The first 2023 municipal election in Durham, North Carolina is right around the corner on October 10, and as is the case in any local jurisdiction, voter turnout is everything. While each election is unique, we can take a look at several factors to gauge how Durham’s voter turnout will shape up in this current election cycle.
Indicators like which offices are up for election, the specific candidates in each race, and the timing of the elections themselves – for instance, 2023 is an “off-year” election, which means these races aren’t intrinsically linked to any national elections like during presidential election years or Congressional midterm years – have a huge impact on Durham election participation and voter engagement. And this isn’t even taking into account the unique character and demographics of Durham’s community involvement.
So, like so many things in politics, gauging Durham, NC voter statistics is largely a case-by-case phenomenon with a multitude of unique factors that can help give us a picture of where the Durham voters are at in terms of their local political involvement. Let’s dig into it.
To start, it’ll be helpful to look at the historical trends of Durham, North Carolina’s voter turnout. And to underscore just how drastically these numbers can change based on which elections and seats are on the ballot, we’ll start from the last round of off-year city elections, in 2021, and then compare those voter participation figures to the national election years of 2020 and 2022.
According to the Durham County Board of Elections, the city of Durham, North Carolina has a registered voting base of about 232,500 voters – of which just over 50% are female, 39% are male, and a further 11% are undesignated. From Durham’s total population of around 286,000, the city has a very robust voting base, with roughly 81% of the city’s population registered to vote. Way to go, Durham! That puts Durham far, far ahead of much larger cities like Los Angeles and Chicago.
Extrapolating from this base of 232,500 registered Durham voters, we can start to dig into the city’s historical voting trends. For the last round of city-level elections, in 2021, voters in Durham went to the polls for city council seats in all three wards and for the mayor’s seat. When we total all votes cast for this entire cycle – which includes each ward’s primary voter participation and general election voter participation – the raw number comes out at roughly 159,000 total votes cast. These voting statistics, and the voter math that follows in the rest of this article, have been provided to us by Ballotpedia.
However, since some of those votes are for the primary and general, this doesn’t mean these votes were from 159,000 unique individuals – it’s just counting the total aggregate number of votes cast. So with this in mind, the math comes out to a true voter participation of around 44% – or around 102,000 unique votes. Not bad! But also not, like, fantastic. Positively average!
Let’s compare this with Durham’s voter turnout in a presidential year – the 2020 election. National elections almost always juice voter turnout at greater levels than local-level races, especially on off-year elections, and Durham is no different in this respect. Out of 232,000 registered voters, Durham totaled over 179,000 votes for president in 2020 – which is a fantastic 77% voter participation rate.
Knowing this, we can probably expect the voter rates for Durham’s elections in 2023 to hew closer to the city’s 2021 city council election level, because there’s no national election tied to Durham’s 2023 elections. City level to city level comparisons have a much more direct relationship, so if 2023 turns out anything like 2021, Durham should expect a voter participation rate of around 45-50%.
We’ve already covered what is probably the single greatest factor in determining Durham voter turnout: what year it is. We don’t need to retread on this point too much, but the trend is unequivocal: presidential election years command the highest voter turnout, followed by Congressional midterm years, and then off-year local election cycles tend to have the softest voter participation rates.
However, there are absolutely more factors that influence voter turnout than just what election cycle it happens to be. Obviously, the candidates themselves play a massive role in turning out voters (to either vote for or against them) – so candidates who are particularly popular with their voting base or vehemently unpopular with the other side of the aisle will tend to increase voter turnout.
Media coverage is also a gigantic factor in helping influence voter participation. Awareness of elections in general translates to what the voter turnout will look like – which is why elections in presidential years are almost invariably higher than other years: voters are simply more aware that there’s an election on the horizon. And a huge part of generating that election awareness is media coverage of the race and the candidates running for office.
Obviously, with a glut of unique factors that influence voter turnout, it can be a challenge to solve for expected lower voter turnout rates. As we mentioned earlier, media coverage can really help increase awareness of election dates to the broader voting public in Durham, NC. However, simply covering an election and the candidates running for office itself is not enough to directly encourage greater civic engagement – and some of the factors that do drive increased participation are within direct control, and some aren’t.
For instance, broader national and local issues will vary election by election, and sometimes certain issues hit critical mass in the minds of voters. For example, the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade is having drastic ripple effects down-ballot in elections across the country at both the national and local levels. Because abortion rights are suddenly top of mind for a huge percentage of voters – particularly women – many voters are extra motivated to ensure their votes get cast in this current cycle because the stakes for them personally are so much higher than in prior elections.
When voters feel as if they must vote or they stand to lose something they once enjoyed previously (abortion rights being a near-perfect example of this trend), they will show out at the ballot boxes at far higher numbers than in “normal” election cycles that don’t have a particularly heightened sense of danger and stakes attached to not-voting.
The lesson here is clear: if voters feel real stakes attached to the next election specifically, they will turn out to vote. So whether that’s achieved via savvy campaigning, media coverage, or a broader national climate associated with specific issues, if voters feel the “heat,” so to speak, they will turn out to have their voices heard. At the same time, if voters feel like the next election is not specifically tied to an issue that is going to directly affect their personal life, they have will have far less incentive to take the time to research candidates and commit to actually making it to a polling place, waiting in line, everything that goes into physically making the commitment to vote.
This is where the importance of local elections comes in. Because local elections, far more than the buzzier and more highly-covered national elections, actually do directly influence policies and issues that will have a more direct impact on your personal life. Local elections are for offices that oversee and take care of the institutions and laws that, by definition, hit closer to home.
Local elections for city council or state representatives, for example, are putting candidates into offices that are not beholden to the same type of expected partisan gridlock that we see at the national level from Congress and the White House. In fact, the less “purple” a given state, city, or county is, the more your vote will actually wind up determining outcomes, because a unified state congress can actually push through legislation at a far higher and more efficient rate than the U.S. Congress can. That means when you’re voting for city council, mayor, or state representatives – sure, you’re voting for people who will “technically” have less power than a national figure like a U.S. Senator, but you’re also voting for people who will have far greater leeway to actually effectuate the policies they ran on.
Local politics are certainly not as flashy, highly-funded, or all-encompassing as national politics. But at the same time, they are far more efficient and have clear, direct consequences on the type of local minutiae – like parking meter rates, public transportation, local road projects, and public school policies – that you as the voter will actually end up dealing with in your day-to-day life.
Ready to make your mark? Learn more about the top issues facing Durham voters, and stay up to date with the latest news about people-powered candidates by signing up for Good Party’s weekly newsletter. You can also get ready for election day by registering to vote! Learn all about how to register to vote in North Carolina by reading our complete guide here.