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Western North Carolina may not have as dense a population as other parts of the state, but Carolina Public Press’ analysis of some voter trends suggests that political behavior may be compensating for numbers, to give WNC residents more than their expected share of statewide political clout.
North Carolina’s statewide population is growing faster than the population of WNC counties. The region’s most urban counties, Buncombe and Henderson, are seeing some growth due in part to in-migration. But many other counties are nearly static or losing people.
As CPP reported earlier this year, that trend would seem to be a recipe for reduced political influence that could see the region marginalized when legislative and congressional districts are drawn after the 2020 census. And only a substantial shift in birth, death or migration patterns can avoid that outcome.
But in the short-term, WNC voters aren’t sitting around, as evidenced by voter registration and participation trends seen when CPP looked at numbers from this year’s primary vote and the voter rolls from the last statewide primaries in 2014.
Even though the state has more people today, including more voting-age residents, the number of registered voters declined slightly statewide from about 6.516 million at the time of the May 2014 primary to just 6.515 on the day of the March 15 primary in 2016.
This trend of small declines can be seen in many counties, including several in WNC, some of which had to contend with declining population numbers as well. Even so, as a region, WNC voter registrations bucked this trend and grew by about 0.44 percent during the period.
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Cherokee County witnessed better than 6 percent growth in voter registrations. Also showing substantial increases were Buncombe with 1.7 percent and Henderson with 1.2 percent.
Others had smaller increases and many in the west also had declines, with Avery losing 4.9 percent of its registered voter numbers, Mitchell losing 5.79 percent, Yancey 4.27 percent and Graham 4.23 percent.
But when those numbers are totaled, the larger populations in Buncombe and Henderson help make up for the declines in smaller-population WNC counties and the region as a whole posts a gain.
To try and gauge how meaningful this trend is for political clout, CPP estimated the percentage of the state’s voters coming from each WNC county in 2014 and 2016 respectively, and then looked at the percentage by which that had changed.
This analysis showed that overall the percentage of the state’s registered voters grew by about 0.45 percent during the two-year period, close to the actual percentage change in the number of registered voters in the region. This similarity was generally true for each individual county as well.
That may seem like a relatively tiny increase in a region’s supposed clout, but considering that the same region has been lagging well behind the state in population growth, this comes as a surprise that more than offsets the growth-trend disadvantage for the west.
Statewide about 35.8 percent of registered voters took part in the March 15 primaries, either turning out on Election Day or voting early by absentee ballot or one-stop voting.
But WNC voters not only registered at an increased rate, those who did register also took the time to turn out and vote at a higher rate of about 39.3 percent.
This trend wasn’t necessarily true for every WNC county. Only 30.3 percent of voters took part in Swain County and just 32.2 percent in Rutherford.
Counties with some of the highest voter turnout rates included Avery at 44.5 percent, Yancey at 44.3 percent and Mitchell at 42.6 percent. Since these were some of the counties with declining registration numbers, the higher participation rates also helps offset any loss to their political clout.
But several larger WNC counties also saw strong turnout numbers with Buncombe at 42 percent and Henderson at 40.2 percent.
Why this matters
A member of Congress or the General Assembly elected from a district fully or partially in WNC is going to have the same clout in 2016 as someone elected from that district had in 2014.
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The voice of each WNC voter within U.S. House districts may be more or less diluted than before for unrelated reasons — because of court-ordered drawing of new districts this year. But those new districts are still based on the 2010 Census, something that won’t be superseded until the 2022 election cycle.
Where holding the line or making small gains in political clout for the West may matter more is in statewide elections. That includes this year’s contests for U.S. Senate, governor and various Council of State seats. As a result of registration and turnout numbers, a higher percentage of voters in this year’s primaries for those seats came from the west, even though the region claimed a smaller percentage of the state’s population.
Will it mean politicians will give WNC counties any greater attention? Don’t hold your breath. But it does suggest that the issues and concerns of WNC voters are ignored at the peril of the political class.