Voter registration is one of the most critical, but often overlooked, indicators of political change. Partisan voter registration is a strong signal not only that a voter aligns with that party’s general outlook, but just as (or perhaps more) importantly, that they will actually vote. Parties that grow their registrations prosper; parties that don’t, wither.
Since our breakdown of voter registration data in mid-2021, we re-ran the numbers to review progress since then. What we found: current trends in North Carolina’s voter registrations represent something of a house-on-fire crisis to Democrats, whose voter rolls are dropping steadily. Republicans are in better shape, but shouldn’t break open the Cheerwine just yet; though their numbers are at least positive (eg. growing), they are still somewhat small. The big story of North Carolina’s voter registration trends, as it has been for some time, is the continued explosion of growth in the “unaffiliated” vote.
In this post, we rely on the weekly voter registration snapshot data provided by the North Carolina State Board of Elections (week of 10/15/22, and comparable weeks in previous years).
Voter registrations by the numbers
Compared with 2 years ago (October 2020), there are now approximately 111,845 more voters total in the state, including:
- 103,063 fewer Democratic voters
- 21,130 more Republican voters
- 193,778 more Unaffiliated voters
In order of magnitude, there are now 2,632,037 Unaffiliated voters, 2,496,369 Democratic voters, and 2,221,348 Republican voters in the state. If current trends continue, Democrats are likely to cede their second-place ranking to Republicans within the next 4-6 years. Though if that happens, it’s likely to be because of shedding voters to Unaffiliated, as Republican voter growth is generally small.
See the full comparison chart below (or see the Google Sheet for easier viewing):
Trends: Party, Race, and Geography
Party Affiliation: Over the past two years, Democrats’ share of the electorate shrank in all 5 of the biggest counties, which collectively account for a third of the state’s voters and are heavily Democratic. Outside of those 5 counties, it shrank even more, by around 5 percentage points. Republicans’ share also fell in the 5 biggest counties, but increased by about 2 percentage points outside them. Unaffiliated voters, however, grew their share both in the 5 biggest counties as well as outside of them.
Race: The big racial trend in North Carolina’s voting rolls is the increase in the “Other” category. Though there has been a slight numerical dip since 2020, “Other” voters have grown rapidly as a share of the state electorate. White voters added to their numbers since 2020, but still represent less (about 3.5 points) of the electorate than they did in 2018. Black voters dropped slightly as a share of the electorate since 2020, while Hispanics grew in every measured area, but remain a small group.
Note: “Other” includes all voters who indicate neither white nor Black, and can include categories like American Indian, Asian, multiracial, or Pacific Islander – but mostly consists of people who choose the term “Other.” It does not include Hispanic/Latino, which is tracked not as “race” but as an “ethnicity.” It’s impossible to tell what “Other” may mean.
Geography: Wake and Mecklenburg counties alone now account for more than a fifth (21%) of all voters in the state, and that figure continues to slowly grow. The share of all voters outside the 5 biggest counties has mostly stayed constant since 2020, but has meaningfully slipped since 2018. This aligns with patterns of overall long-term growth across the state, which has been heavily concentrated in the “big 5” counties (and overwhelmingly Wake and Mecklenburg).
One of North Carolina’s major political parties is hemorrhaging registrations, while the other muddles along with low but steady growth. Both are completely eclipsed by voters choosing to affiliate with neither, even if most of them vote reliably one way or another. How should we interpret these facts?
Catawba College’s Dr. Michael Bitzer put it well: “With apologies to American Express, the two major parties need to explain why ‘membership has its privileges,’ lest they, too, will be shut out of important markets.” It could be that the two major parties are failing at communicating to voters why affiliating with them is worth it. It could also be that, culturally, voters are increasingly averse to joining organizations. No one truly knows.
Nevertheless, one lesson for Democrats seems clear: the party would be well-advised to begin investing in registering voters. There is no evidence that they are doing so (or doing so successfully) today. The North Carolina Republican Party invests considerable time and resources into voter registration, and even if their results are modest, they are at least extant. Both parties, however, should get comfortable making their cases to Unaffiliated voters who are somewhat suspect of either side. Those voters seem to be the future.