Xpress surveys WNC’s independent voters

Word cloud of unaffiliated voter concerns
ON YOUR MIND: This word cloud reflects the local concerns most frequently mentioned by unaffiliated voters in Xpress' survey. Housing was the clear leader, with over twice as many mentions as any other subject. Graphic generated by Daniel Walton

Buncombe County’s biggest voting bloc elected exactly two of its own in this year’s midterm elections. Sara Nichols earned a seat on the county’s Soil and Water Conservation District Board of Supervisors, while Mason Blake was chosen for the Montreat Board of Commissioners.

Those two officials-elect are both unaffiliated; every other winning candidate in a race on the Buncombe ballot is registered with a political party. Although unaffiliated voters make up a plurality in the county — as of Nov. 19, roughly 86,900 voters, compared with about 75,600 Democrats and 46,100 Republicans — state rules and strong party organizations make it hard for independent candidates to gain traction.

Given that mismatch between the county’s population and its representatives, Xpress wanted to learn more. With support from the American Press Institute, the paper conducted a listening survey to ask about the concerns of Western North Carolina’s unaffiliated voters.

Over 140 people responded to the questionnaire. Their answers show that, at least in WNC, the simple label of “unaffiliated” suggests a wide diversity of ideologies and concerns.

Taking the plunge

In keeping with statewide trends, many WNC voters have become unaffiliated relatively recently. Of those survey respondents who shared the timing of their unaffiliated registration, half listed a date of 2010 or later.

The most prevalent reason, cited by over 40% of respondents, was a lack of agreement with existing party platforms. More than a dozen voters described their political beliefs with some variation of the phrase “fiscally conservative, socially liberal,” a combination that doesn’t align with either Democratic or Republican ideology. Others described themselves as “moderate” or “pragmatic” and sought to distance themselves from activists on either side.

Many voters also said they were unhappy with the way the major party platforms had changed in recent years and noted a rise in divisive partisan rhetoric. “The left has become as radicalized and intolerant as the right,” wrote one former Democrat who became unaffiliated in 2021. Meanwhile, several erstwhile Republicans cited the 2016 election of former President Donald Trump as their motivation for leaving the party.

For another group, becoming unaffiliated was more a tactical decision than a political one. Over a quarter of respondents mentioned the advantages granted by a lack of party membership: North Carolina allows unaffiliated residents to cast votes in any party’s primary election, while those registered as Democratic or Republican must take their respective party’s ballot.

That flexibility contributed to a particular bump in local unaffiliated registration this year. Ten survey respondents, all former Democrats, said they had become unaffiliated specifically to vote against U.S. House District 11 Rep. Madison Cawthorn in the 2022 Republican primary.

Such voters likely played a key role in Cawthorn’s primary defeat by Chuck Edwards, who went on to win the general election. While most unaffiliated Buncombe voters chose to take a Democratic ballot during early voting in the 2020 primaries, the county’s independents slightly favored Republican ballots in 2022. That increase in unaffiliated voters on the Republican side greatly exceeded Edwards’ margin of victory over Cawthorn.

And some voters just wanted to be left alone. Eight respondents said they went unaffiliated primarily to avoid being targeted by partisan fundraising campaigns or junk mail.

What do they want?

The pool of survey respondents, 82% of whom are registered to vote in Buncombe County, skewed older, whiter and better educated than the general WNC population. It’s thus hard to say if their beliefs are representative of all unaffiliated voters in the region.

But of those surveyed, the majority said they tend to pick Democrats in general elections. About a third said they didn’t reliably choose one party’s candidates over another, while just 5% said they favored Republicans.

Some of that lean may reflect the prior affiliation of the region’s unaffiliated voters. Nearly twice as many respondents were former Democrats than were former Republicans, and of those who said they’d previously been affiliated with multiple parties, the majority said they’d most recently been Democratic.

Many of those voters, however, weren’t particularly enthusiastic about their ballot choices. “I tend to vote Democrat because they seem like the less bad alternative. But this is wearing on me,” wrote one respondent. Another survey participant wrote about having voted reluctantly for Democrats in recent elections “because of the MAGA takeover” of the Republican Party.

When asked to share general thoughts about the political process, survey respondents expressed a yearning for different options. Some thought a strong third party could address increasing polarization among Democrats and Republicans, while others suggested that the way elections themselves are conducted should change.

Although the survey was anonymous, Asheville resident Diane Silver emailed Xpress after taking it to advocate for North Carolina to adopt ranked-choice voting. In that system, voters list candidates by order of preference, and if no candidate wins an outright majority, those preferences are used to determine the winner.

