By Brad Hessel
Democratic voter registration continued to grow in Wake County in the first half of 2021, while Republican registration declined, a trend in stark contrast to what’s happening statewide. For the first time ever, as far back as the publicly posted N.C. State Board of Elections records go (1993), registered Democrats exceeded registered Republicans in Wake by more than 100,000.
If the current trend holds through the second half of the year, it will be the fifth consecutive year the Democrat’s growth has outpaced the Republicans in Wake.
Here are the total registration numbers for Wake as of June 26 showing year-to-date growth (or decline):
- Unaffiliated: 305,237 (+3.04)
- Democrat: 283,492 (+0.91%)
- Republican: 179,414 (-1.43%)
- Libertarian: 6,208 (+3.45%)
- Overall: 774,351 (+1.08%)
The state board purges inactive voters in odd-numbered years, so it’s typical to see overall declines. The normal pattern is a sharp decrease in January/February when the purge is effected, and then a gradual recovery the rest of the year, which generally falls short of making up the difference. And then growth resumes the next year.
But that’s not happening in Wake this year. There was a notable decline in January. However now, just halfway through 2021, the county voter rolls are not only already up for the year but have produced all-time highs in registered Democrats, those registered unaffiliated, and the total number of voters.
The relative success the Democrats are enjoying versus the Republicans in Wake County seems consistent with all the media hype about folks changing their registration from Republican in the aftermath of the 2020 election. But the picture statewide is starkly different (totals as of June 26, with year-to-date decline):
- Democrat: 2,483,506 (-5.22%)
- Unaffiliated: 2,393,552 (-2.57%)
- Republican: 2,162,546 (-3.74%)
- Libertarian: 46,037 (-2.32%)
- Overall: 7,085,585 (-3.98%)
So while the numbers of registered Libertarians, unaffiliated, total voters, and Democrats are all up in Wake, for the state overall, those categories are all down so far in 2021. And despite the hype, the number of registered Democrats is declining significantly faster than the number of Republicans statewide.
Other trends manifest in Wake are consistent with long-term trends statewide. Libertarian and unaffiliated registrations are growing at the fastest pace. At the same time, the increase in the number of Democrats and Republicans fails to keep up with the overall growth in the number of voters.
Indeed, the decline in the combined establishment parties' share of the electorate—and concomitant growth in the number of unaffiliated—has been going on for at least a quarter-century. In 1993, the combined share of all voters statewide for the Democrats and Republicans was 91.9% compared to 8.1% for unaffiliated. Today, the Democrats and Republicans account for 65.6% compared to 33.8% for unaffiliated. The numbers for Wake are similar.
In one respect, Wake County is a leading indicator: unaffiliated constitute the largest registration group in Wake. Unaffiliated registrants surpassed the Republicans in 2012 and the Democrats in 2019. Statewide, the number of unaffiliated registrants exceeded the number of Republicans in 2017 and will likely outstrip the Democrats sometime in 2022.
Wake has also surpassed Mecklenburg as the county with the most registered voters. Mecklenburg started the year with a 31,000 lead and an all-time state record (or a single county) of 797,000 voters. But their rolls are now down to 767,000 while Wake added 8,000 registrants to achieve an all-time Wake high of 774,000.
But the big takeaway for Wake is the relative success of the Democrats. In 1993, there were 950,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans statewide. Today, that lead has shrunk to 320,000. In Wake County, the Democrats had a 47,000 voter advantage over the Republicans in 1993, and today, their lead here has grown to 104,000.
Remember that five-year streak of faster growth the Democrats are enjoying in Wake County? Statewide, 2021 is shaping up to be the ninth consecutive year the Republicans have grown faster (or declined slower) than the Democrats.
So while the prospects of a Republican comeback in Wake anytime soon are dim, the Democrats’ success here is anomalous. Statewide, the quarter-century-long trend, whereby the registration advantage of Democrats over Republicans is shrinking, remains intact.
Unless something changes in the next decade or so, N.C. Democrats may well wake up one day to find themselves demoted from being the largest cohort of registered voters in the state to number three, behind both the unaffiliated and the Republicans.