CHARLESTON — West Virginia has seen a shift in voters’ party of choice to Republican in recent years, but Democrats statewide still have the edge in numbers and the independent, or “no-party,” group has grown.
The state is expected to vote heavily for Pres. Donald Trump this year as it did in 2016, but party affiliation still shows more registered Democrats. However, the gap with Republicans has shrunk to almost even.
According to Secretary of Stater Mac Warner’s office, in September 2016, the state had 572,467 registered Democrats to 396,600 Republicans.
But this year in September, Democrats had 469,150 registered voters to 446,733 for the GOP, just over a 23,000 difference.
No-party registration has increased from 266,093 to 285,550, and it’s now more than 20 percent of the total number of registered voters in the state, which stands at 1,251,590, according to the latest figures.
The other categories also saw increases in registration from 2016: Mountain Party, from 1,875 to 2,352 in 2020; Libertarian, from 4,679 to 8,414; and “other” from 33,147 to 39,391.
Counting no-party and all other categories, in 2020, 342,732 state voters did not select either of the major parties, up from 305,794 in 2016.
That means about 27 percent, one in every four, of all registered voters in the state did not choose either Democrat or Republican.
Those statistics are reflected in Mercer County as well.
County Clerk and Registrar Verlin Moye said that up until a few years ago Democrats held a 60-40 edge over Republicans in the county, 18,096 to 11,987 in 2016.
“Now, we have 14,841 registered Democrats and 14,595 Republicans,” he said. “They are about even. Democratic rolls have reduced substantially and Republican rolls have gone up.”
But the number of no-party, or independents, continues to grow in the county as well, he added.
That number now stands at 12,721, up from a little over 10,000 in 2016, following a statewide trend.
In Monroe County, a small growth in the no-party roll has been seen, but a much larger shift has happened in adding more Republicans.
County Clerk and Registrar Donnie Evans said the county now has 4,005 registered Republicans and 2,898 Democrats.
In 2016, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 4,558 to 3,866.
No-party registration has grown slightly, from 2,273 to 2,366.
“There have been shifts statewide,” Evans said, similar to the trends in Monroe County.
More independents started registering “five or six years ago,” he said, but 2016 saw the beginning of the major party changes.
“That is when we saw it,” he said. “We had a lot of people switch from Democrat to Republican.”
Evans said Greenbrier County just two weeks ago saw the scales tip in favor of Republicans.
“That was a big deal,” he said. “They have always been a strong Democratic county.”
Statistics in McDowell County, a traditionally strong Democratic county and closely related to coal mining and union membership, also reflected the shifts, but not as large.
in 2016, the county had 11,684 registered Democrats to 1,935 Republicans.
Democrats continue to hold a large lead, outpacing Republicans 8,814 to 2,545.
As in Monroe County, the number of no-party registrations increased only slightly, from 2,712 to 2,782.
The foundation for the shift in political affiliation in the state has been linked with the decline of the coal industry and unions, especially in the last decade and even before that.
In an article in 100daysinappalachia. com, Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said he wasn’t sure which came first, the move from a Democratic to Republican state or the decline of the unions, but he believes the two are linked.
Democrats moved away from the interest of miners and their families, pushing them toward the Republican party, he said.
“Look at their choice of candidates — Al Gore, Hillary Clinton — they’re anti-coal, anti-fossil fuel,” Raney said. “Jimmy Carter came in around the oil crisis. He created the coal commission…The whole idea was that he insisted power plants turn to coal as a source of electricity.”
There has certainly been a push through Friends of Coal and in other ways to bond workers to the companies they work for, he said.
“It felt like we needed a true identity out there, that we are all in this thing together,” he said. “We were being assaulted on all fronts with anticoal policies and statements. Whether someone was union or non-union, Friends of Coal never made a distinction about that.”
Dr. Colin S. Cavell, professor of political science at Bluefield State College, said the sense of a failure of the Democratic Party to address needs and other factors fueled the shift.
Cavell said his observations gathered from talking with students, faculty, and members of the community involve several reasons for the shift, including the “failure of the WV Democratic Party to speak to the needs of the majority of West Virginians.” The Republican Party also gained control of all three branches of state government, he added.
Cavell said other reasons are the “general confusion amongst vast sectors of the WV population as to the issues of factual information, the inability to discern clear differences amongst the two contending parties and the fear of committing oneself to what appears to be polarizing national polis.”
West Virginia voted for Pres. Trump with 68 percent of the vote in 2016. The last Democratic candidate for President the state supported was Bill Clinton in 1996.
Since 2000, the state has been won by Republicans with the margin of victory growing every election, from 51.9 percent in 2000 to 68.6 percent in 2016.
— Contact Charles Boothe at cboothe@bdtonline. com