Monday, November 22, 2021

The Rise of North Carolina's Unaffiliated Voter: Who Are They?

By Michael Bitzer, Chris Cooper, Whitney Ross Manzo, and Susan Roberts

Recently, the four of us presented a co-authored paper entitled "The Rise of the Unaffiliated Registered Voter in North Carolina" at the "State of the Parties: 2020 and Beyond" conference hosted (virtually) by the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at The University of Akron. This post summarizes our key findings regarding the fastest growing group of registered voters in the state, and the group that will likely become the state's largest registered voter block sometime in 2022.

The Beginnings of the Unaffiliated NC Voter Rise

We trace the rise of the unaffiliated voter in NC back to 1977, when the NC General Assembly passed House Bill 48, which converted the then-registered "independent" or "no party" designees on the state's voter rolls to "unaffiliated" party status. 

Yet it would be 1986 before NC began to see the significant rise in unaffiliated voters. That same year was when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision giving political parties in the states the right (under the First and Fourteenth amendments) to decide whether their primary elections would be open to other voters than just those registered with the party. This "closed" primary system, where only registered voters of the party could participate in the selection of the party's nominees, was the previous system that North Carolina used.

However, one year later, the NC Republican Party opened up their primaries to Unaffiliated registered voters (still barring registered Democrats however) following passage of another NC law that granted the state's political parties the right to vote in the primary election. 

It would be another eight years, however, before the NC Democratic Party would open up its primaries to Unaffiliated voters (yet again, barring registered Republicans from participating). 

As shown in this graph, the period 1977 to 1990 saw registered Unaffiliated voters at about five percent of the state's total voter pool, but after 1990, the percentage of registered voters begins to escalate quickly, rising to 15 percent of the pool by the turn of the 21st Century.