N.C. Electorate More Urban, Independent
A county-by-county analysis of North Carolina voters points to dramatic shifts in the past decade that will likely influence campaign strategy for hot elections this year for Richard Burr’s U.S. Senate seat and for control of the General Assembly.
The numbers tell the story. For example, while the registration rolls of Democrats and Republicans have grown by 11 percent and 16 percent respectively since 2000, the number of voters choosing to not affiliate with any party soared by 83 percent. In fact, the 627,500 new unaffiliated voters are over half of the 1.16 million voters added during the decade.
The report provides county-by-county data on the changing racial and partisan composition of the electorate, the growth of urban counties, the increase in young voters and the number of adults not registered to vote. (Some voters move away or die as new ones register, so the focus here is on the net change.)
Unaffiliated voters now make up nearly one-fourth (23 percent) of the 6.1 million registered voters in the state, compared with about one in seven voters (15 percent) in 2000. Similarly, while the number of white voters increased by 572,500 or 15 percent to 4.46 million, the number of African-American voters jumped by 383,500, or 41 percent, to 1.32 million.
More than half the increase in voters of color for the decade came in 2008, when Barack Obama won the Democratic primary and general election. While 83 percent of adult whites are now registered, the figure is now 87 percent for people of color. But contrary to the portrait of blacks as loyal Democrats, 21 percent of the nonwhites who registered in 2008 signed up as unaffiliated.
Accurate figures for Latino voters are hampered by changing questions about race and ethnicity on voter registration forms over the decade; ethnicity was not asked until 2002. As of Jan. 2, 2010, there were 72,750 Hispanic/Latino voters, a substantial jump from 41,900 at the beginning of 2008. One-third are now registered as unaffiliated, 46 percent as Democrats and 20 percent as Republicans.
Democrats can be thankful for the 2008 registration surge; more than 90 percent of their net gain in members for the decade came during that one year. Still, Democrats lost their overall share of the electorate, going from 50.6 percent of registered voters 10 years ago to 45.4 percent now, the first time in a century that the party has started a decade with less than half the state’s registered voters.
Urban Counties Stronger
The 2008 election also showed the growing muscle of the state’s urban counties, which will likely be the key focus in the 2010 U.S. Senate race. The seven most populous counties in the state now have 37 percent of all the registered voters.
In 2008, those seven counties (Wake, Mecklenburg, Guilford, Forsyth, Cumberland, Durham and Buncombe) gave Barack Obama, Kay Hagan and Bev Perdue a lead of more than 300,000 votes each, enough to overcome the rest of the state’s majority support for their Republican opponent.
The next 13 counties in size have 22 percent of the state’s voters, and 11 of them strongly favored Republican statewide candidates in 2008. They include Gaston, Union, Cabarrus, Johnston, Onslow, Davidson, Iredell, Catawba, Alamance, Randolph and Rowan. Together, these 20 counties account for 60 percent of the state’s voters, and they are expected to be the central battleground for the U.S. Senate contest.
Young voters age 18 to 25 now make up 12 percent of the electorate, an increase from 10 percent a decade ago, and they provided significant energy in the 2008 election. However, there is no guarantee they will be engaged in the 2010 election: While 60 percent of the state’s registered young voters turned out in 2008 (compared with 70 percent of all voters), Democracy N.C. found that only 4 percent voted in the cities with November 2009 elections (compared witho 16 percent of all eligible voters).
Overall, the number of registered voters has increased 24 percent over the decade, while the adult population climbed only 19 percent. But the pace of new registrations has slowed considerably. In the four months from mid-September 2009 to mid-January 2010, the rolls gew by only 19,000 voters. During a similar period two years ago, 60,000 voters were added to the rolls.
The decade began with 84 percent of the voting-age population registered, up from 81 percent in January 2000. Democracy N.C. estimates that about 1 million citizens are currently not registered to vote, or 15 percent of the eligible population.
Precise Numbers Elusive
It’s difficult to get precise numbers on how many eligible adults are not registered in North Carolina, because (a) the voter registration rolls are inflated with some people who have moved away, and (b) the voting-age population includes noncitizens.
Data for some counties can show a high registration rate, or even more registered voters than resident adults, particularly the counties with a significant university or noncitizen population or where the local board of elections conducts infrequent mailings to identify voters who have moved.
Recent research calculates the voting-age population minus registered voters to produce each county’s “VAP Unregistered,” but these numbers should be treated as approximations because of the imprecise nature of the underlying data.
Other highlights in the data assembled by Democracy North Carolina from the State Board of Elections and State Data Center:
— Wake County now has more adults than Mecklenburg County, and more unregistered voters.
— Seven of the 10 counties with the fastest growth of unaffiliated voters are along the coast, no doubt fueled by Northerners who are unsure how they align with local party politics.
— Cumberland, Onslow and Wayne, the state’s three big military counties with chronically low voter participation, are among the 10 counties that posted the bigg-est increases in their registration rates, with 13 to 20 percentage point gains compared with the statewide three-point gain.
— Statewide, Democrats added 10,600 more registrants than Republicans during the decade, thanks to gains in the big counties, particularly in 2008. Republicans have added more members than Democrats since 2000 in 79 of the 100 counties, but in five counties Democrats surpassed Republicans by 167,000 registrations: Mecklenburg, Wake, Guilford, Durham and Cumberland.
Democracy North Carolina is a nonpartisan organization that uses research, organizing and advocacy to “increase voter participation, reduce the influence of big money in politics and achieve a government that is truly of the people, for the people and by the people.”
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