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Young voters could impact local elections…but will they?

By Andie Foley
andie.foley@salisburypost.com

Look anywhere across the county and you can find them.

Perhaps they’re huddled around a table, talking with state and local representatives about issues close to heart. Perhaps they’re behind laptops, making calls and seeking to inspire action. They could even be the smiling faces that greeted you as you meandered among the booths and vendors at the Rowan County Fair.

Who are they? They’re members of a growing and potentially powerful population: registered voters under the age of 37, North Carolina’s largest generational cohort.

With a larger registration comes the potential for a larger sway during this year’s midterms — if younger registrants turn out to the polls, that is.

“What we know from research is that younger people just do not show up in terms of actually voting,” said professor of politics and history Dr. Michael Bitzer. “Getting them to register to vote is the first step to getting them to the polls.”

Local trends in registration

According to Bitzer, under-37 voters edged into the top slot statewide at the beginning of this year with a total of 32 percent. Baby Boomers, or those aged 54 to 73, trail by just one percentage point.

In Rowan County, Boomers retain their hold as the largest cohort by four points, with 34 percent to the Millennial (22-37) and Generation Z (21 and under) combined 30 percent.

“I think that would certainly be expected,” said Bitzer. “If you are in a major urban area, you are certainly going to have a greater population of fellow Millennials and Gen Zs and that probably helps to spur engagement and participation.”

Bitzer said many could categorize Rowan County as “very rural,” despite the fact it’s in the Charlotte-metropolitan area.

But a shift in generational cohorts is underway. Population estimates from the Census Bureau in 2017 found nearly half of the county in that under-40 age category.

Boomers, in contrast, made up just 24 percent. If registrants under 37 continue to rise at current rates, Rowan’s Boomer stronghold could crumble.

Young voters only accounted for 24 percent of Rowan’s voter population in the 2014 midterm election, meaning their numbers have increased around 1.5 percent each year since.

Most of their gain came at the expense of older voters, what Bitzer calls the “Silent and Greatest” generations. Voters 74 and over — then 70 and over — fell from 15 percent in 2014 to just 11 percent this year.

Boomers and members of Generation X, those 37 to 53, each fell a percentage point.

In Rowan County and statewide, voter populations become increasingly less racially diverse as ages rise. Locally, those under 37 are 66 percent white and 30 percent persons of color, with some 4 percent undeclared.

In contrast, those 74 and over are 87 percent white and 12 percent persons of color, with only 1 percent undeclared.

Similarly decreasing are the number of unaffiliated registrants in each generational cohort. In Rowan County, which Bitzer calls “much more Republican overall” than North Carolina as a whole, 40 percent of young voters are registered unaffiliated, 31 percent Republican, 28 percent Democrat, and 1 percent other parties such as Green, Constitution and Libertarian.

Our eldest citizens’ numbers fall to less than half of that with a mere 18 percent unaffiliated, 37 percent Democrat, and 45 percent Republican.

The unaffiliated paradox

While larger pools of voters who claim neither “blue” nor “red” may communicate the majority of young electors are anyone’s game, Bitzer said that is far from the truth.

“We know from other studies that, people who identify as politically independent, the vast majority of them lean to one party over the other,” he said. “If you lean to one party over the other but you first identify as an independent, you’re going to vote 85 to 90 percent for the party that you lean to.”

The trouble then for political parties, said Bitzer, is identifying and encouraging the right portions of these unidentified masses to the polls.

But why the shift to claim independence? Many local sources agree.

“This is a challenge that all organizations or groups face,” said Rowan County Democratic Party chairman Geoffrey Hoy. “We’re trying to assist younger people who have not seen a lot of positive things come out of structured, organized groups.”

Sarah Horne, a 21-year-old unaffiliated voter and political science major at Catawba College, explained: her generation just “isn’t too fond of institutions.”

“We do try to pick and choose what we believe from both sides,” she said. “When we consider ourselves unaffiliated, it gives us the leeway to look at the issue from both sides.”

She also said that unaffiliated statuses can serve as a statement that younger people are fed up with the way politics has been running in the country.

“It just says we’re ready for a change,” she said. “We’re ready for something different.”

Bridging the gap

Young voters may be ready for something different, but a chasm remains in young registration versus followthrough. Across North Carolina in 2014, only 19 percent of some 1.7 million Millennials cast their ballots.

In contrast, 57 percent of 2.2 million Baby Boomers made it to the polls.

Rowan’s turnouts on each were two percent less, with numbers for the 2018 primary even more miniscule. Only 3 percent of registered Millennials and Gen Zs cast ballots in May.

This group compromised just 8 percent of the total voter turnout, with Baby Boomers in the majority with 53 percent.

Republican Liberty University graduate student and 21-year-old Giovanni Spillman explained the disconnect.

“Political events today are scaring a lot of younger voters away. We are seeing a lot of violence on college campuses across the U.S.,”  he said. “Far left groups — like Antifa — are limiting conservative speech and ideology. As a result, we have seen demonstrations turn into riots and violence become a new norm on campuses.”

Therein, young electors are “being scared away before they get to the voting box,” he said.

What will it take to get them there? Apart from combating fear with fact across social media platforms — Spillman’s suggestion — Millenials and Gen Zs around the county agree: voters need to connect with a cause that hits close to home.

T.K. Crowder, a 27-year-old volunteer with Rowan’s Democratic Party, spoke of his personal experience with his grandmother and her struggles under the current Medicare system.

“It’s the sort of thing that affects a family personally,” he said. “My grandmother couldn’t afford her medications because Medicare wouldn’t pay for them anymore. That puts a burden on a family as a whole. We’re all constantly worrying.”

But Crowder’s grandmother had taught him another valuable lesson early in life, bringing him along since the age of 12 to volunteer on political campaigns.

“From that, I learned that people died for me to vote,” he said. “And I learned that I can choose who I want in there. From a primary to Election Day, it’s on the voter to choose. Regardless of how much money a candidate spends on the campaign trail or how much advertisement they have, it’s on the voter.”

And choosing political representation is the only way to affect change where society needs it most, said Horne.

“I think that’s one thing people are really starting to notice: they’re realizing they can have a voice and be active about (these issues),” she said. “By voting, we can voice our opinion and have an impact on this population. People are realizing there are issues and we can actually work to change them.”

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