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Thousands register for new 'No Labels' party. Could they be unaffiliated voters making a mistake?

Early Voting Site in Wake County, on Thursday, Oct. 20, the first day of one-stop, in-person voting for the 2022 midterms.jpg
Rusty Jacobs, WUNC
An early voting site in Wake County, on Thursday, Oct. 20, the first day of one-stop, in-person voting for the 2022 midterms.

More than 2,000 voters have registered as members of North Carolina’s newest political party. Some observers are questioning whether the voters might have signed up for the No Labels Party by mistake — and will lose their chance to vote in next year’s primary.

The No Labels Party is a national campaign to run an alternative presidential candidate if Joe Biden and Donald Trump are the two major party candidates. In order to get that potential candidate on the ballot in North Carolina, No Labels had to conduct a petition drive earlier this year to become an official political party here.

That means No Labels is now a choice for party affiliation on the state’s voter registration forms. In just a few months, the party has amassed more registered members than the Green Party.

Political scientist Chris Cooper of Western Carolina University said it’s possible that some of those voters meant to register as unaffiliated instead.

"We can have some informed speculation that some of these folks may not really understand the position they're putting themselves in — that the unaffiliated, which of course sounds very similar, would mean that they can vote in the Democratic or the Republican primary, whereas No Labels will essentially disenfranchise them from the primary coming up this winter," Cooper said.

That’s because as a newly formed political party, No Labels won’t have a primary next year. Its leaders plan to nominate a presidential candidate at a convention next March. If you’re registered to vote as a member of No Labels, you won’t be eligible for a ballot in North Carolina’s March primary.

"If there's not going to be a No Labels primary, and someone's registered that way and wants to be able to participate in a primary, then they're going to need to change their party affiliation 25 days out from the election day," said Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the State Board of Elections.

Re-registering at an early voting site to change parties at the last minute isn't a legal option, she added.

Cooper said that about two-thirds of the voters registering with No Labels are either new voters or people who are new to voting in North Carolina. For people who don’t want to register as a Democrat or Republican, understanding the terminology can be confusing.

"In Florida, this group of voters we call no NPAs — no party affiliation," Cooper said. "They call them unaffiliated in California, they call them independent in some other states. And in some states, that means you can choose your own adventure in the primary like you can in North Carolina. And in some other states, that decision would disenfranchise you from the primary. So it's a lot to keep track of."

Brinson Bell urges newly registered voters to double-check their status well before it’s time to go to the polls.

"Review the card that comes from the county board of elections, make sure it is reflecting what your choices were," she said.

Leaders of the No Labels party said they’ve been explaining their mission to people who sign their petition to get ballot access. But because there’s no primary, they haven’t encouraged voters to register as a party member.

Former N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory, who’s a leader in the party, has remained a registered Republican and said he’ll vote in the GOP primary.

Former Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, said the high number of No Labels voter registrations is a sign that voters want the third-party alternative his group is offering.

"The fact that so many people have gone towards No Labels, I still think that baseline piece of information is a positive one for us, and a positive one for democracy," he said when asked about the trend in North Carolina.

Cooper said the number of people registering with No Labels will likely increase before the March primary.

"I think we would expect to see this number continue to grow, and it has been growing week by week," he said. "I don't know that they will overtake the Libertarian Party by the time of the primary election. But they'll certainly be well over 10,000 voters, I think we can expect."

Brinson Bell said the State Board of Elections isn’t planning any ads to educate voters on the difference between unaffiliated and No Labels. She’s hopeful that because the form uses the phrase “No Labels Party,” voters will recognize they’d be joining a specific political party.

"We now have a little bit of an advertising budget that we get to use for photo IDs specifically," she said. "But, as a standing practice, there is no advertising budget for the State Board of Elections or the county board of elections typically."

Cooper said that although the number of people registering with No Labels is relatively small, it could have an impact if voters who thought they were unaffiliated get turned away at the primary.

"Primary elections can be tight," he said. "Small numbers can matter."

Colin Campbell covers politics for WUNC as the station's capitol bureau chief.