Voters in North Carolina are increasingly ditching their political affiliation, but political observers say that doesn't necessarily mean these voters are any more open minded.
"Lots of research shows that the majority of people who call themselves independent vote just as consistently for one party or the other as those who identify with one of the two major parties," according to Tom Carsey, a professor in the UNC Department of Political Science.
Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College professor of Politics and History who analyzes voter data agreed. "While North Carolina unaffiliateds are making considerable headway, if they are similar to national trends, these unaffiliated voters really aren’t political independents when it comes to their voting behavior and choices," he said.
The raw numbers paint a clear picture. Pick any starting point and the ranks of voters registered as unaffiliated to any party has surged. Since 2005, unaffiliated voters have more than doubled. In that same time, registered Republicans increased by 7.5 percent while registered Democrats increased by just 2.1 percent, according to data with the N.C. Board of Elections.
In some ways the numbers stand out even more when factoring in the historic 2008 election, which saw a massive influx of new voters. Since that election, unaffiliated voters have increased by 47 percent while registered Democrats have seen their rolls actually decline by 8 percent. Voters registered as Republicans grew by just 3 percent since the 2008 election.
"Both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party could have cause for concern in looking at these numbers," according to Carsey. "The decline in Democratic Party registration has been a bit steeper, but the Democratic Party retains significant advantage over the Republican Party."
In total terms, registered Democrats still outnumber registered Republicans 2.6 million to 2.1 million, but voters registered as Unaffiliated now outnumber Republicans for the first time in history. Voters registered as Libertarian have increased sharply in percentage terms, but remain a tiny fraction of the overall population of registered voters.
One possible reason for a rise in unaffiliated voters comes down to rules for North Carolina's primaries. Voters registered to one party may not vote in the other party's primary, but a voter registered as unaffiliated may choose either. Said another way, a registered Democrat may not vote in the Republican primary, but someone registered unaffiliated could vote in the Republican primary this year and the Democratic primary next year.
In North Carolina – partly due to gerrymandering – the electorate of a district leans heavily toward one party or another. For that reason, many local or statehouse elections are effectively decided in the primary. One theory for the rise in unaffiliated voters is that people who identify with one party still want to participate in meaningful elections, and therefore register as unaffiliated in order to choose which primary in which they would like to vote.
While this theory holds water in the minds of both Carsey and Bitzer, they both pointed to data to show that unaffiliated voters participate in primaries only sparingly. For example, in the March 2016 primary election – a presidential year – only 27 percent of the ballots cast in the GOP primary were from registered unaffiliated voters, while just 20 percent of the ballots cast in the Democratic primary were from registered unaffiliated voters, according to NCBE data.
There is also a generational shift in party affiliation. Unaffiliated voters make up the largest bloc of Millennial voters while they make up less than one-quarter of the older generations. Already, Millennials – defined as those born after 1980 – make up nearly one-third of all voters in North Carolina and will continue to affect the same trend as that generation continues to take up a larger share of the overall voting population.
Of course, the question remains whether or not these voters will take part in the election process. After all, it doesn't much matter what party you affiliate with if you don't actually go and vote.
The interactive chart below shows the breakdown of registered voters by party and generation. Data from NCSBE and analyzed by Michael Bitzer.
"I think the biggest question is the rate of participation among unaffiliated voters," said Carsey. "If their unwillingness to affiliate with one of the two political parties does not diminish their participation in electoral politics, then the outcomes might be less predictable, but that's it. If rejecting a party label also means rejecting participation in the electoral process, then the legitimacy of that process starts to be undermined. If they don't participate, elected officials have little incentive to respond to their interests, which only furthers their alienation."
Increasingly, Millennial voters have clustered in urban areas. This has the effect of filling urban counties like Wake and Mecklenburg with a higher percentage of unaffiliated voters, while rural counties continue to have voters registered to individual parties.
The interactive graph below shows a breakdown of all voters in North Carolina by generation and residency. Data from NCSBE and analyzed by Michael Bitzer.
While political analysts took a nuanced perspective of the changing voter demographics, party leaders approached the figures more bluntly.
“People are frustrated by today’s scorched-earth style of politics that’s given us unconstitutional racial gerrymanders and a legislature more interested in rigging the system to hold onto power than looking out for everyday people," wrote Wayne Goodwin, chairman of the N.C. Democratic Party, in an email. "Democrats understand and hear this frustration and are reinvesting in people – from getting back to talking about the kitchen table issues that affect their everyday lives and talking to rural communities left behind by today’s economy to organizing year-round so they know exactly what we’re fighting for and how to get involved.”
Representatives from the N.C. Republican party did not respond to emails or voice messages left at party headquarters.
The interactive maps below show trends in voter affiliation by county. For each county, the percentage change is from 2008 through Sept. 12. Data from NCSBE.