For a midterm, voter turnout was the highest in recent years in North Carolina — and especially for a midterm with no marquee statewide race like for governor or a U.S. Senate seat.
And while Democratic enthusiasm in North Carolina was not enough to flip any U.S. House seats — which were recently ruled to be unconstitutionally gerrymandered in Republicans’ favor — it did succeed in breaking the veto-proof supermajority Republicans held in the state legislature.
That means now Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto will actually be a threat, instead of being purely symbolic, which will in turn give Democrats in the legislature more bargaining power over things like the state budget.
“There was definite enthusiasm across a lot of the state,” Tomas Lopez, executive director of the liberal group Democracy NC, said in a phone interview. “I think that this was certainly true in large urban counties — but not exclusively.”
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With more than 52 percent of registered voters casting a ballot, North Carolina had better turnout than the nation as a whole. And the national turnout was “the highest turnout for a midterm election since 18-year-olds received the right to vote” in 1974, the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank, said in an email.
Statewide, voter turnout was up 8 points from 2014, when 44 percent voted.
But in more liberal enclaves like Buncombe County turnout increased more than 13 points — up to 60 percent, which is better than some counties have in presidential election years — and throughout the whole Triangle turnout was up around 10 points, to between 55 and 58 percent in Wake, Durham and Orange counties. Those are all areas where Republican President Donald Trump did poorly in 2016, and these midterms were widely seen as a national rebuke of Trump as Democrats regained control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Locally, the appetite for change Tuesday was especially visible in Wake and Mecklenburg counties. They’re by far the state’s two biggest counties. Recently, they have been represented in the state legislature by Republicans in the suburbs and Democrats in the urban core.
Not any more.
Every single Republican in the N.C. House of Representatives from the Raleigh and Charlotte suburbs lost except one, who could face a recount.
The story wasn’t much prettier for conservatives in the N.C. Senate, where both Mecklenburg and Wake counties will now each be represented by four Democratic senators and one Republican senator.
Many of the Democratic challengers who defeated Republican incumbents in the N.C. General Assembly are women, keeping in line with the national trend that saw voters elect the largest number of women ever to the U.S. Congress.
“Across the country, women vote more than men,” said Janet Hoy, co-president of the N.C. League of Women Voters’ board of directors, said in a phone interview. “And I think there was a level of concern among women that was on display at the Women’s March in Washington, the Women’s March in Raleigh, that we are not a minority group. We are not a fractional group. Women’s rights are families’ rights.”
Down the ballot, voters in the big counties also sent more women to local offices like the Wake County Board of Education and the Wake County Commissioners. In Mecklenburg County, where three female challengers defeated three Republican men, Democrats took full control of the county commissioners for the first time in 50 years. And voters chose one woman to replace another on the N.C. Supreme Court, as Democratic challenger Anita Earls defeated incumbent Republican Justice Barbara Jackson.
Hoy said the League of Women Voters’ state chapter has grown its membership nearly 40 percent in just the last year, as women get more involved in politics, and that they are encouraging members not just to vote but to get out and help educate their friends, family and others about the issues.
“There has been a lot happening to give women the courage to step up to the plate and really put themselves out there,” she said.
The specific breakdowns of voting by race, gender, age and other demographics aren’t available yet. But data that is public shows people in the urban areas were encouraged to vote.
And anecdotally, poll watchers say young voters, minorities and women — all key Democratic groups — showed up in numbers unusual for a midterm election
While Wake and Mecklenburg have about 20 percent of the state’s total population, a News & Observer analysis of voter data showed they were responsible for about 27 percent of the increase in voters from 2014 to 2018.
Lopez gave specific credit to young people and minorities.
“Voters under 26 turned out in greater numbers and greater proportion in early voting,” he said. “And I think that’s big because that tends to be the group that votes the least.”
According to NextGen America, turnout at a precinct on the UNC-Greensboro campus more than doubled from 2014 to this year. The group’s college-focused data also shows large increases in turnout at schools with large minority populations like Fayetteville State University, UNC-Pembroke and North Carolina A&T.
Lopez also said a long wait to vote at N.C. Central University was reported to his group. He said large numbers of enthusiastic voters are always good, but that the state needs to make sure there are more places or times to vote in the 2020 elections.
“It’s really encouraging to see all these people come out, but at the same time people shouldn’t have to wait to vote,” he said. “And everything we’re seeing this year we’re going to see again in 2020, almost certainly in greater numbers.”