Most election days, there are reports of crowds, long waits, and lines stretching around the block. But in 2024’s primary, there were no such anecdotes in North Carolina’s political media. There weren’t even any major hiccups with this being the first major election our state held using voter ID.

It became clear, when the dust all settled, that the calm wasn’t just better crowd management. Turnout was dramatically down across the state, about 20% lower than in 2020’s primary.

NC State Board of Elections data

To find a worse showing, one would have to go back 20 years, to the pre-Trump, pre-Obama 2004 presidential primary (where 98% of Republicans voted for George W. Bush and Democrats were ambivalent about John Kerry and John Edwards).

Matt Ballance, former Democratic Party chair for North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District, said the state’s 24% participation was his top takeaway from the primaries.

But it would be simplistic to look for reasons why voters in general decided to stay home, since this drop wasn’t seen across the board.

It certainly wasn’t due to Republicans not showing up, as GOP voters in North Carolina had one of their best primary turnouts in state history, according to the John Locke Foundation’s Jim Stirling, who breaks down voter data for Locke’s Civitas Center for Public Integrity. Republican voting totals went from 606,822 in the last presidential-year election to around 850,000, according to Stirling’s preliminary estimate.

“For Republicans, this is the highest early voting turnout in a primary election that they have seen since we started tracking these numbers,” Stirling said. “This goes not only for party participation but also ballot requests.”

No, the steep decline in participation was almost entirely due to Democrats deciding to sit the primary out. In fact, Stirling said this was the lowest primary turnout for Democrats as far back as the Civitas Center’s Vote Tracker data goes. Based on the data available now, he estimates fewer than 600,000 Democrats voted in this primary, a catastrophic decline from the 954,976 Democrat voters in the last presidential-year election primary in 2020.

There was also a drop in unaffiliated voters, with about 375,000 voting in 2020’s North Carolina primary but around 300,000 this year, according to Stirling’s estimates based on early-voting totals. And mirroring the turnout from those officially registered with the two major parties, unaffliateds taking a Democrat ballot were massively overshadowed by those taking Republican ballots.  

“Unaffiliated voters opted for Republican ballots at a higher volume and percentage than any year prior,” Stirling said. “Over 65% of all unaffiliated voters opted for a GOP ballot during the primary.”

There are two likely reasons for this:

  1. Not enough competition in high-profile races
  2. A lack of enthusiasm for the party’s vision and leadership

First, on the lack of competition, this is a common reason why turnout lags at times. In 2020, unaffiliated voters flocked to the Democratic Party ballot because there was a competitive presidential battle between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. This led to the exact inverse of this year’s unaffiliated ballot breakdown. (This year about two-thirds of unaffiliated voters requested GOP ballots and one-third Democrat ballots, but in 2020, two-thirds requested Democrat ballots and only one-third Republican.)

That’s the difference a competitive top-of-the-ticket race can have. And this year, Democrats in North Carolina had very few races of this kind. At the very top of the ticket was Joe Biden, an unpopular incumbent. Over 88,000 North Carolinians who voted on the Democratic Party ballot, so about 13% of the total, voted “no preference” rather than mark the box next to Joe Biden’s name.

The gubernatorial race was also not very competitive, with current Attorney General Josh Stein having been the presumptive nominee since before filing closed. None of the Democrats’ significant congressional races were competitive either. The only two Democratic congressional races that even had primaries on the ballot were incumbent US Rep. Deborah Ross, who won with 94% of the vote; and the inconsequential NC-14 Democrat primary to see who NC House Speaker Tim Moore will defeat in the deep-red western district.

Other than that, there were a lot of not-very-close Council of State races and the usual state legislative races and races for local office. This was clearly not enough to motivate Democrats to get to the polls.

Reason two for the disappearance of Democrats, which is my own speculation, is that the Democrats have not been able to motivate their voters with a vision grounded in policy proposals their base is passionate about and presented to them by charismatic leaders.

Regardless of what one thinks about Donald Trump, Mark Robinson, and others near the top of Republican ballots, they gather crowds and then deliver them red meat. Have I missed the big rallies for Joe Biden and Josh Stein? If they decided to have some, what would their message be?

The problem might be that Democrats are now thought of as the party of the status quo, largely because Biden is the incumbent, but also because most institutions are run by the left. And it’s going to be tough to get crowds jazzed about the status quo on immigration, or the economy, or public schools, or public safety, or really any of the major issues voters tell pollsters they’re most motivated by.

Now, there are years when a party has low primary turnout due to few competitive races, then are able, in the general election, to connect with their voters late and turn them out. But this is much more difficult than getting voters invested and motivated early with exciting candidates who rally them around issues they’re passionate about.

Democrats’ task now will be to locate all these voters that stayed home in the primaries and get them to the polls in November.