Before too long, unaffiliated voters are likely to surpass Republicans as the second-largest voting bloc in North Carolina. But unaffiliated voters will not be represented on the newly created State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement (if it eventually survives inevitable challenges from Gov. Roy Cooper). And that’s OK.
Senate Bill 68 passed both the House and the Senate on Tuesday. It merges the state boards of elections and ethics into that new body. Cooper says he’ll veto the bill, and if the General Assembly overrides the veto (it passed both bodies by large enough margins that an override is possible), Cooper says he’ll sue to get it overturned as an unconstitutional violation of the separation-of-powers doctrine.
I’m not going to get into the details about the merits of Cooper’s arguments. They’re serious. Carolina Journal’s Dan Way reported on some of them here.
Instead, what was silly was the consternation expressed, primarily by Democrats during debate over the bill, about the absence of unaffiliated voters on the new state board. Several noted that — of roughly 6.7 million registered voters in North Carolina — there are only 30,000 more Republicans than unaffiliateds, 0.4 percent of total registration.
And yet Republicans and Democrats have equal representation on the new eight-member state board, four members nominated from each party.
If the GOP effectively became a third party in North Carolina, critics asked, why should Republicans hold equal sway with Democrats on a panel charged with supervising elections while unaffiliated voters held none?
The simple (and correct) answer is that there is not an Unaffiliated Party in North Carolina. It has no chairman, executive committee, staff, or headquarters. The governor could not request a list of nominees from nonexistent party officials. There’s no one to take a call, receive an email, or open a letter.
You may think this is fundamentally unfair. But guess what? That’s the way the current State Board of Elections operates. Unaffiliated voters aren’t guaranteed representation on the state board or on county boards. The new law would not change that situation.
Also, unlike a myth that swirls around the growing number of partyless voters, the unaffiliateds aren’t necessarily moderates or centrists who can’t find an ideological home. They tend to vote Republican — for now.
You see that in election results. While Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 10 points in total registration (39.2 percent to 30.4 percent), last year Republicans won more partisan statewide races than Democrats. The GOP won races involving U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, six of the 10 seats on the Council of State, and all five seats on the state Court of Appeals.
If unaffiliated voters were divided evenly, Democrats would have won many more of those contests.
That said, there are unaffiliated voters who think the Democrats aren’t left-wing enough, and the Green Party’s not on our ballot, so those voters don’t have a home. Other unaffiliateds think the GOP isn’t far enough to the right, and they won’t register as Libertarians because they disagree with that party’s stance on, say, social or national defense issues.
Still others aren’t “joiners,” at least not yet. The Carolina Population Center’s survey of voter registration patterns by age showed 36 percent of Millennial voters were unaffiliated, the largest percentage of any age group. Moreover, 52 percent of unaffiliated voters first registered in North Carolina in 2010 or later, compared to 33 percent of first-time registrants who chose the Democratic, Libertarian, or Republican parties.
But to steal from an old American Express commercial, “Membership has its privileges.” If you register as a Democrat or a Republican, you have some capacity to influence the direction of your party’s agenda and priorities. You also have the prospect of serving as a representative of your party on any number of oversight boards, including your county or state elections/ethics board.
If you’re unaffiliated, you’re out of luck.
And that’s OK, too.
Voters choose not to join a political party for a host of reasons. Some, perhaps many, think the two major parties are too rigid ideologically. Others want the freedom to choose one party over the other during primary elections, when they’re allowed to request a Republican or Democratic (or Libertarian) ballot without joining one of the parties. Others may not want to be bombarded by political mailings from groups affiliated with the major parties and those issue-advocacy outfits that rent party mailing lists.
But here’s a thought. If you want to participate in electoral politics, and are turned off by the ideological rigidity of the political parties, you’re more likely to modify a party’s thinking by working inside it rather than shunning it. The adage applies about it being better when you’re inside the tent rather than outside it.
Rick Henderson is editor-in-chief of Carolina Journal.