Friday, February 16, 2024

Five Questions As We Enter the Official Election Season in NC

by Christopher Cooper

Pitchers and catchers are reporting to Spring Training, a few flowers are peeking out to take a look around, and roadways across North Carolina are increasingly littered with political signs. Spring is coming and the the 2024 election is here. 


Although ballots have been accepted in North Carolina since January 21, the election shifted into a different gear yesterday--the first day of in person early voting. As a result, it seems like as good a time as any to take a look towards the 2024 election and identify a few questions that observers of North Carolina politics should be watching.

                                      Some flowers in my yard that are in for a rude awakening in the next cold stretch

1. The Democrats did a bang-up job contesting NCGA seats—will it matter in the short-run?

After a few years of hit or miss efforts, the North Carolina Democratic party emphasized candidate recruitment across this state this year and their efforts yielded impressive results. There is a Democratic running in virtually all of North Carolina's 170 state legislative seats. 


But, contesting elections, while important, is best understood as a means, not an ends to political power. For the effort to truly pay off, it needs to pay dividends in the long and short runs. Whether this effort will help achieve the long term ends—building the Democratic Party from Murphy to Manteo—won’t be known for a few years. So what can we expect in the short-run?


It's unrealistic to think that simply fielding candidates will flip overwhelmingly Republican districts blue.  The short-term goal for Democratic challengers in overwhelmingly Republican districts, then, is to help other Democrats up and down the ticket. 


Let’s imagine a state legislative district with a long-shot-Democratic candidate (just for specificity, assume it's an R+15 district). Save a scandal that would make Watergate look like a traffic ticket, the Democrat is not going to win. The Democratic challenger can, however, act as a foot soldier for the party—contacting voters and reminding them to show up and support not just themself, but also Joe Biden, and the other Democratic nominees up the ticket. Votes for Governor, for example, count the same whether they come from bright red Cherokee County or bright blue Durham County. 


If the Democratic nominees can expand the electorate at the margins, it could be the difference maker in a gubernatorial election that is likely to be decided at the margins—to say nothing of the Presidential Election, the highly competitive Attorney General Race, and so on. 


Will it work? We'll have to wait and see

    2.  Will Unaffiliated voters act strategically? If so, will it matter? 

It’s no secret that Unaffiliated voters make up the largest number of registered voters in the state. It’s also no secret that, in contrast to their Democratic and Republican friends, Unaffiliated voters can choose which partisan ballot they receive in the primary.

In work with my fellow ONSP friends and colleagues, Michael Bitzer, Susan Roberts and Whitney Ross-Manzo we find that almost half of unaffiliated voters switch partisan primaries at some point—voting for the Republican primary one year, the Democratic Primary the next, and so on. And the lion’s share of these Unaffiliated voters who change party primaries do so in response to the competitiveness of the primaries. Makes sense, right? If you have a competitive primary in party A and a foregone conclusion in party B, wouldn’t you want to maximize the power of your vote to affect the outcome?

If that sort of strategic decision-making seems far-fetched, recall the 2022 Republican primary in North Carolina’s 11th congressional district where Unaffiliated voters overwhelmingly chose the Republican primary and sent scandal-ridden incumbent Madison Cawthorn packing.

The bad news for Republicans who want to control the outcome of their party’s primaries is that the Republicans have far more competitive primaries than the Democrats this cycle. NC-13, NC-10, and NC-6, for example have no obvious front-runner. The Republican side of the Lieutenant Governor’s primary features *11* candidates, as opposed to 3 on the Democratic side. Plus, there’s the little matter of the Presidency, where Joe Biden faces exactly *0* opposition in the North Carolina’s primary. If you're looking for competition, the Republican side of the ticket is where you want to be. 

Perhaps for that reason, political messaging from Republican leaning candidates and causes are reinforcing the idea that conservatives should exert power in the Republican primary, lest ideological interlopers wield outsized influence.

                           Roadside sign in Jackson County, NC. It was near-a Cook-Out, because...NC

How will it shake out? We'll have to wait and see.

    3. Will changes in election laws have any effect on voter participation or attitudes   about election administration? 

The 2024 elections in North Carolina will bring a number of changes to voting and elections. Just to name a few:

  • Voter ID is the law of the land, and although there are exceptions, the vast majority of voters are unlikely to be aware of the exceptions and believe that they must have an ID to cast a vote.
  • Elections boards can no longer accept private money.
  • Mail ballots must be received by 7:30 PM on election day (except for UOCAVA voters, who operate under different rules by federal law)
  • County Boards of Elections can't run early voting tabulation before the close of polls on Election Day 
  •  Election observers have increased flexibility
  •  There is a new process to verify same day registrants.

 Each one of these changes brought with it predictions from supporters and detractors. Before too long, we will be able to put some data to these predictions and figure out where the empirical reality lies. 

Although it will be tempting to look at easy to find summary numbers on turnout immediately following the election, I hope we will resist this temptation. Determining whether and how these reforms affected the voter experience will take time--and a lot more sophisticated analyses than simply comparing turnout rates.

4. Will Republicans continue to cede early voting to the Democrats?

For a while, Republicans and Democrats performed similarly in early and mail voting. That period of time is long gone. Today, the pattern is clear: Democrats perform better than Republicans in mail and early voting and Republicans perform better than Democrats on election day voting. But there's another, related pattern at play: the number of North Carolinians who vote on election day is declining. 


Sensing that there could be some problems afoot in these patterns, some within the Republican Party have embarked on an effort to reverse this trend. They call it "bank your vote." 


There are similar efforts here in North Carolina. See, for example this Tweet (or X, or post, or whatever His Muskness wants us to call it now) from American Majority North Carolina.


Will this effort be successful, or are partisan patterns how how people cast a vote (as well as who they vote for) already too baked in?


5. Will We Finally Move the Needle on Gender Representation in the North Carolina General Assembly?

Women are dramatically underrepresented in North Carolina politics. For example, according to data from the indispensable Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics, just 29 percent of the General Assembly is female--a number that places the Old North State 34th in the country. As the graph below indicates, the numbers may be growing, but we are a long ways from parity.


But a new election brings new possibilities. Will we move the needle on gender representation in a positive direction in 2024?

Wrapping Up

These questions are, of course, just a snapshot of the potentially interesting and important questions that surround North Carolina primary and general elections. I encourage you to read Michael Bitzer's insights a couple of weeks ago and watch this space for more questions (and maybe even an answer or two) as we progress through the election season.


Dr. Chris Cooper is Madison Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Public Affairs and Director of the Haire Institute for Public Policy at Western Carolina University. He tweets, threads, and blue skies, at @chriscooperwcu.