Silver, who works for a national nonprofit that promotes ranked-choice voting, points to a recent U.S. House election in Alaska that used the method. Over 15,000 voters who had listed Republican Nicholas Begich III as their first choice picked Democrat Mary Peltola as their second choice — even though Republican and former Gov. Sarah Palin was also in the race. Those voters gave Peltola the win after Begich finished behind Palin in first-choice votes.

“It became clear that just because voters liked one candidate of Party A didn’t mean they were all in with that party,” Silver explains. “It’s just an example of how our current winner-take-all system presumes a lot about voters’ preferences, while ranked-choice voting reveals the truth about what voters really want.”

No such change is under serious consideration by North Carolina lawmakers. For now, WNC’s unaffiliated voters will have to navigate a political landscape they find unsatisfying at best and dangerous at worst.

“The party system is a major cause of political dysfunction and social bitterness,” one voter wrote. “As our founders accurately projected it would be.”

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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the News Editor of Mountain Xpress, coordinating coverage of Western North Carolina's governments, community groups, businesses and environment. His work has previously appeared in Capital at Play, Edible Asheville and the Citizen-Times, among other area publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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6 thoughts on “Xpress surveys WNC’s independent voters

  1. Voirdire

    I changed my affiliation and became an independent voter for one reason… because it’s the only facsimile of an open primary system I can come up. And every bit as urgently, if not even more so… we need ranked voting, rather than the horse race/ winner take all fools errand we call our “democracy”. Both these need to happen asap, or we will only get/have more of the same… which has been basically nothing short of a disaster (..with a few notable landmark legislative exceptions) for as long as I can remember. Oh, and while I’m at it.. political contributions via the PAC “system” is completely and utterly out of control …just in case you hadn’t noticed. sigh.

    • Clinton Jergensen

      It was refreshing not feeling completely alone from the sampling of respondents in the limited survey. I understand the practicality of a two party system, especially when I see the variety of party alignments needed and confusion in other countries. But as the first commenter, I totally agree with ranked choice and open primaries. I’m tired of party controls limiting our ultimate free speech opportunity with the voice of our vote in this theoretically representative government. And yes, the unaffiliated numbers not only locally but nationally speak volumes on our rational middle still trying to pay attention and have a say. Oops, I shared my opinion, here comes the hate trolling…

  2. billclontz

    A bit ironic that many cited disagreements with party platforms, since the Republican party has not had a platform, nor a published legislative agenda, for over half a decade. It has become simply a party of tactics and power – a loss for the country. I fully endorse the calls for open primaries and rank order voting. This pair of innovations has proven their value everywhere it has been tried. I was initially unsure about these changes, but they clearly move candidates and elections toward moderation and broader representation – one cannot win in that setting simply by firing up the base. Make these changes, and put redistricting in the hands of a nonpartisan commission, and require instant transparency of all political contributions, and we are on the way to a healthy democracy.

    • Voirdire

      and yes, of course, non-partisan redistricting that puts an end to the gerrymandering that is solely configured to protect the minority party’s representational majority in congress is sorely needed… without this being constitutionally addressed, we will continue to codify our very own version of apartheid. And, any obviously… egregiously… artificial impediments to curtail voting -whether it be the efforts to limit early voting (including weekend voting) ..or mail in voting -must be eliminated once and for all. The only cure for a faltering democracy…. is MORE democracy.

  3. NFB

    Primaries are a huge part of the problem. With their lower turnout they tend to attract ideologues, and between partisan gerrymandering and people sorting themselves into echo chambers primaries often end up producing nominees who are, well, ideologues, more interested in pushing their ideological purity over producing solutions to our problems.

    Perhaps he will prove me wrong, and I certainly hope so, but since any real threat to his reelection will come in a Republican primary rather than a general election, I suspect that Chuck Edwards will be a prim example of this problem. He will focus on his Republican primary constituencies with lots of red meat culture war rhetoric and largely ignore everyone else. Will he have town hall meetings in Asheville, or speak to any groups that are on board with his own views (or at least the views he champions as his own in order to win the primary)?

    I hope I am wrong and we will have congressman from NC-11 who will strive to represent all but the trajectory of our political “discourse” and the nature of partisan primaries don’t leave me with a lot of hope in that area. Just look to how Mark Meadows and Madison Cawthron conducted themselves while in office, although both of them were clearly courting a national constituency over a local one, so maybe there is just a tiny bit of hope.

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