Skip to content

Perspective | Younger, more educated voters enter the electorate

With census-taking ending in little more than two weeks, North Carolina needs a surge in residents completing the basic Census questionnaire. North Carolina’s “self-response” rate of 61.5% of households falls below the national rate of 65.5%.

An accurate as possible decennial Census undergirds critical political and policy decisions. Even before the 2020 Census offers its detailed statistical portraits of the nation, states, and communities, the profile of North Carolina as fast-growing, more diverse, divided by economics and race, and politically competitive, already well documented, serves as essential context for the 2020 elections.

The North Carolina population grew from 8 million counted in the 2000 Census to an estimated 10.5 million today. That growth has fueled an expansion of the electorate — from 5.12 million registered voters in 2000 to 7.11 million today.

Especially remarkable is that North Carolina now has 1.75 million potential voters who have registered since the November 2016 elections — including in-migrants from other states and young adults who reached 18 years of age. To put the 1.75 million new registrants in perspective, consider that the figure nearly matches the 1.95 million total statewide registered voters in 1970, at the outset of the state’s two-party era.

In his ongoing analysis of the state’s pool of potential voters, Michael Bitzer, professor of politics and history at Catawba College, has noted a “significant generational transition.” Just short of 40% of the state’s voters are 40 years and younger.

Bitzer follows the Pew Research Center’s definition of Millennials (born 1981-96) and Generation Z (born 1996-2012). “And these two generations aren’t just taking over the voter pool, they are reshaping it,” says Bitzer.

In its national surveys, Pew has found that Generation Z and Millennials hold similar views on key social and policy issues. “Progressive and pro-government, most see the country’s growing racial and ethnic diversity as a good thing, and they’re less likely than older generations to see the United States as superior to other nations,” Pew reports.

“A look at older members of Generation Z suggests they are on a somewhat different educational trajectory than the generations that came before them,” says Pew. “They are less likely to drop out of high school and more likely to be enrolled in college. Among 18- to 21-year-olds no longer in high school in 2018, 57% were enrolled in a two-year or four-year college.”

Of course all registered voters do not actually cast ballots; in 2016, seven in ten registrants voted. And younger voters tend to turn out at lower rates than their elders. Turnout matters in as competitive a state as North Carolina where any segment of the electorate could make the difference.

For leaders in the education sector, the generational shift in registered voters poses a challenge in explaining how the state’s investment in decades past in schools, colleges, and universities has contributed to North Carolina’s growth and current quality of life — and how shortcomings and inequities illuminated in the Leandro case require attention and action.

Education is indeed a potent sector in the public life of the state and the daily lives of millions of North Carolinians. Almost 60% of the state’s General Fund goes to supporting its three public education systems.

Consider how many people are in these systems as learners: 31,000 youngsters in pre-K, 1.6 million students in traditional public and charter schools, 205,000 in-state students in the UNC system, around 700,000 students, many part-time, in community colleges. Consider, too, how many these systems employ: 91,000 teachers, 5,200 principals and assistant principals, plus bus drivers, cafeteria workers, counselors, and maintenance staff; add in 47,000 UNC full-time employees, and 35,000 community college faculty and staff.

Of North Carolina’s 10.5 million people, even a rough scratch-paper calculation points to at least one-fourth of the population depending on public education for their current livelihoods or for propelling them toward a productive career, an engaged citizenship, and a satisfying life.

Note: For further analysis of election-relevant data from the Census and the State Board of Elections, see the work of Rebecca Tippett and her colleagues at UNC-Chapel Carolina Demography and of Professor Bitzer in his OldNorthStatePolitics website.

There is still time to increase the number of newly registered voters. The registration deadline is Oct. 9 to qualify to vote in the 2020 General Election. Go here for information on voter registration.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is the Director of the Program in Public Life and Professor of the Practice at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and the Vice Chairman of EducationNC.