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Politics

NC's Black Voter Turnout Was Up In 2020. What Was Behind It?

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Dante Miller
/
WFAE
A line of voters waits outside Beatties Ford Library.

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.

North Carolina’s Black voter turnout in the 2020 general election ticked up 4% from 2016. The turnout for Black votes overall was 68% , according to State Board of Elections data.

One possible reason? It comes down to former President Trump, says UNC Charlotte political science professor Eric Heberlig.

“After four years of a Trump presidency, people felt strongly that the country was going in the right or wrong direction and felt it was important to keep him in office or get him out,” Heberlig said.

William Munn, a senior policy analyst with the Health Advocacy Project at the North Carolina Justice Center, says he would “argue that 48 months of the overtly racist policy consequences from the Trump administration coupled with a somewhat effective GOTV operation reached Black voters and produced an uptick in turnout.”

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President Trump won North Carolina by 74,481 votes.

In battleground states such as Georgia, Black voters are being credited with helping Joe Biden win the presidency.

National voter statistics for race are not available.

South Carolina’s voter statistics are also not available. But Chris Whitmire, a spokesperson for SC State Election Commission, says that state’s voter turnout by race is broken down into “two categories: white and non-white.”

In NC, Munn says the Black voter turnout in 2020 is a story with good news and “concerning” news.

Turnout Varies By Age Category

On the positive side, Munn says the number of Black voters in two age categories— 41- 65 years old and 66 years and older — continues to increase.

“Their turnout statistics have actually gone up over the last few cycles. …They seem to be much more in-tune to what’s going on,” Munn said. “What concerns me, of course, is that that population is aging out. They’re not going to be around that much longer to be a part of the electorate.”

Voting among Black voters 18-25 years old slightly increased in 2020, but overall, Munn says there’s been a 12-point drop in thatage group since 2012.

“In an election that a lot of people billed as a transformational one — and one where we broke all types of turnout (records) — it is up everywhere," Munn said. "But in terms of African American voters who are younger, it's just a significant drop off.”

Munn suspects confusion about whether identification was needed to vote and rejected provisional ballots are a couple of reasons why the voting went down among young Black people. He says lack of excitement about the white candidates at the top of the ballot (president, U.S. Senate, and governor) could have been a factor. But everyday life may have been the deciding force.

“I think a lot of people 18 to 25, 18 to 40 are struggling,” Munn said. “A lot of them are struggling with student loan debt. A lot of them are struggling with the changing economy. And one thing I have often argued is that if a person's vote doesn't immediately change their situation, their survival situation, how they're gonna put food on the table that night — a lot of folks wonder whether or not it's (voting) worth your time.”

Several cities and towns in the region, including Charlotte, will have elections in September. Munn says there’s still time to reach that disengaged group and show them what it means to vote and elect people who understand the issues affecting the Black community.

“As we see in this pandemic, it is affecting people of color disproportionately,” Munn said. “And, the policy decisions and the resource allocation are all being made by folks in the General Assembly and federal officials,” Munn said.

Urban Vs. Rural, Democrat Vs. Republican

Munn and Heberlig see another key bit of information in the data about Black voter turnout: urban vs. rural and Democrat vs. Republican outreach.

Historically, Black voters lean heavily Democrat. But, Munn and Heberlig say some rural communities are starting to see more Black voters drift Republican.

Heberlig says the shift is happening in both the northeast and southeast corners of the state. He points to Lumberton in Robeson County as a good example where he says Black residents, as well the Lumbee Tribe, no longer automatically vote Democrat.

“I think just the perception that Democrats emphasize urban issues, talk about things from the perspective of their urban core: higher educated constituencies that appeal to issues that are relevant to those upper income, upper educated voters,” Hebelig said. “Talking in a way that rural voters perceived to be condescending and dismissive of their values.”

Munn believes there are several reasons.

“I don't want to cast African American electorate as being a monolith. I don't think there's one thing that has driven the trend,” he said. “I think I'm going to hear a lot of different things. I think we’re going to hear some affinity for Donald Trump — the candidate, and people of color. And I think we're going to also see people who have been absolutely devastated from COVID-19, who were concerned about COVID-19 and voting, and the electoral system there on the ground not being as robust. “

GOTV Efforts Hindered By Pandemic

In urban areas such as Charlotte, newly released data show Joe Biden won almost every precinct. Yet, in a few predominantly Black neighborhoods, Donald Trump did better than he did in 2016.

Bobby Drakeford is the Democratic Party’s vice president for precinct 16 on Beatties Ford Road (between Capps Hill Mine Road and I-85) in north Charlotte.

“I’m certainly disheartened to hear that we (Black voter turnout) were lower than the overall state average,” Drakeford said. “That's surprising to me.”

Drakeford says during pre-coronavirus pandemic times, precinct workers made it a point “to go through the community distributing literature, knock on doors, invite people to vote.”

But in 2020, he says they had to adapt to the pandemic. Instead of in-person conversations with neighbors, precinct workers left a package at doors. Even though they didn’t have the contact they normally would have, Drakeford said he expected Black voter turnout to be much higher.

“The interests of the Black community weren't being served by the current (Trump) leadership,” Drakeford said. “So I thought it would have been a pretty strong effort to … would have been a higher Black voter turnout. That's what I would have thought.”

The state’s Black voter turnout rate, while higher than 2016, was less than 2012 and 2008 when Barack Obama ran.

Munn suspects controversy and a legal fight over changes to voting laws led to the decrease in voter turnout in 2016. Still, even if those laws weren’t approved, Munn does not believe Black turnout would have rivalled the previous two general elections.

Heberlig agrees.

“African Americans were energized by Obama's campaign, probably in part because he was also an African American candidate, but presumably was also giving them a message that they liked,” Heberlig said. “He certainly had a substantial get-out-the-vote campaign in North Carolina that would have targeted African American voters heavily. This year, of course, there wasn't much of a get-out-the-vote effort. Certainly not the face-to-face and door knocking kind because of COVID.”

Historical data show the number of Black voters went up and down in the last four general elections. More Black people voted in 2020 than 12 years ago. When compared to 2008, nearly 75,000 more Black voters took part in the 2020 elections.

“I think the raw number increase is what's most impressive to me, particularly if you look at it over the longer term,” Heberlig said. “If you go back to 2008, when President Obama first ran for election, African American turnout was a big and a key reason why he won in the state.”

Why, 12 years later, did more Black people vote in the election between Donald Trump and Joe Biden? Heberlig says anotherreason for the increased number of Black voters in 2020 is the growth in the state’s population.

Looking at the entire pool of ballots cast in NC, records show Black voters represent 18.7%. That’s second to white voters, whose total is 66.7%.

Click here to see more of North Carolina’s voter turnout statistics.

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