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Only three out of 18 counties in Western North Carolina beat the state average for turnout in the November election, according to an extensive study of demographics and voting by Durham-based think tank Democracy North Carolina.

Released Wednesday, the study of state election information examined county-by-county voting patterns in 30 demographic categories. It put the overall state turnout at 68.3 percent for the general election. Among Western North Carolina counties, only three counties in the region — Buncombe, where turnout was 68.7 percent, Polk at 69.2 percent and Transylvania at 69.9 percent — topped the statewide average.

Four counties in the region were ranked near the bottom for turnout.

They include Swain County, where a 57.2 percent turnout was second to last, or 99th, among the state’s 100 counties. Others near the bottom of the list were Cherokee County, which ranked 96th for turnout; Jackson County, which ranked 94th; and Graham County, which ranked 92nd.

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“Our state has a long history of low participation, going back to the days of the literacy tests and poll tax,” said Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, in a press release about the study. “Studying high- and low-performing groups in counties can help communities improve participation and civic life.”

The study found turnout the highest statewide in 2012 among black and Republican voters. Republican voter turnout hit 72.8 percent and black voter turnout reached 70.2 percent.

Statewide numbers also showed that black voters represented 23 percent of electorate, but, in WNC, cast only about 4 percent of total votes — 15,727 votes out of the 18 county region’s tally of 411,500.

The highest black turnout was in Rutherford County at 70.8 percent, while Buncombe County led the region in the total number of votes cast by black voters with 7,819.

Hall said that, overall, the western region’s turnout underperformed compared to the rest of the state. In an email to Carolina Public Press, Hall broke out several WNC highlights from the report.

Among them:

  • Republicans saw their highest turnout in Henderson, Macon, Polk and Transylvania counties with the last two topping the state average;
  • Turnout among Democrats exceeded the statewide average in Buncombe and Transylvania counties;
  • Swain County’s next-to-last ranking was due to low participation among Native Americans, younger voters and those registered as unaffiliated;
  • Buncombe County saw turnout higher than the statewide average among Latino, unaffiliated and Democratic voters; and
  • Watauga County saw higher turnout among young voters, driven by participation among Appalachian State University students.

The study also underlined how closely the state is divided.

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Of the 10 counties with the highest turnout, five went to Mitt Romney and five went to President Barack Obama.

Higher Republican turnout and lower participation rates among younger and unaffiliated voters helped the state earn its swing state status.

Statewide, turnout among voters registered Republican was 73 percent compared to 70 percent among registered Democrats. The report said a big boost to that margin happened in 21 counties, mostly in WNC, where Republican turnout outperformed Democrats by 7 percent.

More county-by-county breakdowns on voter turnout can be found here. [PDF]

Kirk Ross

Based in the Triangle, Kirk Ross is the capital bureau chief for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at kross@carolinapublicpress.org.

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