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Follow the latest news and information about voting and the 2020 election, including essential information about how to vote during a pandemic and more.

More Than 1 Million Eligible Voters In North Carolina Didn't Cast Ballots In 2020

Michele Grove of Lincolnton poses for a photo on Jan. 12.
Coleen Harry
Michele Coble of Lincolnton poses for a photo on Jan. 12. She's one of more than 1 million eligible North Carolinians who didn't vote in the 2020 election.

This article is made possible through a partnership between WFAE and Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. This article is available for reprint under the terms of our republishing policy.

Michele Coble of Lincolnton has a strong opinion about the Jan. 6 mob riot at the U.S. Capitol.

“I think that’s the craziest thing I have ever seen - to storm the Capitol,” she said. “And I’m really thinking you really didn’t accomplish nothing but you stirred up a whole lot of nothing just over the election.”

Yet it’s an election Coble sat out.

The 52-year old says she typically votes but she couldn’t bring herself to choose between President Trump and Joe Biden.

“I’m not a Trump supporter, so I definitely wasn’t going to vote for him,” Coble said. “And Biden — I don’t know. He was in there with Obama and he did good, but I don’t know how he’s gonna do as president.”

John Harvey of Charlotte did not vote, and he’s fine with his decision.

“I don’t regret not voting,” he said. “There’s no reason why I didn’t vote. I just didn’t have the time.”

Harvey admits that lately he’s been wondering whether there’s some truth to President Trump’s unfounded allegations of fraud, but he doesn’t understand why an election led to a riot.

“It shouldn’t have gone that far to begin with,” the 48-year old said. “As the people of the United States, we shouldn’t be attacking our Capitol whether we agree with what’s going there or not.”

Despite issues such as the coronavirus pandemic, the economy and racial injustice, more than 1 million North Carolinians who were eligible to vote decided to take a pass.

Ed Helrms has no apologies for not voting.

“I just didn’t care nothing about doing it,” the 71-year old said. “Don’t bother me none.”

Gavin Shackelford from Charlotte says his reason for bypassing the election is “not anything bad.” His religion, the 18-year old says, counsels against voting.

“I try my best to stay neutral because of my faith,” Shackelford said. “I’m a Jehovah’s Witness and so I typically don’t take part in political things as far as country and state and things like that.”

Of the 7.3 million registered voters in North Carolina, records show 75% — or 5.5 million voters — cast ballots in the general election.

That means 1.8 million eligible voters didn’t vote.

Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College, says even though nonvoters didn’t cast ballots, their decisions to not vote still says a lot.

“Nonvoters to a particular party are very important,” said Bitzer, who points out that the state’s record turnout in the general election proved residents can be engaged. The results show that Republicans were more successful in North Carolina.

“What we saw in 2020’s general election was that registered Republicans had an 81% voter turnout. That was six points ahead of the statewide number. And Democrats had 75%. So they matched the state,” Bitzer said. “If we're talking about base elections, meaning 'get out the vote' amongst the diehard partisans, those nonvoters, particularly on the Democratic side, really had an influence in terms of Republicans winning in North Carolina.”

Some of the nonvoters WFAE interviewed said their decision to not vote was more about the candidates for president. President Trump won North Carolina by 74,481 votes.

Bitzer says because campaigns are “candidate-centered,” the people vying for an office are sometimes the first reason residents pay attention to an election.

Stephanie Oshields, who is not registered but identifies as unaffiliated, says she usually does not vote. And the presidential candidates did not say anything to inspire her to vote.

“I didn’t particularly like the way they were handling themselves and things that happened in their past,” the 44-year old from Charlotte said. “So I just didn’t feel the need to go.”

“It really is about the charisma and the attraction of a candidate that will likely pull people to vote. That’s not all of the calculus that voters take into account,” Bitzer said. “The greatest thing is party identification. If you identify with one political party over another, you are much more likely to engage in civic participation, particularly voting, than somebody who is a true independent or really not as engaged in our politics.”

For Troy Culbertson from Salisbury, his reason for not voting is deeper than candidate likeability or political affiliation. He doesn’t believe voting helps the Black community.

“It always comes down to pretty much choosing the worst of two evils or something,” the 27-year old said. “I feel like there are things that we could do on our own pretty much to push our agendas, to press the goals that we need to be aiming for.”

Culbertson says the only time he voted was in 2012 - when he was first old enough to vote. Looking back, he recalls, it was “pretty much pressure” that made him cast a ballot. But over the years, he says, he concluded that the Electoral College has the power, not individual voters.

