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There are 2.5 million unaffiliated voters in North Carolina. So why aren’t there more unaffiliated candidates?

Unaffiliated candidates face a different process to get on the ballot.
Lilly Knoepp/BPR News
Unaffiliated candidates face a different process to get on the ballot.

Unaffiliated voters are the largest voting bloc in North Carolina, growing by 75% in the last 12 years to more than 2 million voters.

Here in Western North Carolina, unaffiliated voters are the majority in the far western counties. They also had a big impact on the NC-11 primary election in May 2022. In the 11th congressional district on the Republican side, 40 percent of people who showed up were unaffiliated. That is the largest number in the state, BPR reported in June.

However, there are few unaffiliated candidates. For November’s election, there are only about 10 unaffiliated candidates running in the region.

“That's the highest that I can find on record,” said politics expert Chris Cooper from Western Carolina University. “In terms of the candidates, it does look like it's up a little bit. So statewide, just shy of 4%.”

While the number of unaffiliated candidates is growing, the gap remains wide compared to the number of unaffiliated voters. Part of that, Cooper says is because they face different rules than major party candidates.

For example, to get on the ballot unaffiliated party candidates for county positions have to get signatures from 4% of registered voters in the county. Those signatures are then verified by the county election boards. That number of signatures varies for statewide offices.

Those associated with a party file a notice of candidacy and pay a filing fee to be added to the ballot.Third parties face a different process because the party must petition to be on the ballot. There is also an option for any candidate to avoid paying the filing fee by getting signatures instead.

“So, it's a lot to do just to get on the ballot. And then, hey, once you're on the ballot, you've got to remind people to vote for you without any sort of party backing,” explains Cooper.

For Macon County Commission unaffiliated candidate Jerry Moore, getting on the ballot was a bigger hurdle than he thought.

“Well, when I first started thinking of getting 1,100 signatures, it didn’t seem that bad,” said Moore. “But then when I started with my first sheet and tried to get 20, I said to myself, ‘wow this is going to be a process.’”

Another hurdle as an unaffiliated candidate is to campaign and raise funding without the backing of traditional party infrastructure.

Moore’s process focused on tapping into his community network through friends, mailers and social media.

He’s been a business owner in Highlands for more than 10 years, operating ice cream and chocolate store Kilwins. He says participating in a number of local boards including the Highlands Cashiers Health Foundation have prepared him for local politics.

“My biggest expense was a mailer that I sent out to the entire county. Just to introduce myself to people, these are my ideas, this is who I am and hopefully drive them to my website,” said Moore.

Those connections helped him raise about $13,000 in campaign funding, according to Moore.

He seems to have done well compared to the other commissioner candidates. Republican John Shearl has raised the most funding with over $13,000 as of the last reporting period.

Local candidates do not have to electronically submit their filing to the state election board unless they raise over $10,000.

In the Macon County Commission race, only Moore, Shearl and Republican candidate Danny Antione have risen over the threshold, according to the Macon County Board of Elections. The board shared reports from May from Moore and Antione. At that time, Moore reported just over $6,000 from individuals and Antione reported almost $9,000 from individuals.

The other three candidates running, Democrat Betty Cloer Wallace and the two incumbents Republican Gary Shields and Democrat Ronnie Beale have raised less than $10,000.

A resident of Highlands, Moore says one of his biggest campaign challenges has been connecting with people in Franklin – the most populous town in Macon County. He says some see him as an outsider.

“When I owned Kilwins you know most of my employees drove up from Franklin. I know the importance of having a good education system for the whole county – not just Highlands. Having access to healthcare for the whole county – not just Highlands,” said Moore.

Moore says he wishes that more politicians could work outside of party lines. There are other unaffiliated county commissioners running for election in Swain and Clay Counties.

Benny Frady is an unaffiliated candidate for Transylvania County sheriff. He says fundraising hasn’t been a priority in his campaign. With decades of law enforcement experience, he thinks it’s important to not favor one party or the other.

“You run into the same issues with contributors that you do with a party. Once you’re in office, the party wants something from you or wants you to look a certain way. The contributors do too – especially if they’re large contributors,” said Frady. “And when I go into office, I don’t want somebody to say, ‘Hey I gave you X amount of dollars you owe me a favor.’”

Frady says his definition of the law is defined by the constitution. If a law is passed that is unconstitutional, he says he won’t follow it. For example, he says he wouldn’t follow a law that violated 2nd amendment rights.

“If someone wants to send an order down and says you are going to have to start doing this if it’s in violation of the constitution – then no we don’t,” said Frady. He said he is familiar with the Constitutional Sheriff’s movement and has spoken with the group.

Frady has relied on community events for his campaigning. He says while getting the required signatures was hard, it helped his campaign.

“When I went that extra step that gave me well over 1,000 contacts that my opponents did not get,” said Frady.

Overall Frady doesn’t believe that law enforcement or judges should declare their party affiliation.

“Justice is blind if you look at the scales of justice. She is blindfolded. That’s the way we should operate,” explained Frady.

Cooper says this has long been a discussion about the sheriffs’ office.

“I think that is an office that not everybody agrees should be partisan in the first place. And so I think it makes some sense that you're going to see some more unaffiliated candidates there and unaffiliated candidates perhaps doing well,” said Cooper.

Cooper points out there three unaffiliated sheriff candidates on November's ballot in Transylvania, Graham and McDowell counties.

"Three's an important number, but three is not a whole lot," Cooper said.

Statewide, more unaffiliated North Carolinians are calling for greater representation including on the state Board of Elections.

Bob Phillips is executive director of Common Cause North Carolina which filed a lawsuit in August to add unaffiliated representation to the board.

“The rationale for the challenge is that we should not have a board that administers election law policy that essentially leaves out more than a third of our registered voters in North Carolina,” said Phillips.

The state Board of Elections makes decisions on everything from where and when early voting will be available to overseeing voter security and certifying the election results. If the law was changed to include unaffiliated voters on the board, Phillips says, the legislature would need to restructure the board.

“The hope is we get unaffiliated voter representation on the highest state election board in the state, maybe that helps dial down some of the kind of partisan flare that we have at the state board of elections,” said Phillips.

He says that no matter how long the system has been in place that doesn’t mean that it can’t be improved. “In the times we are in, and the reality of who North Carolina is - you know, unaffiliated being number one. We have to have this change in my mind.”

A recent example of the NC Election Board’s power has been enacting more strict poll watcher guidelines in August. However, North Carolina's Rules Review Commission rejected the change.

Phillips expects the Common Cause lawsuit to be argued in court next year.

Absentee ballot voting for this November’s election is underway. One-stop early voting starts October 20th.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.