“Voters born elsewhere make up nearly half of N.C. electorate.”
So begins the latest DataNet report from the UNC Program on Public Life, directed by former journalist Ferrel Guillory.
So what? What difference does it make to us that almost half of North Carolina voters were born somewhere else?
To begin to show the importance of such a large number of non-North Carolina natives participating in the state’s election process, DataNet gives us a short history lesson: “One hundred years ago, when North Carolina had a population of about 2.5 million people, more than nine out of 10 residents were native Tar Heels.”
Going back a little further, DataNet tells us, “During the Civil War era barely five percent of North Carolina residents were born in another state.”
That percentage stayed low, increasing only gradually, 10 percent in 1930, 13 percent in 1950, 16 percent in 1960, then marked increases to 22 percent in 1970, 30 percent in 1990, and 37 percent in 2000.
“How will this change North Carolina’s electorate?” asks DataNet contributor Rebecca Tippett of Carolina Demography, and then she answers, “In-migrants to North Carolina are almost twice as likely to have a bachelor’s degree as native-born residents. They are more diverse than native-born North Carolinians. And, because many are coming for work and school, in-migrants tend to move to cities more than rural areas.”
The accelerating changes in North Carolina’s voter composition led DataNet to focus on developments between 2004 and 2012. During this period the five urbanized and fast-growing counties (Mecklenburg, Wake, Durham, Buncombe and Cumberland) gained the highest number of in-migrant voters.
In the same period the states sending the most new voters to North Carolina were Florida, Virginia, New York, South Carolina, and Georgia. Other states contributing significant numbers, especially to the fast growing counties, were Pennsylvania, Maryland, and California.
Are these new voters going to help Democrats or Republicans more?
DataNet cannot say for sure because it cannot tie party registration figures to specific in-migrant voters. But it shares some interesting general trends.
First, it notes that in-migrant voters have certainly contributed to a “surge in new voters deciding not to affiliate with a major political party. Mecklenburg and Wake, along with four other counties, had gains in unaffiliated voters of 100 percent or higher.
“Statewide, Democratic registration rose by 20 percent, Republican by 18.5 percent and unaffiliated by 93 percent.
“Growth in Democratic voter registration out-paced Republican registration growth in Mecklenburg, Wake, Durham, Buncombe, Cumberland, Guilford, Orange and Forsyth. Republican registration increased more than Democratic registration in Onslow, Union, Cabarrus and Brunswick. Republican registration dropped in Durham. While the Democratic gains came mostly in metropolitan counties, Republicans saw registration gains in less populous counties, such as Hoke, Camden, Pender, Gates, Currituck, Granville, Jones and Tyrrell.”
So, bottom line, what political party benefits from these new voters?
The increases in Democratic registration in the growing urban counties seems to boost Democratic long-term prospects in the state despite growing Republican strength in the suburban and slow-growth rural counties.
But the actual voting results during the period send confusing signals. The strong Democratic showings in the 2008 and 2012 presidential races were balanced by decisive Republican victories in the 2010 and 2012 legislative and 2012 gubernatorial elections.
What the DataNet report shows, I think, is that North Carolina is up for grabs. The new North Carolina voters do not belong to either party. Instead, they join the growing numbers of native North Carolinians who are not permanently attached to any political movement. Their commitment will depend, not on where they came from, but on what party and what candidates can persuade them their votes can really make a difference.
Read DataNet’s complete report at www.southnow.org.
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.