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Despite higher 2020 turnout, fewer N.C. voters reported their race, political party

Students vote on campus at the Stone Center

A student at UNC-Chapel Hill filling out their ballot for the 2020 general election on Nov. 3, 2020 at the Stone Center polling location.

North Carolina’s 2020 election saw record turnout, due in part to increased voting accommodations for the COVID-19 pandemic. But while a larger portion of the electorate voted in 2020, fewer voters self-identified their race or political party. 

North Carolinians have tabulated over 700,000 more ballots than were cast in 2016 as of 5 p.m., Wednesday. Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, predicted that North Carolina’s final vote total would be higher than 5 million at a press conference on Wednesday. 

“What we want everyone to understand is that 2020 may have been an unprecedented year but the conduct of elections did not change in 2020, except for the added precautions for COVID," she said. 

Brinson Bell said results won't be finalized until county certification on Nov. 13.

Comparing to 2016

Voting trends by race have become more unclear in North Carolina since 2016. Michael Bitzer, professor of politics and history at Catawba College, said this is at least in part because the data is becoming more incomplete. 

“We’ve got a lot more voters who have not indicated their race or ethnicity," Bitzer said. "Back in 2016, for all of the absentee ballots, it was a little more than three percent unknown. Now it is around nine percent. We have no way to know for those hundreds of thousands of voters, what their race or ethnicity is.”   

In 2016, 69.36 percent of voters identified as white, 22.19 percent identified as Black and 3.37 percent chose not to identify a race. 

But in 2020, significantly more voters chose not to identify their race. Results as of 5 p.m. Wednesday indicated that 63.78 percent identified as white, 20.61 percent identified as Black and 10.09 percent chose not to identify their race. 

Andy Jackson, elections policy analyst at the Civitas Institute, said this phenomenon is more common in urban areas.

“In terms of voters refusing to identify their race, we mostly see that in cities,” he said. “So in Charlotte, Greensboro and to a lesser extent Durham. If it becomes an issue for using registration numbers after the 2020 election, it will likely be in those areas.”

Bitzer also said more voters are choosing not to claim a party identification.

“Unaffiliateds — and we don’t always know how they’re naturally inclined to vote — are up,” Bitzer said.

The top of the ticket races showed a shift towards Democrats in North Carolina compared to 2016. 

Incumbent Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, was reelected by 4.42 percentage points according to unofficial results.  In contrast, he was elected by a margin of just 0.22 percent in 2016. 

And while President Donald Trump carried North Carolina by 3.66 percentage points in 2016, his current margin has him just 1.41 percentage points ahead of Democratic nominee Joe Biden, according to unofficial results. 

Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause N.C., said one of the most encouraging trends has been the increase in youth voter turnout. 

“Generally young people tend to vote at a less or lower turnout than the state,” he said. “The policies and the laws that are passed are ultimately connected  to higher turnout and where you have communities with higher turnout you have better functioning communities because they are getting the amenities that other communities that are under voting are not.” 

Looking ahead

One of the most salient differences compared to the 2016 was that far more North Carolinians chose to vote early in 2020. While 66 percent voted early and absentee in 2016, 83.8 percent voted early and absentee in 2020. 

Phillips said he believes North Carolina has administered the 2020 election well, especially given the circumstances.

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He said efforts by election administrators led to the record turnout numbers for the 2020 election. 

“I think, by and large, North Carolina has done remarkably well at accommodating voters for the challenges we’re facing, whether it's COVID or just the enthusiasm of this presidential election,” he said. 

Jackson said that increased enthusiasm contributed to increases in turnout, but that the changes to voting accommodations made available for 2020 will likely not be present for elections going forward. 

“Funding to accommodate increased mail-in and early voting was specific to 2020,” he said. “So we likely will not be seeing the same policies after the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Phillips said there is more work to be done to expand voting rights for future elections. 

“I do think that when, post-election and next year when there's a new General Assembly seated, there can be more things to look at to make vote-by-mail easier and continue to do things to promote voting rights and making voting easier and accessible to everyone,” he said. 


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