Troy Williams: Does the rise of unaffiliated voters signal the end of the two-party system?
Last month, unaffiliated voters eclipsed North Carolina’s Democratic Party, becoming the state’s most dominant voter group. In Cumberland County, unaffiliated voters outnumber Republicans by 20,000 and trail Democrats by the same margin.
The independent voter shift has been gaining steam for decades. For various reasons, an increasing number of individuals reject both major-party labels. North Carolina initially saw an increase in unaffiliated voters in 1988, the year the Republican Party opened its primaries to unaffiliated voters. There was a similar uptick in 1996 when Democrats opened their primaries to unaffiliated independent voters.
Unaffiliated voters don’t like the party labels. But in the end, they find themselves having to cast their votes for a member of one of two major parties, Democrat or Republican. In congressional and legislative assemblies, representatives caucus in groups to pursue common legislative objectives. Elected independents generally find it necessary to caucus with the Democrats or the Republicans. Former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is an independent member of the U.S. Senate from Vermont who caucuses the Democratic Party. The U.S. Senate’s other independent member, Argus King from Maine, also caucuses with the Democratic Party. Unaffiliated elected officials have to cave into a semblance of partisan politics to get something done.
Running for elected office as an independent in a partisan race can become a challenging process. Unaffiliated candidates face an additional hurdle to getting on the ballot. Under North Carolina law, any candidate not affiliated with a political party must file a written petition supporting their candidacy for office, signed by a certain percentage of qualified voters. I tried gaining ballot access as an independent candidate for Cumberland County sheriff in 1994, two years before Democrats opened their primaries to unaffiliated voters, and it became a legal nightmare. My lawyer, Anita Earls, now an associate justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, appealed my case to the State Board of Elections. I was denied ballot access supposedly on a technicality of the law. I eventually chose not to pursue the matter further in court. I ultimately filed a write-in campaign and received a respectable 12% of the vote as a commitment to my supporters.
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I have always been intrigued by independent politics. I was a guest member of the Reform Party National Convention in Atlanta in 1996. I was invited by New York political activist and reformer Dr. Lenora B. Fulani. The Reform Party was formed in 1995 by former presidential candidate Ross Perot. Perot received 18.9% of the popular vote as an independent candidate in the 1992 presidential election, and he founded the Reform Party as a viable alternative to Democrats and Republicans. As the party’s nominee, Perot won 8.4% of the popular vote in the 1996 presidential election. Perot did not receive a single electoral vote, and no other third-party candidate has since received such a significant share of the popular vote. The party has nominated other presidential candidates over the years, including Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader, but none of the nominees has been able to garner 1% of the popular vote. The convention was quite an experience, but I left Georgia doubting America’s chances of creating a viable third party to challenge its two-party political system. Almost 30 years removed from those past experiences and an unprecedented surge of independent voters, I still don’t believe America is ready to share political power with someone other than Democrats and Republicans.
The two-party system is here to stay. Some historians believe it promotes centrism and encourages political parties to find common positions, which appeals to the extended ends of the electorate, leading to political stability and, in turn, economic growth. In the end, politicians have power, and influential people will never willingly relinquish control. It has to be taken.