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Monday October 25th

Here's why voter turnout for this year's local election fell since 2018

UNC student and Chapel Hill Town Council candidate Tai Huynh celebrates at a local election watch party on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019.
Buy Photos UNC student and Chapel Hill Town Council candidate Tai Huynh celebrates at a local election watch party on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019.

After last year’s wave of voter turnout, Orange County was brought back down to earth Tuesday night.

With state elections and a midterm in 2018, voters turned out in larger numbers than previously seen in local elections. More than 6,000 people voted early, but this year, that number dropped to almost 4,300.

This is even a decrease from the 2017 municipal elections, where 4,428 people voted early.

Municipal elections typically see a lower turnout than even-year state and nationwide elections, but the results of local elections often matter more, said Jen Jones, campaigns director for the nonpartisan voting advocacy group Democracy NC.

The organization did a study analyzing the results of the 2015 municipal elections. According to the study published in 2017, one vote determined an election in 31 cities.

And this matters a lot.

"In terms of issues that impact your everyday life and who gets what, everything is local," Jones said. "For example, the mayor and local council decide how your city or town spends your tax dollars, including everything from clean drinking water, policing, busing, garbage pickups and roads."

Despite the effect of local policy, voter turnout for these elections has remained low throughout the last few cycles. Early voter turnout was as low as nearly 2,000 in 2013.

Jones said this might be because people — especially college students — may not feel compelled to vote in these elections.

"In addition to general disillusionment about voting, in a state like North Carolina where student voters are constantly under siege by politicians seeking to silence their voices, college students may feel like it's hard to vote," she said.

Gerry Cohen, a member of the Wake County Board of Elections and a former Chapel Hill Town Council member, said this is typical of a local election.

"Students vote very heavily in presidential elections," he said. "In Chapel Hill elections, the turnout is miserable."

Students don't follow local policy information as closely as they might with national politics, he said.

"A lot of students don’t really identify with local issues unless someone drags them to vote or they are very political," he said.

But many voters this year cited their civic duty as one of the main reason why they turned out.

“I came to vote because I just think it’s a great privilege that we get to do this in this country," said Annie Fisher, a Chapel Hill resident who voted on Election Day. "And I am very focused on the upcoming presidential elections, and just sort of getting off on the right step."

Though unofficial results came in Tuesday night, the election isn't over quite yet. The Orange County Board of Elections is still receiving absentee and provisional ballots, and it won't officially canvass and certify the election returns until Nov. 15.

This could become especially important in the Chapel Hill Town Council election, where UNC senior Tai Huynh defeated incumbent Nancy Oates to take the fourth seat, according to unofficial returns. According to unofficial returns as of Wednesday, he beat her by 22 votes.

Depending on results from the provisional and absentee ballot votes, this could make the margin even more narrow. Oates also has the option to call for a recount.

Although turnout was low, many Chapel Hill-Carrboro residents who did vote on Tuesday realized the effect they could have.

"Being able to vote and being entitled to that agency is really important to me," said Fouad Abu-Hijleh, a Chapel Hill resident. "We all have to realize that the decisions we make for ourselves can change what we’re unhappy with."

Sonia Rao and Amena Saad contributed reporting.


Anna Pogarcic

Anna Pogarcic is the editor-in-chief of The Daily Tar Heel. She is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill studying journalism and history major. 

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