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Tom Miller: Independents cut into Democratic registrations

Oct. 21, 2012 @ 12:25 AM

It's probably not enough of a factor yet to make a significant impact on the outcome of next month's general election. But the growing number of voters in West Virginia not registered as either Democrat or Republican has been growing steadily in the past few years. So these independent voters could well alter the outcome in one or two statewide races where the two major party candidates could wind up in a close race.

According to information from Secretary of State Natalie Tennant's office, there were 638,086 registered Democrats in West Virginia at the end of August. That represents about a 4 percent drop from 667,922 registered Democrats four years earlier. And during that same four-year period, the number of people registered to vote in the state that claim no party affiliation increased by nearly 34 percent from 160,883 to 215,512.

Derek Scarbro, executive director of the West Virginia Democratic Party, insists there has been a "long-term trend" of increased growth in independent voters over the past 20 to 30 years. But it's mostly confined to Democrats here in West Virginia because the number of registered Republican voters has increased by a modest amount.

The number of Republicans on state voter registration rolls as of the last report was 353,179 compared with 348,139 back in 2008. So the GOP gains of slightly more than 5,000 represents less than 20 percent of the nearly 30,000 fewer registered Democrats while the number of independent voters increased by more than 55,000.

There are many theories about this trend in West Virginia. Neil Berch, a political science professor at West Virginia University, told a Charleston newspaper that some of those switching from Democrat to registration as an independent can be traced to an overall national increase in voters who are choosing this route.

But he also attributes part of the trend to "the gap between the national Democratic Party and the West Virginia Democratic Party." Recent polls suggest that nearly two out of every three West Virginia residents describe themselves as conservatives. There is also the age factor. Older West Virginians who are staunch Democrats are being replaced with younger people who more likely to register as independents.

Scarbro makes no secret of his party's efforts to target this growing number of registered Independent voters in West Virginia because "according to the numbers, they (still) vote Democratic." He said that's why his party opened its 2008 primary to allow them to participate.

State GOP Chairman Conrad Lucas said the current trends are a result of the fact the state Democratic Party has endorsed President Barack Obama and other national Democratic platform ideas that are too liberal for many state voters. He calls it an "absolute implosion of the state Democratic Party" and points to the 41 percent that voted in this state's Democratic presidential primary for Keith Judd -- a convicted felon serving a 17-year sentence in a Texas prison.

Certainly the current trend doesn't threaten the status of Democrats as the majority political party in this state. But it does suggest more and more voters have more interest in individual candidates rather than a party label.

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The West Virginia Lottery Commission now has to wrestle with the issue of whether or not The Greenbrier resort should be allowed to let bus tour groups visiting the resort to have access to the hotel's guests-only casino. That decision will come at the commission's meeting this week.

Lottery Director John Musgrave has already made it clear he believes the commission must provide some clarity in any new policy it adopts. It's triggered by reports in a Charleston newspaper that The Greenbrier had been allowing charter bus day-tour groups access to the $80 million underground casino.

The original regulations in the 2009 legislation provided that access to the casino was limited to registered overnight guests at the hotel or members of the Greenbrier Sporting Club, a residential development at the resort. But it was later amended to provide an exception for persons attending conferences or conventions at The Greenbrier if the hotel was booked close to capacity -- specifically if 400 or more of the rooms were booked.

Last month, the Lottery Commission voted to expand the definition of special events to include those attending the annual Greenbrier Classic PGA golf tournament. Musgrave said this did not open up the casino to "buses pulling up and unloading folks just for the purpose of going to the casino." But The Greenbrier has scheduled dozens of day-trip bus tours that includes casino access and even provides $15 to $25 of complementary slots play for each person.

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Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Maloney, who is a successful businessman, is understandably in favor of an amendment to the state constitution to eliminate the personal property tax that local governments collect based on businesses' equipment and inventory. In a recent televised debate, he said there are "some things we need to do just to start the process to make it easier for folks to invest in new equipment."

Critics of his proposal insist it will meet the same fate as it did when former Gov. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, tried to gradually reduce the tax a couple of years ago. County governments, city governments and county boards of education all tax business inventory and equipment with about 75 percent going to public schools. County governments alone bring in $70 million annually. And as Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, who is running against Maloney and hopes to continue as governor for the next four years, pointed out when one tax is repealed, something else has to be used to replace that lost revenue.

Tom Miller is a retired state government reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. He is a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch opinion page.

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