Unaffiliated voters have overtaken Democrats as the largest voting group in North Carolina, according to the latest data from the N.C. State Board of Elections.

The number of unaffiliated voters now stands at 2,503,997, compared to 2,496,434 Democrats and 2,192,073 Republicans. There are 48,654 registered Libertarians.

That shift reflects a growing trend in recent years of voters refusing to identify with either political party. Over the past decade, the percentage of registered Democrats has steadily declined in the Tar Heel State, while GOP voter rolls have grown moderately. Unaffiliated voters overtook registered Republicans in 2017.

Unaffiliated voters are now ascendant in the state’s most populous county, Wake, at 319,913 — compared to 288,365 Democrats and 179,911 Republicans. In the second-most populous county, Mecklenburg, Democrats are still on top, but unaffiliated voters are nipping at their heels (333,505 to 282,400).

Even in the progressive stronghold of Orange County, unaffiliated voters are gaining ground — 43,303 compared to 50,412 Democrats.

Andy Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University, said the trend shows voters’ growing “cynicism” toward politics. “Voters are basically disgruntled with established political institutions,” he said.

Young voters are driving the trend in the growth of unaffiliated voters, according to Michael Bitzer, professor of politics and history at Catawba College in Salisbury. Forty-seven percent of North Carolina registered voters among Generation Z — born between 1997 and 2012 — are unaffiliated.

“When it comes to their voting behavior, some of the analysis that I’ve done based on precinct returns seems to indicate that as the percentage of unaffiliated voters goes up, they tend to be slightly more Republican in leaning,” Bitzer said.

But he cautioned that researchers are still seeking to fully understand the behavior of unaffiliated voters.

“The big question for a lot of researchers is whether these are masked partisans — meaning they don’t like the party label — but they are partisan in their voting behavior. That seems to be the indication at the national level,” he said.

Andy Jackson, director of the Civitas Center for Public Integrity at the John Locke Foundation, cautioned that voter registration should not be confused with voter behavior.

“Most unaffiliated voters behave like weak partisans, voting for one party or the other most of the time,” Jackson said. “One thing that makes them less predictable than party members is they tend to turn out for elections less than either registered Democrats or Republicans.”

Bitzer pointed to another contributing factor to the rise of unaffiliated voters: How the two parties have sorted themselves ideologically in recent years.

“It’s very clear, if you’re a conservative, you’re not in the Democratic party anymore,” he said. “If you’re [a progressive], you’re not in the Republican party anymore. Unlike 50, 60 or, 70 years ago. So, what I would suggest is that if somebody registers as a partisan, they are a true partisan. They are going to vote their party.”