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YESI Spotlight: Youth Electoral Impact in North Carolina

The state is top-5 in our rankings of where young people can influence presidential and Senate election results in 2020.

According to CIRCLE’s Youth Electoral Significance Index (YESI), North Carolina ranks at #2 among states where young voters may have a significant influence in this year's presidential election and #4 for the state’s Senate election. The YESI looks at a variety of measures in each state/district—such as youth turnout, the size of the youth population, and facilitative voter laws—to understand the factors that could lead to youth impact in each state or district in November’s election. In addition to such particulars of North Carolina’s youth population, the YESI takes into consideration the state’s electoral competitiveness and the national political context. In 2016, the state elected a Democratic governor and Secretary of State, while electing Donald Trump by a 3.7 percentage point margin. In 2014, the last time incumbent senator Thom Tillis was up for reelection, he won by a narrow 2 percentage point margin. The competitiveness of these races enhances the power of the youth vote, as young North Carolinians have the potential to decide close races.

Highlights from this profile of young voters in North Carolina in 2020:

  • The number of youth votes cast in North Carolina was larger than the margin of victory in the 2016 Presidential election and the last two Senate elections.
  • Black youth are an especially powerful voting bloc in the state: there are nearly 400,000 young Black eligible voters in North Carolina.
  • North Carolina has made several changes to election regulations in preparation for voting in the pandemic, but these changes will need to be well-communicated to ensure youth turnout.

Young people in North Carolina comprise a strong group of voters in the state. They make up an above-average proportion of the population and tend to turn out in big numbers compared to the national rate. In 2016, youth turnout in North Carolina was 45%, while nationally it was 38%. In 2018, turnout in the state was 26%, while the national rate was slightly higher (28%); however, that was a significant increase for North Carolina from 2014, which is unusual to see in a year without a Senate race as there was in 2014.

In 2016, young people cast 714,372 votes, well-above Trump’s margin of victory of 173,000 votes. Despite this impressive youth vote count, 55% of young eligible voters did not cast ballots. These non-voting, eligible youth make up 5 times more potential votes than the margin of victory in the 2016 Presidential election in North Carolina. That same block of potential young voters who did not cast a ballot in 2016 is 19 times larger than the margin of victory when Tillis won his seat in 2014.

In addition to their numbers, youth in North Carolina have the potential for a powerful impact in their statewide elections because they tend to vote differently from the rest of the state at a greater margin than the national average. In 2016, young North Carolinians significantly favored the Democratic candidate in every major race. Voters aged 18-29 preferred Sec. Hillary Clinton by 22 points (the national rate was 19 points), Democratic Senate candidate Deborah Ross by 16 points, and successful Democratic gubernatorial candidate Roy Cooper by 27 points. Just as powerful as the young people who voted for Democratic candidates, the many youth (over 250,000) who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 exceeded his margin of victory, making their votes highly influential in the statewide results. As North Carolina continues to teeter between favoring Democratic and Republican candidates, the mobilization of young people will remain consequential in electoral politics. 

Youth of color make up a significant portion of young people in the state and tend to favor Democratic candidates more than White youth, meaning they could have an especially high electoral influence in November. Youth of color make up 42% of young eligible voters ages 18-29 in North Carolina. The number of Black youth in North Carolina (387,605) alone is far higher than President Trump’s 2016 margin of victory in the state. While Black voters of all ages in North Carolina had a lower turnout in 2016 than in 2012, remarkably, Black voters (of all ages) in North Carolina increased their turnout by 20% in 2018 compared to 2014–despite there not being a statewide federal or gubernatorial election. This highlights that the results of the 2016 election may have motivated enhanced participation among Black voters in the state. Like youth overall, Black voters tend to overwhelmingly favor Democratic candidates in North Carolina, making Black youth an especially critical voting bloc in close elections. Lenoir, Martin, and Nash counties are all counties to watch, as they are the three counties with the highest Black populations that President Trump won in 2016, with both Martin and Nash counties decided by fewer than 100 votes.

Casting a shadow on this year’s elections is the impact that COVID-19 may have on voters’ ability to cast their ballots; however, at the time of writing, North Carolina has already put in place temporary rules to ease such challenges. For instance, absentee ballot-request forms can now be emailed to the county board of elections–with an online portal reportedly coming soon–and the burdensome witness requirement for absentee voting was decreased from two to one. With these new rules in place, absentee ballot requests are surging in the state, showing a 1000% increase from this time in 2016.

Like many states, North Carolina will need to continue to prepare diligently to prevent significant delays and other problems when tallying votes in November. Half a dozen lawsuits fighting to push these measures further by getting rid of the witness requirement completely and including pre-paid postage with mail-in ballots show that many don’t think the state has gone far enough to protect voters. North Carolina also permanently implemented online voter registration for DMV customers this spring which has been found to have a positive correlation with youth turnout, especially among 18- to 19-year-olds. Lastly, the state election board is recruiting youth to sign up as poll workers as part of the election response to the pandemic, which has been found to support youth voter engagement.

While North Carolina has taken some actions to facilitate voting during the pandemic, the state will have to clearly educate voters, especially youth, on these policies in order for them to be effective. Our most recent poll showed that two in five Black youth haven’t seen information about how to vote by mail and wouldn’t know how to get such information. Even with new temporary rules in place in North Carolina, outreach to Black youth in particular will be essential to ensure equitable access to voting this fall.

Many factors create an electoral environment in North Carolina that has given young voters an outsized potential to affect the presidential and Senate race in 2020. Yet these youth won’t necessarily mobilize on their own. Our research shows that contact from campaigns has a strong correlation with youth voting, illustrating the power campaigns could have in turning out the youth vote. Already, the Senate race in North Carolina is breaking fundraising/spending records and is expected to be one of the most expensive Senate races across the country. If some of these resources are invested in youth outreach, GOTV efforts, and VBM education—particularly to newly eligible voters, youth who didn’t vote in 2016 and youth of color—it could have not only statewide but national impact.


Authors: Ruby Belle Booth, Peter de Guzman, Alberto Medina