Virtually every person elected in next month’s General Election in West Virginia will be a member of the Democratic or Republican parties. However, that belies the fact that Mountain State voters are increasingly likely to say “none of the above” when it comes to belonging to either of the two major parties.

New figures released by Secretary of State Mac Warner’s office show one out of every four (26 percent) registered voters is neither a Democrat nor a Republican.  The vast majority of those voters—22 percent—have no party affiliation.

West Virginia has seen a steady rise in independent voters.  One reason is that both major parties have opened their primaries to non-party members which means non-affiliated voters can pick the party of their choice in the nominating process.

The second reason has more to do with how the parties themselves have changed. Fox News political director Chris Stirewalt writes that the “big tent” philosophy has been replaced by increasingly narrow party platforms.

“So many voters feel alienated these days not because the parties have become more polarized, but because the parties have become so homogeneous,” Stirewalt writes. “People have tangled oftentimes seemingly contradictory views and seldom fit into narrow ideological silos.  And as the parties have become more ideological it has deepened the sense of alienation by many.”

Another notable takeaway from the registration numbers is the continued decline of the Democratic Party.  It still has the largest percentage of voters—42 percent—but the registration slide has been epic.   In 1994, 65 percent of all West Virginia voters were Democrats.

One explanation is that West Virginia, which was once a rock-solid New Deal Democratic state, is getting older and many of those lifelong Democrats are dying off.  Also, as the national Democratic Party has moved farther to the left, it has alienated conservative Democrats.

Republican Party membership is growing in West Virginia, but very slowly.  Republicans make up 32 percent of registered voters, nearly identical to what it was in 1994 (30 percent).

West Virginia is just catching up to the national trend.  Pew Research reported last year that 37 percent of registered voters identified as independent.   As national parties have weakened, the number of media outlets and information sources has increased geometrically, giving voters the opportunity to learn about candidates beyond political labels.

These changes inevitably give rise to talk of a viable third party, but who would join?  More voters today seem to be saying they can participate in the process without joining an organized party.

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