Busting the myth of high voter turnout always helping Democrats

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RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — It’s become a common assumption over the years, repeated by politicians, that high rates of voter turnout typically help Democrats.

In North Carolina, though, it’s mostly a myth.

“The idea that high turnout is always good for Democrats in North Carolina actually doesn’t have that much grounding,” said Mac McCorkle, a professor of public policy at Duke University.

The state saw record raw numbers of voters in the general election and nearly 75 percent of registered voters cast ballots. 

Yet with mail-in ballots continuing to be counted by the state Board of Elections on Wednesday, Republicans held on to their majority in the General Assembly and a pair of incumbents — President Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis — claimed leads here in the two highest-profile federal races that nevertheless remained too close to call.

McCorkle says one way to test that high-turnout theory is in past state’s U.S. Senate races.

Only once since 1968 has North Carolina chosen a Democratic senator in an election that does not include a presidential race. Those races typically have higher voter turnouts than the midterms.

McCorkle called the 2008 election of Democrat Kay Hagan the exception in what he called an “unusual election.”

“The (Democrats’) North Carolina victories actually came in smaller turnout elections, in midterms,” McCorkle said. “So the idea, I would challenge that idea.”

But why has it persisted?

The general thinking is that there is a disproportionate number of young, low-income and minority people among nonvoters and they would lean Democratic.

But the data isn’t quite as clear. 

At a national level, researchers at factcheck.org found both Republican and Democratic presidential candidates secured victories with both high and low rates of turnout among the voting eligible population.

This election certainly was marked by high turnout, with more voters than ever casting ballots, and North Carolina had one of the best in the nation, according to the U.S. Elections Project at the University of Florida.

It projects North Carolina as having one of the top 10 turnout rates among its voting eligible population at just under 75 percent. Only eight states have higher rates, according to its early estimates, led by Minnesota at nearly 83 percent.

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