Legislative Republicans sent a clear signal to the largest group of registered voters in the Tar Heel state, unaffiliated voters, that they are welcome to continue voting in Republican primary contests, now and forever more.  

Included in a recently passed election bill is a requirement that unaffiliated voters be allowed to vote in a political party’s primary, removing the ability of parties to make this choice of whether to welcome unaffiliated voters or not.  

Most new North Carolina voters are choosing to not affiliate with either major political party, even though most routinely vote with one of the major political parties. 

According to voter registration data tracked by the John Locke Foundation as of August 2023:  36% of North Carolina voters are registered unaffiliated (2,641,423), 33% are registered Democrat (2,413,762) and 30% are registered Republican (2,202,657).  

During July of this year alone, Democrats had a net loss of 53 registered voters,  Republicans added 2,300, while the unaffiliated voter registration list added 12,000.  

Senate Bill 747 has now passed both chambers of the legislature. Gov. Roy Cooper will veto the measure, and the GOP is expected to override that veto in September. 

Other notable provisions of  SB 747 include: 

  • Requires absentee mail ballots to be received by Election Day instead of Friday after the election if postmarked by Election Day.  
  • Prohibits election officials from accepting private money to administer elections 
  • Amends same-day registration to remove ballots if the registration is not confirmed by a county election board’s verification mailing 

The change removing a political party’s ability to choose how to conduct its primary was not included in the original Senate version of the elections bill but was included in the House revision that will become law this fall.  

The change has angered some GOP activists who have long argued that the NCGOP should once again close its primaries and only allow registered Republicans to vote in primary elections. 

In a forum on the conservative Daily Haymaker website, Michael Magnanti, chairman of the Granville County Republican Party wrote: “This is an outrage!..? To say this is a slap in the face is an understatement.” 

Jim Womack, a former Lee County commissioner, and the chairman of the Lee County GOP, praised parts of the bill but blasted the change in who controls who votes in primary elections. 

“Unaffiliated voters outnumber Republicans by 440,000 and that gap is expanding exponentially,” Womack said. “Although Democrat percentages continue to decline even faster than those of the GOP, the influence of center-left voters in GOP primaries will only grow over time. That influence will not, unfortunately, include an increase in funding support for the NCGOP.  To the contrary, contributions from conservative donors will likely tail off over time… This is a big set-back for the conservative NCGOP rank and file.” 

As chronicled by several North Carolina based political scientists in 2021, the rise of the unaffiliated voter began in 1977 when the NC General Assembly converted those registered as “independent” or “no party” to an “unaffiliated” status.  

Yet it would be another decade, in 1987, that the state saw unaffiliated voter registration begin to skyrocket. That year North Carolina Republican Party Chairman Jack Hawke sent a letter to the North Carolina State Board of Elections indicating that the NCGOP Executive Committee had authorized unaffiliated voters to participate in GOP primary contests.  

It would be another eight years, however, before the NC Democratic Party would open up its primaries to unaffiliated voters. 

The move by Republicans in the late 1980’s paid off in the years to come. While the GOP had elected Republican Jim Martin to the Governors Mansion in 1984, Democrats controlled almost all statewide races, the legislature, and the courts. Republicans began earning larger voting shares as unaffiliated voters began pulling GOP primary ballots. Republicans captured control of the state House for the first time in more than 100 years in 1994. In 2000 Republican George W. Bush won NC in 2000 by 13% over Al Gore (56% to 43%), but NC Democrats controlled nine out of the 10 statewide Council of State seats, including governor and lieutenant governor. 

Currently the GOP controls six out of the 10 Council of State seats.  

By the time I became executive director of the state Republican Party (2015-2019), unaffiliated voter participation in party primaries was a key factor in building a statewide coalition of voters needed to win elections.  

In 2008 unaffiliated voters flocked to the Democratic primary to vote in the Obama/Clinton Democratic nomination. Far fewer unaffiliated voters pulled a GOP ballot in 2008, in part because U.S. Sen. John McCain was well on his way to being the GOP nominee by the time NC voted, making the exciting contest on the Democratic side. Those unaffiliated voters stuck with Democrats in the General Election and provided the bump Obama needed to narrowly win NC in 2008. 

The reverse was true eight years later. While Democrats had basically coronated Hillary Clinton as their nominee, Republicans had the exciting contest between, Trump, Ted Cruz and others. Trump won the 2016 NC General Elections by 3.6%. Part of the winning coalition was unaffiliated voters who had selected a GOP primary ballot. 

Our research indicated that 75% of unaffiliated voters who chose a GOP primary ballot, voted for Trump in the General Election, irrespective if they had voted for Trump in the primary.  By a large measure, if a party attracts an unaffiliated voter into the primary, they have already won that voter for the General Election.  

While I was at the party, there was always a small group of activists that wanted to see the party once again close the primary to unaffiliated voters. Resolutions were presented every few years at the state convention that would move the party towards closed primaries.  Majorities of activists and delegates did not hold this position. One of my last years as executive director (2018), 60% of voting delegates supported keeping primaries open to unaffiliated voters.  

However, the group of people desiring closed primaries has never wavered. They claim that if unaffiliated voters can vote in primaries, there is simply no reason to register as a Republican. This claim has merit, but is beside the point. Many unaffiliated voters consider themselves to be conservative Republicans, and voting patterns appear to back this up. 

Those people who want closed primaries also say that allowing unaffiliated voters to select GOP nominees results in more moderate candidates. If this was true, it could be a BENEFIT to helping win statewide elections in a purple state, but working in NC politics for two decades, I have seen no evidence of this.  Every election since 1980, before and after unaffiliated voters were allowed to participate, the NCGOP primary selected the same presidential candidate as the party eventually nominated nationally (Reagan, Reagan, Bush, Bush, Dole, Bush, Bush, McCain, Romney, Trump, and Trump). 

While the subject of closing GOP primary was an issue in the recent NCGOP chairman’s race, Chairman Michael Whatley, who favors keeping the primary’s open, was re-elected with strong support. While supporters of closing the primaries claim some momentum in their fight, it does not appear that side was close to building the support necessary from activists, convention delegates, and elected officials to make it happen. 

Instead of closing the primaries, North Carolina elected Republicans who have the most to lose by suddenly shutting out the states largest voter block, have closed the debate. They want and need unaffiliated voters to be part of GOP primary decisions. Elected Republicans just sent a clear message. Unaffiliated voter participation in primaries is here to stay.