The Pulse

NC voter turnout in the midterms: What the data show for various groups

By: - December 8, 2022 3:02 pm
Photo: Getty Images

This report about voter turnout follows one from last week about changes in voter registration. This new spreadsheet – 12 pages – compares voter turnout statewide, by county and by voting groups for 2022 with 2018.

Turnout rate = Number of ballots cast divided by number of registered voters.

Each county has two rows on the spreadsheet – the white row is 2022, the blue row is 2018.

Here are some observations:

** Just over half of North Carolina’s registered voters cast ballots in 2022, while nearly half stayed home.  The overall turnout rate of 51% was 2 percentage points lower than the 53% rate in 2018, but the decline in participation was not uniform among groups by race, age or party.

** White voters actually turned out at a higher rate in 2022 than in 2018. In fact, the strong 63% turnout rate for white Democrats not only beat their 2018 level; it also beat the 61% rate for white Republicans this year.  Over 70% of registered white Democratic women and white Democratic men cast ballots in 2022 in Chatham, Durham, Orange and Wake counties.

** Meanwhile, turnout among self-identified Black voters dropped 6 points, from 48% in 2018 to 42% this year – with even larger declines for Black women and younger Black voters age 18-40.  Turnout of Black Democrats also dropped nearly 6 points, and so did participation by Democrats who registered without identifying their race. Because of those declines, the overall rate for all Democrats dropped from 54.5% in 2018 to 51.3% in 2022, even though turnout increased for white Democrats.  The surprising 8 point drop among Black women (from 53% in 2018 to 45% in 2022), with Cheri Beasley on the ballot, merits careful attention & listening.

** Statewide, the gap in turnout between white and Black voters soared to 16 points in 2022 (58% vs. 42%), compared to 8 points in 2018 and 5 points in 2014. Many of the once strongly Democratic Black Belt and Tobacco Belt counties in eastern NC are losing voters and shifting Republican, while also suffering from high rates of poverty that are worse for people of color.  The gap in white vs. Black turnout rates hit 17 to 20 points in 2022 in Bertie (63% white turnout vs. 43% Black), Chowan, Halifax, Lenoir, Nash, Northampton, Pitt and Wilson.  But the gap was also that large this year in Buncombe, Forsyth, Guilford, Mecklenburg, New Hanover, Orange and Wake.

** Several of the counties with relatively higher turnout among Black voters had contested sheriff races, often with a Black Democrat vs. white Republican, as in Person, Franklin, Bladen and Granville (where the Black Democrat won in a three-way contest that split the white vote).  Two white sheriff candidates faced off in other counties in this group, e.g., Pamlico, Greene and Columbus (where convicted racist Jody Greene’s victory is being challenged).

** Turnout dropped from 35% in 2018 to 26% in 2022 for self-identified Hispanic-Latino voters, from 44% to 39% for Asian voters, and from 38% to 37% for Native Americans.  With more Latino and Asian citizens now registered, their total number of votes increased by 26,000 over 2018, even though their turnout rates decreased.  Buncombe, Durham, Orange and Wake counties achieved significantly higher turnout rates for Asian and Hispanic voters than the statewide rate, as they did in 2018, while Cumberland, Forsyth, Guilford and Pitt lagged behind.

** Less than 1 out of 3 of registered voters age 18-40 cast a ballot; it was only 1 in 5 for Black voters as well as for Hispanic voters under 41. Meanwhile, seniors 66 and older are the age group that has gained the most voters since 2018; they lean conservative and their turnout rate of 71% in 2022 topped their 68% rate in 2018.

** In some counties, youth age 18-25 turned out well above their low statewide rate of 24%.  In Orange Co., home of UNC-CH, 41% of registered voters age 18-25 participated in the 2022 election; in Watauga, home of Appalachian State, the rate for this age group was 31% – about the same as in Wake, Durham and Buncombe; but in Guilford, home of a half dozen colleges, and in Pasquotank, home of Elizabeth City State, it was 23% and 22% respectively.

** Chatham again led all counties with a 66% turnout; neighboring Orange ranked #9.  The other 8 in the top 10 are small counties, with 6 in the west and 2 on the coast: Alleghany, Pamlico, Yancey, etc.  Onslow again ranked last with 37%; three other military-impacted counties also ranked in the bottom 10 (Cumberland, Hoke, Harnett), along with three counties in the chronically low-turnout and poor Sandhills/Pee Dee region (Robeson, Richmond, Anson).

** Mecklenburg ranked #93, one of the worst 10 counties, with a 45% turnout, well behind Wake’s 56% rate.  That 11 point gap was even bigger than the 8 point gap in 2018.  A Republican strategist recently said if Mecklenburg achieved the same turnout rate as Wake, the GOP’s chances of winning statewide elections would be severely crippled.  But relying on a few counties is not a path to victory in North Carolina.

** Republicans benefited from a consistently high turnout across the state, rather than a small number of super-high performing counties; GOP turnout ranged from 60% to 66% in 40 counties and fell below 50% in just 5 counties.  Democratic turnout fell below 50% in 40 counties.  Overall, the Republicans’ turnout rate edged up to 58.6% from 58.2% in 2018, while turnout for Democrats and Libertarians declined.

**  Turnout among Unaffiliated voters – now the largest group of voters – dropped 1.5 points from 2018, and the widening racial gap showed up here, too, with only 29% of Unaffiliated Black voters casting ballots compared to 52% of Unaffiliated whites.  White Unaffiliated women surpassed the statewide turnout rate, as well as their 2018 rate, which likely indicates the abortion rights fight increased their interest in voting in 2022.

Bob Hall is the retired executive director of the advocacy group Democracy North Carolina and a veteran government and politics watchdog.

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