he political ground shifted a bit in North Carolina last week.

Granted, Democratic Party affiliations are still tops in the state, followed by registered Republican Party voters.

Those are the top parties.But neither can claim the title of having the largest voting bloc.

That falls to the Unaffiliated voters, who edged past Democrats to make up 34.6 percent of Tar Heel voters, 2,503,997 strong. That compares to the Democrats’ 34.5 percent, or 2,496,434 voters, and the 30.3 percent (2,192,073) in the Republican fold.

Libertarians make up the remainder of voters roaming the North Carolina political landscape with 48,654 registrants, or 0.7 percent.

The Unaffiliated trend has been picking up speed in recent years, and of North Carolina’s 100 counties 17 now have plurality-Unaffiliated electorates.

And in a trend within that trend, nine of those 17 can be found in Western North Carolina, including right here – Jackson County.

Buncombe County leads the region in UA voters with 81,668, outnumbering Democrats by about 6,000 and Republicans by 30,000.

In Jackson, UA numbers check in at 11,540, followed by Democrats with 9,014 and Republicans at 8,208. The other WNC counties with UAs leading registration are Haywood, Henderson, Madison, Polk, Swain, Transylvania and Watauga.

“Unaffiliated voters have been on a slow and steady increase in North Carolina since the category was introduced in 1977,” says Chris Cooper, the Robert Lee Madison Distinguished Professor and Director of Western Carolina University’s Public Policy Institute. “At first, the rise was almost imperceptible as neither major party had opened their doors to Unaffiliated. In 1988, the Republicans allowed Unaffiliated into their primaries and the Democrats followed suit eight years later. From that point on the numbers rose faster than the West Fork of the Tuck after a dam release. That trend had occurred in Jackson County years before. The rise in Unaffiliated voters is largely due to young people aging into the electorate and opting for the Unaffiliated category. Some is due to in-migration (in-migrants are more likely to be Unaffiliated than natives) and a very small proportion has been through party switching.”

The obvious answer to whether this trend matters is “yes,” as with their sheer numbers UA voters can swing a general election depending on which major party flag they flock to.

In the case of the NC-11 GOP primary, which features incumbent freshman Rep. Madison Cawthorn being challenged by a host of contenders, the answer to the question of whether all those UA votes matter is ... maybe.

“A group in NC-11 (a PAC known as ‘Fire Madison’ whose goal is ... well ... to fire Madison) is attempting to challenge those patterns by asking Democrats to change their partisan affiliation to Unaffiliated and cast a vote for Wendy Nevarez in the Republican primary,” says Cooper. “Past gambits like these (including Rush Limbaugh’s ‘operation chaos’ from 2008) have failed, but this group is hoping that a small movement in voters to the Republican primary might be enough to deny Cawthorn the 30%+1 threshold.”

North Carolina’s primary system is crafted to allow UA voters to pick the party ballot they choose to vote on in the primary, and the three parties recognized in North Carolina are Democratic, Republican and Libertarian. UA voters in the primary can’t cherry-pick between Democratic and Republican candidates.

“Not surprisingly,” Cooper said of the “Fire Madison” plan, “the Democratic party establishment is not a fan of this plan as it would rob them of membership.”

Still, says Cooper, “If Unaffiliated voters will be the deciding factor anywhere in North Carolina, it will likely be here in the 11th, where we have the largest proportion of Unaffiliateds in the state. Which way they will lean, however, is best left to the gamblers and soothsayers.”

Of course, voter identity won’t matter if a voter isn’t registered. Friday, April 22 at 5 p.m. is the deadline for all voter registration forms in the statewide primary. If a voter missed that deadline but still wants to register, they may do so during the One-Stop Early Voting Period starting Thursday, April 28.