during that time. And that increase has picked up steam in recent years, data show.
Unaffiliated voters now outnumber Democrats in 12 North Carolina counties and Republicans in 33 counties.
“I believe that, in a few years, it’ll be closer to one-third (Democrats), one-third (Republican) and one-third (unaffiliated) in North Carolina,” Bartlett said.
The state’s unaffiliated voters increased 86 percent from 2004-12, compared to about 16 percent for Democrats and 16 percent for Republicans.
Currituck County in northeast North Carolina leads the state with 38 percent of its voters declaring themselves unaffiliated.
Mecklenburg County saw its unaffiliated voters increase more than 94 percent during that time. Meanwhile, Democrats increased 63 percent and Republicans increased 16 percent, data show.
“This is not a phenomenon that just started,” said Michael Dickerson, the director of Mecklenburg elections. “This appears to be a pattern for the last couple of presidential (elections) at least.”
‘Unaffiliated’ can be partisan
Despite outnumbering Republicans, unaffiliated voters are the biggest group of voters in only three of Mecklenburg County’s 195 precincts, data show.
Republicans have the most voters in 71 precincts and Democrats have 120. Democrats also tie unaffiliated voters in one precinct.
Martha Kroph, a political scientist at UNC Charlotte, cautioned that studies have shown that many who call themselves independent or unaffiliated tend to lean to one party.
“They may say, ‘We think through each issue.’ But in reality, based on research, they have a predisposition” to vote Democratic or Republican, Kroph said. Many, she said, have a “background in partisanship.”
Ballantyne-area resident Daniel Laurent, 72, said that although he changed his registration from Republican to unaffiliated a little more than a decade ago, he is really a Democrat.
“Intellectually and emotionally, I’m not unaffiliated. If you were to lift up the hood and look at my brain, I am now intellectually a Democrat,” said Daniel Laurent, who is married to Sherry Laurent. “I could never go back to being a card-carrying Republican.”
Charlotte resident Pettus Lilliott, 43, said that while she is registered unaffiliated she leans toward Tea Party Republicans.
Her reasons for remaining unaffiliated are strategic, she said.
As an unaffiliated, she can vote in the Democratic primary and vote for the most conservative candidate.
“I like to be able to exercise my right to vote,” she said. “If there’s a terrible Democrat running for office that I would absolutely be disgusted with, I vote for the most moderate-leaning Democrat.”
The growth in unaffiliated voters may force the next legislature and governor to take a look at their role in the election process, Bartlett said.
Currently, the law calls for Democrats and Republicans to divide seats on the five-member state board of elections and the three-member county boards of elections.
Now the party of the sitting governor gets the majority on such boards, with the other party getting the remaining seats. The same breakdown pertains to local precinct judges.
“All our laws are based on bipartisanship,” Bartlett said. “The next legislature and governor need to look at the role of unaffiliated (voters) in the election process.”
In the short term, unaffiliated voters may serve a pivotal role in the November elections, experts said.
For instance, while research shows that unaffiliated voters favor Republican nominee Mitt Romney nationally on the issues of jobs, the deficit, and the economy, they favor President Barack Obama on issues such as the middle class, health care and social security, Roberts said.
The outcome in the November election in the state may be depend on which issue unaffiliated voters decide they care about most, she said.
“North Carolina is a battleground state,” Roberts said. “... If this race is as close as it was in 2008, then the independent voter could be pivotal.”