Changing the Game for Unaffliated Candidates - TribPapers

Changing the Game for Unaffliated Candidates

Van Duncan hopes to turn county politics on its head as the first unaffiliated candidate for Buncombe County Chairman of the County Commissioners. Photo by Clint Parker

Buncombe County – Currently, candidates who are not affiliated with one of three political parties (Democrat, Republican, or Libertarian) recognized by the state and who want to run in an election have to get at least four percent of the registered voters’ signatures in the county. It’s a big task.

Former Buncombe County Sheriff Van Duncan is in the middle of a campaign to get about 8,300 signatures in order to run for Chairman of the County Commissioners as an independent in order to even get on the ballot. Duncan, a former Democrat, could not see himself running as a party member for a fourth term and had retired as sheriff in 2018.

Once he learned he would have to run under a petition to get on the ballot, he said he returned to a group of folks who asked him to run if he could get the 8,500 unaffiliated signatures required.

Duncan has done what he needed to do to get his blessings from family and his employer to run. He said that he is healthy and looks forward to helping the county avoid more than doubling its debt service, a financial pitfall that will undoubtedly lead to higher taxes. Buncombe County ranks as the third most taxed county in North Carolina.

An unprecedented run?

Mike Summey, a politically active Republican businessman in Buncombe County, has been helping Van Duncan with his signature drive. Summey commented, “Nobody has ever done this before under the present rules, which were enacted in 2017. Before passage of the current rules, Ben Scales got on the ballot in 2014 using a petition drive, in which he had until the last Friday in June to obtain the 7,331 signatures needed at that time. In 2017, the state legislature shortened the time frame to obtain signatures by approximately four months; thereby, reducing the amount time allowed by nearly two thirds.”

[In 2014, Ben Scales got 7,959 signatures, but he went on to lose the general election to Todd Williams by a 62 percent to 37 percent margin.]

According to the Tribune, this is the first time a candidate has sent out such a large mail-out to voters with a paid return envelope, without requesting any money. Summey, who has worked with the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office for 60 years, knows Duncan well as his former lieutenant of reserve officers. Summey has served under multiple sheriffs from both the Republican and Democrat parties. Both Summey and Duncan are confident that they will have 90 percent of the required signatures by February 15th, with a deadline of March 4th to gather all signatures.

While about 8,300 signatures are needed, Duncan says more have to be gathered as some are disqualified for one reason or another. For instance, some people write down their post office box as their address, which is not allowed, or a spouse might sign for both themselves and their partner, another no-no.

Currently, of the signatures sent in, 92 percent are passing, which means the drive needs to get not 8,300 but about 9,000 to ensure meeting the threshold.

Asked what would happen if Van does win the general election and then wants to run for re-election in four years, Director Corrine Duncan said under current rules, “If Van Duncan were elected chairman and wished to run again once his term was up, he would have to follow the rules that are in place at that time. If they are the same rules as today, and he would still like to run unaffiliated, he would do so through the petition process.”

The “mailer strategy” and ignoring the largest voting block

Summey said about 15,000 mailers were sent out to voters who went out in the first mailing, about 8,000 unaffiliated and 7,000 Republicans in select zip codes outside the city. When they saw the results of the first, they then mailed them to all the remaining zip codes in the county and to the Republicans in the city.

If Van Duncan does make it onto the ballot for the November election, he will be up against Buncombe County Commissioner Amanda Edwards, who seeks to become the first woman elected as Chair of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners.

Of Buncombe County’s 206,801 registered voters, 87,550, or about 43 percent, are unaffiliated voters, with Democrats making up about 35 percent and Republicans making up 21.5 percent.

According to a political registration demographic webpage by the University of North Carolina, of the 7.6 million voters statewide, the majority, 36 percent, are unaffiliated, with 34 percent being Democrats and 30 percent Republicans.

Even the Libertarians, who make up only .7 percent, are recognized by the state, but not the vast majority of unaffiliated voters in North Carolina.

One has to wonder how long the state legislature can ignore its largest voting demographic, failing to adapt an approach towards unaffiliated candidates disenchanted and neglected by the traditional political parties’ inability to represent their interests sufficiently.

Reporter’s note: Anyone wanting to sign the petition or learn more can go to