In the ninth and final episode, City & State Editor Sonia Rao breaks down the results of the 2020 election with Catawba College professor and N.C. politics expert Michael Bitzer.
Sonia Rao: Voting is complicated, especially for college students, who are often first-time voters, or have just moved to a new county or state.
Voting during a pandemic is even more complicated.
I’m Sonia Rao, the City & State Editor for The Daily Tar Heel. Welcome to the final episode of Before You Vote, where we’ll be breaking down the results of the Nov. 3 election.
Although Joe Biden secured the presidency, Trump still won North Carolina, which voted predominantly red down the ballot. According to unofficial results, Thom Tillis won the state’s U.S. Senate Seat, Republican candidates won most council of state positions and the N.C. General Assembly kept its Republican majority.
One big exception was Democrativ Gov. Roy Cooper winning re-election.
I talked to Michael Bitzer, a professor of politics and history at Catawba College, who’s been studying North Carolina politics since the late 1990s.
He said one of the biggest things to note about the election this year was how competitive the state was.
Michael Bitzer: If you look at the polling numbers, for the presidential contest in North Carolina, it was always within the margin of error, Biden sometimes would have a one to two point lead, then Trump would have a one to two point lead. So in looking at those numbers, it was very apparent to me that this was going to be a close election. And indeed, it played itself out.
SR: He said this applied to other races down the ballot too, like the governor’s race.
MB: Even if you look at a race, like the governor's race, that the polling had always indicated, Roy Cooper with a pretty substantial lead outside of the margins of error. But even that race collapsed, and became very competitive. Yes, Governor Cooper got reelected. Donald Trump won.
SR: But Bitzer said this is not new - North Carolina has followed this trend for over a decade.
MB: So North Carolina kind of continues. It's bipolar, partisan nature of splitting tickets. But that number of voters who have done that has collapsed significantly. Since 2008, and 2010.
SR: He said another big surprise was North Carolina’s voter turnout. Even during a pandemic, 75 percent of registered voters voted in this election, according to the N.C. Board of Elections.
MB: Four years ago, that number was 69 percent. And we have added well over 700,000 voters to the total pool of about 5.5 million. When last presidential election 2016 we had about 4.7 million. That that number is just in my mind. astounding. When you think about from 2008 to 2012 to 2016. Each presidential year, we added about 300,000 more voters this year, we doubled that number and then some so that I think is really the surprise that a lot of us, you know we're thinking could be a possibility, but maybe at the fore end of that reach turned out to be the case.
SR: Bitzer said North Carolina’s high turnout could be a reflection of how partisan and deeply divided the state is. He said this year, the election was a referendum on president Donald Trump seeking re-election.
MB: I think certainly from the republicans point of view, they were fully supportive of the President. I think from the democratic point of view, they were fully opposed to the President. And it's going to take some time to kind of digest some of the data and the numbers, but I think that that philosophy was very much evident this year, and it just drove the numbers up.
SR: This partisan split led to higher voter turnout for the election.
MB: We now have Have a million absentee by mail ballots that have been cast. Four years ago, that number was a little under 200,000. So we've gone five times ahead of where we were just four years ago. If you take those absentee by mail numbers and add in the in person voting, we had just about as many people vote early this year, then who voted in all of 2016. And then we added a million more on election day. So you know, the depth of the partisan divide the, you know, focus on the dynamics of a referendum election. I think all of that contributed, and we see this across the country, all of that contributed to exponential rates of turnout.
SR: Another trend in North Carolina’s election was how voters voted split ticket down the ballot, evident in how Cooper won the governor’s race despite Trump winning the presidency in North Carolina and Tillis winning the U.S. Senate Seat.
Bitzer: That is a fascinating trend that that a lot of us are going to be studying for some time. I think if you go back four years ago, in 2016, we had Donald Trump win the presidency. We had Richard Burr when the us senate race and then we have Roy Cooper when the governorship by a little over 10,000 votes. I think this year, the Trump Tillis combination kind of reflects what we saw four years ago.
SR: Bitzer also pointed out that Cooper got more votes that Trump did, which to him shows that N.C. voters approved how he dealt with COVID-19 in the state.
MB: Dan Forest really made his campaign about reopening. And that was kind of his campaign theme. And I think Governor Cooper, in difference, said we need to take this slow, we need to be cautious. We need to follow the data and the science. And I think in most of the public opinion polls leading up to the election, significant majorities of North Carolinians agreed with Governor Cooper. And I think that that played out even though the race tightened. I think that that mentality of we do recognize what the governor is doing, and we support it, as opposed to voting for Donald Trump and Senator Tillis.
SR: Bitzer said some races to watch are N.C. attorney general and chief justice for the state supreme court. Democrat incumbent Josh Stein is leading over Republican Jim O’Neill by a margin of 0.26 percent, or 14,336 votes. The race for state supreme court chief justice is even closer, with Democrat incumbent Cheri Beasley leading over Republican Paul Newby by 35 votes.
MB: I think that that's going to be something by the time the county certified in the state certified, probably will be the closest election here in North Carolina.
SR: County results were certified Nov. 13 and state results will be certified Nov. 24.
In order for a recount to happen, statewide contests, the vote difference must be 10,000 votes or fewer.. The recount demand must be received by the State Board of Elections by Nov. 17.
This election cycle happened during a census year, which means the results of the election will impact North Carolina for years to come.
MB: All elections matter in all elections have consequences. The thing is elections that end in the number zero matter the most, because that is when the census is done in that year. And then the following year is the process of legislative redistricting, not just at the congressional level, but also at the state legislative level. And North Carolina since the 1980s. has kind of been a cornerstone state of the battle over redistricting, not just from racial issues, but also partisan issues. And we've seen a court decision recently in North Carolina, a state court issue. That said, partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional based on North Carolina's state constitution.
SR: Because Republicans control both the state House and the state Senate, they have complete control over the redistricting process.
MB: The question in my mind is, do the republicans go again to try and buy themselves an insurance policy with redistricting? Or do they take into account the previous state court decision and try and make it not as partisan in the redrawing next year? I think the best that the democrats were hoping for out of this election was to at least Capture One chamber. They didn't they didn't achieve that they gained a seat in the State Senate, they lost seats in the State House. So the republicans have basically the freedom to draw the maps. The question is, if past precedent that is, is any indication, those maps will get challenged, most likely in state court? And then how does that previous decision potentially weigh on a court to deal with potential partisan gerrymandering? We'll just have to wait to find out.
SR: The election is over, which means this is the final episode of Before You Vote. Thanks for listening.
To listen to our other podcasts and read more of our coverage, visit www.dailytarheel.com.
This episode was produced by Meredith Radford.
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