Is North Carolina turning red? An analysis of voter registration data from the past decade

While the Republican wave didn’t materialize nationally, it certainly did in North Carolina: Ted Budd won the Senate race, we now have a supermajority in the state Senate and gained in the state House, and we took control of the state Supreme Court. We also managed to elect two conservative candidates to the Wake County School Board, pretty amazing given how blue Wake is.

You may have seen news items a while back about Florida turning red. So I wondered, what is happening in North Carolina? The state’s voter registration data are available to the public, so I built a dataset containing all active and inactive voters registered as of January 1st in a given year for the past decade. The dataset has about 68 million records. The short version is that we are not turning red, but we are becoming much less blue.

Trends in party registration

The chart below shows the percentage of registered voters in a given year by party. In North Carolina you can register as Unaffiliated; the Other group contains Greens, Libertarians, etc. The proportion of Republicans remained steady over the past decade, but the decline in Democratic registrations is pretty dramatic, from 43% in 2013 to 35% this year. This is mirrored by the growth in Unaffiliated registrations. If the trend continues, Unaffiliated is set to become the largest group of registered voters in the state next year. So this is good news for Republicans: we should have an easier time convincing a registered Unaffiliated to vote for Republican candidates than a registered Democrat.

Party registration for everyone registered to vote, n=68,324,248

What’s driving the trend?

Three things could be happening: 1) 18 year-olds could increasingly register as Unaffiliated instead of Democrat, 2) Democrats could be switching party registration to Unaffiliated and 3) the majority of new residents could register as Unaffiliated (North Carolina’s population grew by 900,000 from 2010 to 2020).

The next chart shows the party registrations of 18-year olds in a given year. It shows the same trend as before: over the past decade, the percentage point change in 18 year-olds registering for a party are -1 for Republicans, -10 for Democrats and +11 for Unaffiliated. So part of the trend is due to the influx of teenagers becoming eligible to vote.

Party registration for 18 year-olds only, n=761,101

The table below shows the number of people switching their party registration for the three main party options (Republican, Democrat and Unaffiliated; I ignore switches to and from the minor parties). The numbers are calculated for a given year by matching voter registration records to the previous year and determining whether the person maintained or switched their party registration between the two years. This is possible because the State Board of Election assigns everyone a unique ID in their datasets that allows tracking of individuals over time.

The bottom panel of the table shows the numbers of switchers over time. We can see that party switching is relatively rare in North Carolina. For example, there were over 7 million people registered to vote in January 2022, and of these only 115,804 had switched between the major party options from January 2021. The top panel of the table subtracts the inflows and outflows to show the net gain by each party. Unaffiliated and Republicans tend to be the net winners, but again, the numbers are very small. So party switching is not having much of an effect on voter registration trends in North Carolina.

Number of party switchers by year

Finally, we can look at new residents to track their trends in party registration. There is no way to definitively determine who is a new state resident in the SBE data, so my solution is to define a registered voter in a given year as a new resident if they appear in the SBE data for that year, but are not registered to vote (active or inactive) in any of the previous five years. The resulting numbers did not make a lot of sense to me – the trend lines were all over the place. So I need to take a deeper look before I publish any numbers. However, given the numbers above, I am fairly confident that the bulk of the growth in unaffiliated voters is from new residents.

I’ll have an analysis of party members by background over time in a future post.

By Stephen

About me

Professor and quant guy. Libertarian turned populist Republican. Trying to learn Japanese and play Spanish Baroque music on the ukulele.

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