RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Unaffiliated voters now outnumber both Democrats and Republicans in North Carolina.

So where are all the unaffiliated candidates to represent them?

Only a small fraction of the people running for public office since 2010 did so without being affiliated with any political party, according to an analysis from Western Carolina University political science professor Chris Cooper.

“This is a tiny, tiny, tiny number,” Cooper said.

Just 2.9 percent of the candidates for partisan offices in the state over the past 12 years ran without an affiliation, Cooper found. And 3.58 percent of candidates in 2010 were unaffiliated, compared to 3.63 this year.

Cooper said he “suspected it’d be low” but expected “a little bit more of an increase.”

“What we saw was, essentially, no increase,” he said. “So as the number of unaffiliated voters has gone up, the number of unaffiliated candidates has stayed both low and steady.”

During that same time frame, the share of unaffiliated voters went from 23 percent to its current rate of more than 35 percent — surpassing the 34 percent for Democrats and 30 percent for Republicans. 

Unaffiliated voters account for the largest share of registered voters in one-fifth of North Carolina’s counties, including Wake, Orange and Chatham.

So how to explain those wildly disproportionate numbers?

For one, it’s a lot harder to be an unaffiliated candidate for office than it is to simply be a voter.

During the primary elections, those voters in this state have the perk of choosing which party’s ballot they want to fill out. There’s no such primary for unaffiliated candidates — there were only a total of 261 of them in the past dozen years, Cooper found.

“If you’re an unaffiliated voter, you just check the box, it says unaffiliated, and it turns out that non-membership has some privileges in North Carolina,” Cooper said. “That privilege, is you get to choose your own adventure.”

Unaffiliated candidates have several more hoops to jump through: They have to gather enough signatures on a petition just to get on the ballot — with the “who” and the “how many” varying, depending on the race.

And they lack the support system that the larger parties provide, from the brand-name recognition that comes with identifying as a blue Democrat or a red Republican, to the fundraising and organizational efforts from the party network.

“There’s a barrier to get on the ballot,” Cooper said. “And then there’s the barriers to win, which are huge once they’re already there.”

As a result, Cooper found, only 33 unaffiliated candidates have won their races since 2010 — and in nine of those, there were no Democrats or Republicans on the ballot. Most winning candidates earn seats on county commissions (16), followed by boards of education (seven).

So, what has to change for unaffiliated candidates to have a better shot?

A few things, Cooper says.

The state could revisit its petition-signature rules. There could be more of a push for proportional representation. And media outlets could pay attention to those few unaffiliated candidates who do run.

“Hard to get on the ballot,” Cooper said. “Even harder to win.”