When I first started covering politics there were three registered Democrats for every one registered Republican in North Carolina. The chairman of my county Republican Party jokingly said they could hold a county convention in a phone booth. The most competitive elections were always the Democratic primaries. Republicans struggled to find candidates, so whoever won the Democratic nomination was almost a sure bet to win the General Election. Times have changed.
As of last week there were 6.8 million registered voters in North Carolina. Democrats have declined from about 75 percent to only 39 percent of registered voters today. Republicans now total 30.3 percent, but the major gains have taken place among unaffiliated registrations. They also number 30.3 percent, with a handful more registrations than Republicans.
What happened? Both parties have their own spin, but it is clear that large numbers don’t like either party. We can speculate that unaffiliated gains have occurred because Democrats ventured too far to the left while Republicans have swung to the right, but the facts are the facts.
If current trends continue, unaffiliated registrations might equal — and perhaps exceed — those of Democrats. We’ve heard pundits remind us that large numbers of unaffiliated voters still predictably vote for one or the other party. While true, we would postulate that’s because voters don’t have much choice.
Political parties don’t have the influence of yesteryear and are becoming almost irrelevant. With clearly identified platforms and almost machine-like precision, state and county party leaders previously raised money, held rallies and actively campaigned for their candidates. On Election Day they made sure the party faithful turned out to vote. Candidates don’t enjoy nearly that level of party support today.
Over the years, state leaders have tinkered with election laws to allow or restrict early voting, change election rules, gerrymander legislative and congressional districts and recently restructure the state and local boards of elections. Not content with these changes, they are now dabbling in judicial elections, by requiring judicial candidates be identified by their party affiliation and also attempting to rearrange the districts in which local judges and District Attorneys run. All these efforts have resulted in endless and costly legal suits.
Let’s be clear. Few, if any, of these changes were made with an eye toward giving voters more and better choices — they were solely intended to continue the two-party system, while giving the most advantages to whichever party was in power.
North Carolina has some of the most stringent ballot access rules in our nation, making it difficult, if not impossible, for candidates not affiliated with one of the two parties to run in and win elections. It is time for that to change. While we don’t endorse ballots with exhaustive numbers of candidates, we do assert that the changing political climate dictates that voters have more choices than just the two parties.
Lowering the ballot access thresholds would benefit us in many ways. It would level the playing field; voters would have more opportunities to choose their representatives instead of the other way around. We would see better candidates, compelled to run more issue-oriented campaigns instead of just vicious attack ads. The result could be less partisan and divisive government. Reforming restrictive ballot access laws is an idea whose time has come.
Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina State Treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN, a weekly statewide television discussion of N.C. issues. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.