Culbertson believes Black people should concentrate on investing in each other. He sees that as the better path to elevating the community.

Reaching Nonvoters

Voting advocacy organizations say dismissing nonvoters is a mistake.

“I think when we ignore a large base of people that don't vote or we prescribe our feelings or emotions to an activity instead of really finding the root cause, I think we miss out on a large segment of the population of democracy,” said Marcus Bass of NC Black Alliance.

Bass says his organization — a nonpartisan coalition of groups working to address policy and economic issues in Black communities — sees different levels of voting activities: residents who never registered, infrequent voters who need to be engaged and people who no longer vote at all because they don’t think it matters.

Regardless of the level, Bass believes reaching out to nonvoters has to be a priority.

“I think it's very important, as much as it is difficult and painful, to go in areas where folks typically don't want to go to register voters or to talk to voters,” Bass said. “We have to begin to have these conversations if we're going to have any type of real reconciliation and build a stronger democracy, especially in this moment that we're living in now.”

Bass says telling people it’s their civic duty to vote is not a mantra that works. What’s critical, he says, is listening to the concern each individual has for not voting.

Bass has found that some nonvoters either distrust the system or cite the Electoral College as proof that their votes don’t count. Others see no change in their economic status because of where they live.

Some residents, Bass says, face voter intimidation and voter suppression. In other cases, Bass believes, it’s not that people don’t want to vote. He says it’s that they’re not able to get to the polls. He points to seniors dealing with no transportation.

“In reality we really have to get down to the core issues of what power means in your vote,” Bass said. “And in some cases when residents have historically seen no change based on their activity and voting in the electoral process, we have to begin to acknowledge what are the other systemic barriers that are keeping these conditions in these areas the same despite the electoral turnout or the deciding factors.”

Yearlong Work

Bass says the groups in his organization work yearlong to reach, engage and convince residents that they have a stake in the elections.

Bitzer also emphasizes the link between community outreach and increased voter turnout. Voter mobilization, Bitzer says, is a “long-term investment.” For him, the example to keep in mind is Georgia.

In recent history, Republicans counted on Georgia to elect conservative politicians. But in 2020, Georgia voted for Biden, and in January voters supported Democrats in two runoff elections for the U.S. Senate. Stacey Abrams and Democratic advocates are being credited with flipping Georgiabecause of a robust and long-term "get out the vote" campaign.

“Voter energizing is really not just something you can do six months out from an election but takes years to cultivate,” Bitzer said. “Get them involved in things like local elections. Get them involved in midterm elections. Get them accustomed to voting, particularly for voters under the age of 40, which had a much lower turnout rate than voters over the age of 40. I think that that's a prime territory of nonvoters that could be converted into voters.”

Robert Dawkins of Action NC in Charlotte says his field teams set up tables in minority neighborhoods. Volunteers pick spots where they have access to a high volume of people walking by, such as grocery stores and transit stations.

The first step to voter mobilization is voter registration, and Dawkins describes it as “an uphill battle.” The key, he says, is recognizing that helping residents solve problems in communities can lead to higher voter turnout.

“What you have to do if you want to get people to register to vote, is you've got to be able to make them see in their current light where voting matters,” Dawkins said. “If you're mad that you don't have bus service, that's the City Council election. The only way we're going to get a bus line or bus service is if we go down there and demand it. But you can't hold them accountable if you don't vote for them. You have to break it down to the level of what they're concerned with.”

Voting advocates say it’s also important to build relationships in neighborhoods when it’s not an election year. Dawkins believes when residents see organizers are involved on a regular basis trying to address concerns, they’re more likely to trust the message of voting.

“So that's why the people that register the vote, if you want to do it effectively, you should already be in the neighborhoods. And you should be talking to them about the issues that's important to them and then explaining to them that's why we need you to vote,” Dawkins said.

Are Nonvoters Regretting Their Decision?

Coble now wishes she did take part in the election.

“A lot of people say ‘did you vote?' And you tell them no. Well you really can’t say anything about whose going in or whose coming out because you didn’t vote,” she said. “Well that’s true, but you would hope that next year or next election I will vote.”

Culbertson doesn’t buy into the notion that because he didn’t vote, he forfeited his right to speak on the current situation in the country.

“If you have a reason for not voting and you actually feel strong about that, and that's your belief, I feel like it should be respected regardless,” said Culbertson, who stands by his reason for skipping the election.

When asked if he regrets not voting, Helrms said, “I don’t know about that.”

The 71-year old says he can’t make sense of the riots.

“Crazy," he said. "I don’t know. It got so messed up.”

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