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Unaffiliated voters had a big impact on the NC-11 Primary Election

Cory Vaillancourt
Cawthorn at a Sylva rally.

The North Carolina Board of Elections finalized the primary election voting numbers this month. Political analysts are beginning to make sense of the data. BPR looks at the impact of unaffiliated voters in Western North Carolina:

About 20 percent of registered voters in North Carolina went to the polls for the primary election.

That’s a record high for midterms in a non-presidential year.

“Depends on if you want to look at this as a glass half empty or a glass half full scenario.”

Chris Cooper is chair of the public policy institute at Western Carolina University.

It’s a higher turnout than it has been in the recent past but it’s not what we’d like it to be,” said Cooper.

The largest group of voters in North Carolina were unaffiliated - those who are not affiliated with any party. About 52,000 unaffiliated voters cast ballots in the 11th Congressional District which encompasses about 15 counties in Western North Carolina. That’s more than the number of Democratic or Republican votes. (About 41,000 and about 50,000 voters, respectively.)

That district had one of the most watched races in the country with a crowded primary against Republican incumbent Congressman Madison Cawthorn. The congressman has had a pattern of allegations including traffic violations, sexual assault and white supremacist sympathies.

In North Carolina, unaffiliated voters can choose to vote in either the Republican or Democratic primary. Across the state most chose Republican.

“In the 11th congressional district on the Republican side, 40 percent of people who showed up were unaffiliated. That is the largest number in the state,” said Cooper.

Cooper says that at the beginning of 2022 about 3,000 people switched from the Democratic party to unaffiliated. Over half of those voters cast their ballot in the Republican primary.

There is disagreement in the political science community over whether people are more likely to vote “sincerely” for someone who aligns with their values or vote strategically, explains Cooper.

It was a hard decision for a lot of people.

On primary election day, BPR talked with unaffiliated voter Curtis Collins in Jackson County. Collins said he thought about voting strategically against Congressman Madison Cawthorn.

“I really kind of despise how we get whipped up into that game of voting to throw something instead of voting your conviction,” said Collins.

Collins says he has voted for the Green Party in the past. The Green Party was on the ballot in 2018 but didn’t meet minimum requirements in 2021 to continue to be included. Those over 9,000 voters were re-assigned to the unaffiliated party. This year, a Green Party candidate could be on the General Election Senate ticket. The candidates will be confirmed at the end of June.

Collins says he wishes there were more parties to vote for on the ballot. Part of his choice also came down to his vote in the Jackson County Sheriff's Office race.

“It was a struggle to be like well do I want to get that Republican ballot to play that game. And I chose not to do that. I chose to vote for the person that I wanted to have the office,” said Collins referring to NC-11.

The primary ballot rules can be confusing for voters. BPR spoke with person in North Asheville who showed up to vote for a friend running for Buncombe County district attorney.

The woman who did not wish to be identified said when she checked in she learned couldn’t vote for her friend because she was registered under a different party.

“I grew up Republican and I’m a small business owner so, fiscally I’m Republican, but socially I don’t want to be affiliated with it anymore—just the whole abortion rights and the way things are going in the world today,” she said.

While in the voting booth, she took time to cast votes in other races that, otherwise she wouldn’t have turned out for.

“I voted for mayor and whatever Madison Cawthorn is, I voted against him. I don’t even know. Is he in the Congress? I don’t know,” she said.

For Cooper, it is clear that unaffiliated voters were a deciding factor in the NC-11 congressional race. He calls it a “strategic two step.” Remember those 3,000 Democratic who became unaffiliated?

“[Senator] Chuck Edwards beat Madison Cawthorn by smaller than that number – about 1,400 votes. So what that tells me is that sure most people are voting sincerely but there were probably a large enough number of people voting strategically to make a difference,” said Cooper.

Edwards will now face Democratic candidate Jasmine Beach-Ferrara and Libertarian David Coatney in the general election in November.