If unaffiliated voters were a political party, they’d be the second-largest in North Carolina. Their ranks have more than doubled just since 2004.
[Longleaf story: 7 types of unaffiliated voters in North Carolina]
But the state’s political system — from the donor base to ballot access procedures to campaign infrastructure — makes it exceedingly difficult for unaffiliated candidates to get elected.
Here’s what you need to know about running for office as an unaffiliated candidate. Want to skip right to the step-by-step guide? Click here.
[Note: It’s too late to run as an unaffiliated candidate in 2018 — but you’ll need to start soon to run in 2019 races.]
Most elections in North Carolina are partisan.
All statewide offices, General Assembly elections and judicial elections are partisan, meaning that candidates typcically first run to be the representative of an acknowledged political party in the state.
There are, however, several categories of nonpartisan races. Nearly all local school boards are nonpartisan — meaning that no party labels are attached to candidates. Many small town councils are also nonpartisan.
Running as a partisan candidate is fairly straightforward. You’ll file for the office and participate in the party primary election.
Getting on the ballot as an unaffiliated candidate is more difficult.
Unaffiliated candidates need signatures.
A lot of them.
Only registered voters in the jurisdiction you’re running to represent are eligible to sign, and all signatures must be made in-person and in ink. Digital signatures are not allowed.
For statewide offices, the number is equal to 1.5% of the total number of votes cast in the preceding governor’s race. That means for this year and 2020, you’ll need 71,545 signatures.
These signatures must be dispersed geographically. You’ll need at least 200 in three different congressional districts.
You’ll need enough signatures to equal 4% of the number of registered voters in the district you’re running in.
To give you a ballpark estimate, most House districts have between 50,000 and 70,000 registered voters. This means the candidate would need between 2,000 and 2,800 signatures.
County offices and districts that lie within a single county: 4% of the registered voter population of the district must sign.
Municipal offices: 1.5% of the district or city (if city-wide). The city of Charlotte has 568,354 registered voters, meaning you’d need more than 8,500 signatures to get on the ballot for mayor or City Council at-large.
All other districted offices: 1.5%
You can do the math yourself.
Use this site to find out how many registered voters are in your district. If you don’t find it there, check your county Board of Elections website.
Also note that you’ll still pay the filing fee, generally 1% of the salary of the position.
Sound tough? Running as an unaffiliated candidate is easier than it used to be.
That’s thanks to a 2017 ballot access law that’s best known for easing the requirements for new political parties in North Carolina.
Most signature requirements were dropped from 2% of registered voters to the 1.5% they are today.
Municipal signature requirements were dropped from 4% to 1.5%.
I lost my primary race. Can I run unaffiliated?
Nope. That’s spelled out in the “sore loser” provision of the ballot access law.
I’m a registered Republican (or Democrat). Can I run unaffiliated?
Yep, you sure can. Your candidacy status is not affected by voter registration status.
It’s worth noting, though, that this doesn’t work the other way around. If you’re registered unaffiliated within 90 days of filing for office, you can’t run in a party primary.
Has North Carolina ever elected an unaffiliated candidate to the General Assembly?
Yes, but it’s rare.
The most recent example is Bert Jones, a Reidsville conservative who was elected to the state House in 2010 as an unaffiliated candidate. He became a Republican in 2011 and is still in the chamber today.
The most recent unaffiliated member of the General Assembly came a few years back.
Rep. Paul Tine of Kitty Hawk was elected to the N.C. House in 2012 as a Democrat and re-elected in 2014. In early 2015, he announced that he was leaving the Democratic Party to become an unaffiliated voter — but caucus with House Republicans.
“I’ve been hired to do the best I can for the district and the state,” Tine told WRAL in January 2015. “Can I do that best by working with the majority or working with the minority who doesn’t always hold the same views as my district does? I feel that I can do a better job for the district by working with the Republicans.”
Tine announced in late 2015 that he would not run for re-election, though he told the N&O that leaving his political party did not play a role.
Here’s your step-by-step guide to running as an unaffiliated candidate.
1) Make your decision — and do it quick. You need to have all your signatures before the partisan primary in your race, which is generally in May.
2) Fill out this form from the State Board of Elections. It’s dead simple and just asks for your contact info and what race you’re interested in.
3) Turn the form in to your county Board of Elections. They’ll send it back with the number of signatures you need and your deadline.
4) Hit the pavement and start gathering signatures. Turn the pages in to your county elections board as you fill them up to be verified.
5) Keep up with your progress using this site.
6) Start reading up on campaign finance and reporting rules. You’re still bound by all of them.
7) Gain ballot access and start your REAL campaign.