A changing electorate

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Rowan County’s population has dropped slightly in recent years, but it has avoided another decline affecting more than a third of North Carolina’s 100 counties. The number of registered voters in Rowan has ticked up, in contrast to 36 counties that saw registrations decline.
That’s one interesting tidbit from an examination of voter registration trends by the election watchdog group Democracy North Carolina. Overall, unaffiliated voters are the state’s fastest growing group in terms of total numbers, with slightly more than a quarter of the state’s 6.474,667 registered voters (as of Nov. 5) indicating no political allegiance. Hispanic voters are also increasing, representing 116,492 statewide registrations now, compared to about 68,000 five years ago. Black voters have also increased (from 1,354,976 in 2008 to 1,454,176, while white registrations have slightly declined but still make up about 70 percent of the registered electorate.
For Rowan County specifically:
n Rowan’s registered voters grew by about 1 percent in the past five years, with 91,292 registered voters as of Nov. 5, compared to 90,395 in 2008. That’s a positive, but not for either of the major parties.
n Democrats lost 8 percent of their members (down 2,735, with 30,922 total).
n Republicans held fairly steady (down 82, with 37,207 total).
n Unaffiliated voters gained 18 percent (up 3,536, with 22,962 total).
Election-day dynamics can differ sharply from registration trends. In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama was a catalyst for turnout among African-Americans and young voters. In 2012, without those coattails, Republicans won control of the General Assembly and governor’s mansion. While national issues like Obamacare or local controversies like the school central office can spur vigorous debate, it’s too early to foresee what will motivate voters in 2014.
Still, the registration numbers point to one conclusion. Both Republicans and Democrats should be concerned about the growing disenchantment with party politics as usual. In 99 counties — Hoke the sole exception — a majority of new voters shun the Democratic or Republican label. Unaffiliateds now account for 26 percent of all N.C. voters.
It’s likely no coincidence that the rise of unaffiliated voters comes amid an era of intense polarization. Rather than choose sides, more voters are simply saying “none of the above.” The most successful candidates — at the local, statewide or, certainly, national level — will be those whose appeal extends across party lines, ethnic groups and age ranges. Gerrymandered districts and low-turnout primaries can skew that conclusion in the near term. But the longer term implications should be clear. The electorate is changing, and candidates and parties who don’t broaden their appeal risk becoming perennial also-rans.