Josh Bergeron: Young voters may be dragging down turnout in Salisbury’s West Ward 3

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 8, 2019

Let’s dispense with the notion that the West End doesn’t vote.

The reason West Ward 3, which includes the West End neighborhood, routinely has low voter turnout rates is due, in part, to a nationwide trend and not that one of the county’s biggest population precincts doesn’t turn out at the ballot box, according to State Board of Elections data compiled and organized by Catawba College politics professor and department chair Michael Bitzer.

Simply put, America’s youngest voters (those in their early 20s or late teens) for generations have turned out at lower rates than the general voter populace. It was true before people referred to my generation as millennials, and it’s true now.

There’s good news in the fact that youth voter turnout was higher across the nation in 2018 than in some previous midterm years. Among those ages 18-29 in 2018, turnout rose from 19.9% to 35.6% from 2014, according to data analyzed by the U.S. Census Bureau. But that was still far below the national average of 53.4%.

In North Carolina, the latest addition to the generational spread in voting — Generation Z, born after 1997 — voted at a rate of 31% in the 2018 elections. The percentage was “quite high” for first-time voters, many of whom just turned 18, Bitzer said. But it’s still below the 52% for Generation X, 66% for baby boomers and 60% for the Silent Generation in 2018’s elections in North Carolina.

Generational turnout data is relevant to West Ward 3 because it includes Livingstone College, which requires its students to register to vote. Many of Livingstone’s nearly 1,200 students are registered to vote in West Ward 3. And as of Nov. 30, roughly 77% of the 2,589 people registered to vote in West Ward 3 were millennials or Generation Z, according to Bitzer’s data.

That’s compared to 242 Generation X voters, 279 baby boomers and 29 Silent Generation voters registered in West Ward 3.

That the age composition in West Ward 3 skews young represents an outlier from the rest of Rowan County, where roughly 31% of voters are Generation Z or millennials, according to data analyzed by Bitzer. The next-closest precinct in the Salisbury area is named West Innes, with 38% of its voters being millennials or Generation Z. West Innes includes Catawba College, but the school does not require its students to register to vote.

Sure, there are millennials and members of Generation Z who are registered to vote in West Ward 3 and not affiliated with Livingstone College, but there’s a logical correlation between a higher-than-average number of millennials and Generation Z in West Ward 3 and Livingstone’s voter registration requirement.

Pair that with youth voter turnout trends across generations and we have one explanation for why West Ward 3’s voter turnout typically finds itself near the bottom in Rowan County.

But there’s more evidence.

Turnout in the most recent presidential election may be further proof that the precinct’s low turnout rate can be attributed, in part, to voter age.

Just 27% of registered West Ward 3 millennial voters cast ballots in 2016, a presidential election that typically comes with higher turnout numbers. That’s compared to 49% of Generation X voters, 70% of baby boomers and 71% of Silent Generation voters in West Ward 3.

Turnout among all age groups in West Ward 3 was 35% — a result of the fact that a majority of West Ward 3’s voters were in their late teens or 20s and that turnout was low among young people in West End.

Across Rowan County, the turnout was 67% among registered voters, according to Bitzer’s data.

To be clear, it’s beneficial that Livingstone College places such a strong focus on civic engagement when people of all backgrounds seem to be increasingly apathetic about the communities they live in. Livingstone is producing graduates who are more likely to vote, participate in the democratic process and, possibly, run for office.

But Salisbury and Rowan County should know that low turnout in one of Salisbury’s largest precincts is not the fault of all voters.

More likely, young people registered in West Ward 3 are not voting, and that’s dragging down overall turnout.

The solution to low turnout issues, young or old, is not easy to find, but candidates would do themselves and young voters a favor by asking about and taking action on issues that millennials and members of Generation Z care about. Doing that doesn’t guarantee young voters will cast ballots, but it certainly increases their chances of participating.

Josh Bergeron is editor of the Salisbury Post.