North Carolina is politically dominated by the Democratic and Republican political parties. Since the 19th century, third parties, such as the Green Party and Libertarian Party, have had difficulty making inroads in state politics. They have both run candidates for office with neither party’s winning a state office. After engaging in a lawsuit with the state over ballot access, the Libertarian Party qualified to be on the ballot after submitting more than 70,000 petition signatures
Historically, North Carolina was politically divided between the eastern and western parts of the state. Before the Civil War, the eastern half of North Carolina supported the Democratic Party, primarily because the region contained most of the state’s planter slaveholders who profited from large cash crops. Yeomen farmers in the western Piedmont and mountains were not slaveholders and tended to support the Whig party, seen as more moderate on slavery and more supportive of business interests.
Following the Civil War, Republicans, including newly enfranchised freedmen, controlled the state government during Reconstruction. When federal troops were removed in the national compromise of 1877, the Democratic Party gained control of the state government, partly through white paramilitary groups conducting a campaign of violence against blacks to discourage them from voting, especially in the Piedmont counties. Despite that, the number of black officeholders peaked in the 1880s as they were elected to local offices in black-majority districts.
Following a downturn in food prices, in 1892 many of the nation’s farmers created the Populist Party to represent their interests. The party was strengthened by the Panic of 1893 and subsequent nationwide economic depression. In North Carolina, the Republican and Populist parties formed an interracial alliance, called an electoral fusion, in 1894, which resulted in control of the state legislature. In 1896 the Republican-Populist alliance took control of the governorship and many state offices. In response, many white Democrats began efforts to reduce voter rolls and turnout. During the late 1890s, white Democrats began to pass legislation to restrict voter registration and reduce voting by blacks and poor whites.
With the first step accomplished in 1896 by making registration more complicated and reducing black voter turnout, in 1898 the state’s Democratic Party regained control of the state government. Contemporary observers described the election as a “contest unquestionably accompanied by violence, intimidation and fraud – to what extent we do not know – in the securing of a majority of 60,000 for the new arrangement”. Using the slogan, “White Supremacy”, and backed by influential newspapers such as the Raleigh News and Observer under publisher Josephus Daniels, the Democrats ousted the Populist-Republican majority.
Encouraged by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld the Mississippi disfranchising constitution in Williams v. Mississippi (1898), North Carolina legislators passed similar provisions in 1900, as did eight other states. Provisions included imposition of poll taxes, residency requirements, and literacy tests. Initially the grandfather clause was used to exempt illiterate whites from the literacy test, but many were gradually disfranchised as well. By these efforts, by 1904 white Democratic legislators had completely eliminated black voter turnout in North Carolina. Although African Americans mounted litigation and the U.S. Supreme Court began to find specific provisions unconstitutional (as in Guinn v. United States (1915) which struck down the grandfather clause), state legislatures responded with new mechanisms for restricting voter registration. Disfranchisement lasted until the mid-1960s.
With some notable exceptions, North Carolina then became a part of the “Solid Democratic South”. The Solid South was based on disfranchisement of most African Americans and tens of thousands of poor whites. Southern states managed to keep Congressional apportionment based on total population, despite having deprived about half the citizens of the power to vote.
However, some counties in North Carolina’s western Piedmont and Appalachian Mountains continued to vote Republican, continuing a tradition that dated from their yeoman culture and opposition to secession before the Civil War. In 1952, aided by the presidential candidacy of popular war hero Dwight Eisenhower, the Republicans were successful in electing a U.S. Congressman, Charles R. Jonas.
In the mid-20th century Republicans began to attract white voters in North Carolina and other Southern states. This was after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 under Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, which extended Federal protection and enforcement of civil rights for all American citizens. Because the Democratic Party had supported civil rights at the national level, most black voters (just under 25% of North Carolina’s population in the 1960 census) initially aligned with the Democrats when they regained their franchise. In 1972, aided by the landslide re-election of Richard Nixon, Republicans in North Carolina elected their first governor and U.S. senator of the twentieth century.
Senator Jesse Helms played a major role in renewing the Republican Party and turning North Carolina into a two-party state. Under his banner, many conservative white Democrats in the central and eastern parts of North Carolina began to vote Republican, at least in national elections. In part, this was due to dissatisfaction with the national Democratic Party’s stance on issues of civil rights and racial integration. In later decades, conservatives rallied to Republicans over social issues such as prayer in school, gun rights, abortion rights, and gay rights.
Except for regional son Jimmy Carter’s election in 1976, North Carolina voted Republican in every presidential election from 1968 to 2004. At the state level, however, the Democrats still control most of the elected offices, and as large numbers of out-of-state residents moved to the state in the 1990s and 2000’s the Republican dominance in presidential elections has eroded. President George W. Bush carried North Carolina with 56% of the vote in 2004, but in 2008 Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama narrowly defeated Republican candidate John McCain in North Carolina; he was the first Democratic presidential nominee to win the state in 32 years. The Democratic Party’s strength is increasingly centered in densely-populated urban counties such as Mecklenburg, Wake, Durham, and Guilford, where the bulk of the state’s population growth has occurred. However, the Republicans maintain a strong presence in many of North Carolina’s rural and small-town counties, which have become heavily Republican. The suburban areas around the state’s larger cities usually hold the balance of power and can vote both ways, although in 2008 they trended towards the Democratic Party. State and local elections have become highly competitive compared to the previous one-party decades of the 20th century. For example, eastern North Carolina routinely elects numerous Republican sheriffs and county commissioners, a shift that did not happen until the 1980s. Currently, Democrats hold one of two US Senate seats, the governorship, majorities in both houses of the state legislature, state supreme court, and an 8 to 5 majority of U.S. House seats, as of January 2009.
Two Presidents of the United States were born and raised in North Carolina, but both men began their political careers in neighboring Tennessee, and were elected President from that state. The two men were James K. Polk and Andrew Johnson. A third U.S. President, Andrew Jackson, may also have been born in North Carolina. However, as he was born almost precisely on the state line with South Carolina, both states claim him as a native son, and historians have debated for decades over the precise site of Jackson’s birthplace. On the grounds of the old state capitol building in Raleigh is a statue dedicated to the Presidents who were born in the state; Jackson is included in the statue. Jackson himself stated that he was born in what later became South Carolina, but at the time of his birth, the line between the states had not been surveyed.
North Carolina remains a control state. This is probably due to the state’s strongly conservative Protestant heritage. Four of the state’s counties – Alexander, Graham, Mitchell, and Yancey, which are all located in rural areas – remain “dry” (the sale of alcoholic beverages is illegal). However, the remaining 95 North Carolina counties allow the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages, as is the case in most of the United States. Even in rural areas, the opposition to selling and drinking alcoholic beverages is declining, as the decreasing number of “dry” counties indicates.
In 2005, following substantial political maneuvering, the state legislature voted to implement a state lottery, thus altering North Carolina’s reputation as the “anti-lottery” state, where owning a lottery ticket from another state was once a felony. By 2005, every state surrounding North Carolina had a lottery in operation. The North Carolina Education Lottery began selling tickets on March 31, 2006. The lottery has had unexpectedly low sales since its inception.