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.”