By on 5.9.22 in Elections & Voting

In March, North Carolina passed a fascinating milestone: the number of unaffiliated voters overtook the number of registered Democrats to become the largest voting bloc in the state.

There have been a number of good analyses of this shift in North Carolina – we recommend started with this deep-dive from Old North State Politics – and also of the shift nationally. As Gallup reported in January, “At least four in 10 Americans have considered themselves independents in all years since 2011, except for the 2016 and 2020 presidential election years. Before 2011, independent identification had never reached 40%.”

We were curious about this trend and decided to look at how voters have shifted nationally as well as within North Carolina.

NC is now one of 12 states where unaffiliated voters are most common

As of March 19, 2022, North Carolina is one of 12 states where unaffiliated voters are most common. The states with the highest percentage of voters registered unaffiliated are Arkansas (88%), Alaska (62%), and Massachusetts (59%). By raw numbers, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Colorado have the most voters registered as unaffiliated.

A note: a state's primary structure may influence the likelihood of unaffiliated voters.

How does growth of unaffiliated voters align with population changes?

We looked at the 31 states that allow voters to indicate their partisan affiliation on voter registration forms and report those totals publicly. Using data from Ballotpedia, we calculated the aggregate changes in party affiliation from 2010 to 2021, the most current data reported.

Nevada, Colorado, and Oregon saw the biggest percent change of voters identifying as unaffiliated; the numbers more than doubled in each of these states. North Carolina saw a 65 percent increase.

We also specifically looked at the breakdown in North Carolina.


Which NC counties are contributing most to these changes?

The counties with the largest increase in unaffiliated voters (by percentage) are Franklin, Robeson, Johnston, Brunswick, Hertford, Chatham, Harnett, Wake, Cabarrus, and Granville.

The counties with the largest increase in unaffiliated voters (by population) are Wake, Mecklenburg, Guilford, Forsyth, Durham, Buncombe, New Hanover, Union, Cabarrus, and Johnston.

The counties with the greatest percentage of voters registered unaffiliated are Watauga, Transylvania, Camden, Henderson, Currituck, Dare, Wake, Buncombe, Jackson, and Orange.

Who are NC's unaffiliated voters?

Michael Bitzer (Catawba College), Christopher Cooper (Western Carolina University), Whitney Ross Manzo (Meredith College), and Susan Roberts (Davidson College) co-authored a report looking at the characteristics of NC's unaffiliated voters. Some interesting findings from the report:

  • Unaffiliated voters were not very common in NC until the Republican and Democratic primaries were opened to independents in 1988 and 1996, respectively.
  • There are now 17 counties in the state where unaffiliated voters have a plurality.
  • NC is one of 22 states where unaffiliated voters can vote in either primary. Of these states, 8 have a plurality of independent voters.
  • Younger voters are generally more likely to register unaffiliated, with 47% of Gen Z and 42% of millennials registered this way. For this reason, voters under 40 have been the primary drive of the shift to plurality-unaffiliated in the state.  
  • Unaffiliated registration dominates every ethnic group except White and Black individuals, who are plurality-Republican and plurality-Democrat, respectively.
  • Every ethnic group is more likely to skew unaffiliated in the under 40 age group. 
  • Unaffiliated voters are generally more evenly distributed throughout the state than partisan voters; Democrats are concentrated in urban areas and Republicans are concentrated in suburban areas. 

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