This story originally published online at Carolina Public Press.

For the first time in nearly 20 years, the largest percentage of North Carolina’s registered voters do not affiliate with a political party.

According to N.C. State Board of Elections data from last month, 36% of registered voters are “unaffiliated.” That’s double the percentage of registered unaffiliated voters in 2004 – there are registration records available for every year since 2004.

“My grandmother voted in the first presidential election in which women were allowed to vote. As a young girl, I remember her often telling me, ‘It’s not the party. It’s the man,’” said Deborah C. Wooley from Weaverville, just outside Asheville.

Some of North Carolina’s 2.6 million unaffiliated voters are people who previously affiliated with one political party and changed their registration. North Carolina’s changing political profile may contribute to a larger national trend, seen in other states such as Colorado, Florida and Arizona, where unaffiliated voters are also the most common. Others have registered as unaffiliated since they cast their first ballot.

Wooley was one of more than 75 respondents to Carolina Public Press’ request for readers to submit their reasons for registering as unaffiliated. The survey was available in English and Spanish.

Unaffiliated voters throughout the state submitted responses that give insight into this rapidly growing group.

North Carolina’s party system

North Carolina recognizes four political parties: Democratic, Republican, Green Party and Libertarian. The state also recognized the Constitution Party until 2021.

When registering, voters must pick one of these parties or choose to be unaffiliated. If they do not select a party on the form, they are automatically deemed unaffiliated voters.

If North Carolinians register with a specific party, they can only receive a ballot for that party’s candidates in primary elections, according to state guidelines. If they’re unaffiliated, they get to choose a Republican, Democratic, Green Party on Libertarian ballot. In general elections, the ballots are the same for all voters in a given district.

It wasn’t always this way. It wasn’t until the N.C. General Assembly passed House Bill 47 in 1978 that voters could register as unaffiliated. Doing so meant it cost them a vote in the primary election. That changed in 1987 with House Bill 559, which allowed voters to choose a ballot in primary elections.

CPP survey responses

Earlier this month, (Carolina Public Press) launched a bilingual statewide survey to better understand unaffiliated voters in North Carolina. Of the 78 responses, nearly one-third of CPP’s respondents alluded to having a choice in primary election ballots as a main reason for registering as unaffiliated.

“I can vote in either primary to at least contribute toward ensuring both parties put forth their best candidate. I don’t like to feel that if the good candidate for one party loses, then the bad candidate for the other wins, so we are up the proverbial creek,” L. Richard Lowe of Kannapolis wrote.

Many of these responses, such as Ruth Balwin’s, displayed an overall distaste of the political system.

“Being unaffiliated reflects my dissatisfaction with the two-party system in this country,” Baldwin, of Henderson County, wrote. Baldwin has always registered as unaffiliated.

CPP survey respondents wrote that the lack of representation and dissatisfaction with political parties has led them to register as unaffiliated.

“I’m on the left end of the political spectrum and used to register as a Democrat but as I’ve developed my political identity more over the last few years, I felt less and less represented by the Democratic Party,” said Alexander Wall of Raleigh.

A 2020 study conducted by academics across the state found that North Carolina’s largest percentage of unaffiliated voters were those 40 and younger.

“By 2020, millennials and Generation Z voters accounted for 46% percent of the unaffiliated voters (33% millennials and 13% Gen Z), compared to 34% of Democratic voters and 29% of Republican voters,” the researchers wrote, specifying that the term “millennials” represents people born from 1981-96, and “Gen Z” represents those born after 1997.

Researchers, such as those with the Pew Research Center and Harvard University, have associated this tendency to remain unaffiliated, and often unengaged, with young people’s distrust or lack of faith in the government.

“To me, choosing a label feels like it’d define me by the policy decisions of those who are more likely to work for the party than for me and my most vulnerable neighbors. What good is joining a unified voice if it isn’t speaking for me?” wrote Sara Pequeño in an opinion article published in March in the News & Observer.

‘A bridge’ between two parties

In addition to age, the study of unaffiliated voters in North Carolina found trends in the ethnicities of those registering as unaffiliated.

White North Carolinians constitute the largest percentage of unaffiliated voters, the study shows, but that percentage has been steadily decreasing — from 80% in 2008 to 66% in 2020.

Black or African American unaffiliated voters have consistently made up between 11% and 12% of unaffiliated voters.

The largest percentage increase in terms of ethnicity has been seen among Latino voters, those who select “other ethnicity” on the voter registration form and those who opt not to report an ethnicity.

In 2008, Latino and Hispanic voters made up for 2% of unaffiliated voters. In 2020, they made up 4%.

Similarly, voters who did not specify or provide ethnicities constituted 7% of unaffiliated voters in 2008 and 19% in 2020.

“In terms of demographics, unaffiliated registrants tend to represent a ‘bridge’ between the two partisan registered voter groups of Democrats and Republicans,” the researchers wrote.

The “bridge” occurs because unaffiliated voters are more ethnically diverse than Republicans, but not as ethnically diverse as Democrats.

What does the growing number of unaffiliated voters mean?

The rising number of unaffiliated voters shows a discontent with the state’s political parties and the overall political system.

North Carolinians have many reasons for their state becoming one of 12 where unaffiliated voters are the most common, according to a UNC Chapel Hill unaffiliated voter analysis.

Many researchers have posited that the rising number of unaffiliated voters could result in a shift in how the current two-party political system functions.

With the unaffiliated voter population growing more than any other political party, it’s unlikely that unaffiliated voter numbers will soon change.

“What this means is that voters in North Carolina have a choice to make. They can choose to express their partisanship, receive the (mostly social) benefits of party membership, but be limited in which primary they may choose, or they can choose to register as an unaffiliated voter, ‘cover’ their political beliefs and maximize their choice in the primary,” the researchers wrote.

The increase in unaffiliated voters, both in North Carolina and beyond, is a trend that should not be ignored — it could mean the loss of political party membership or support for a political system that many are showing dissatisfaction with.

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