Generational Composition of North Carolina Electorate in 2016

Yesterday’s post examined projected generational changes in North Carolina’s adult population. By 2016, North Carolina is projected to have 7.85 million adults, with the following projected generational breakdown:

Greatest ( – 1927): 82,800
Silent (1928-1945): 849,400
Baby Boomers (1946-1964): 2,329,500
Gen X (1965-1981): 2,273,700
Millennial (1982-2004): 2,317,000

Baby Boomers will just barely be the largest adult generation, with Millennials poised to overtake them in population size in 2017.

Voting Eligible

How do these total population sizes translate into the potential generational composition of North Carolina’s electorate? All of these individuals are of voting age (18+), but not all individuals are eligible to vote due to a variety of reasons, the primary one (and the easiest to measure) being citizenship.

The 2013 American Community Survey reveals marked differences in citizenship across generations. Looking at the citizenship of North Carolina individuals who will be old enough to vote in 2016—meaning they were 15 or older in 2013—reveals that nearly six percent were non-citizens, meaning they are not eligible to vote.

Percent non-citizen among NC residents 2013

Virtually all members of the two oldest generations—the Greatest generation and the Silent generation—are citizens. Fewer than three percent of Baby Boomers are non-citizens. In contrast, 10% of Gen X adults and nearly 8% of Millennials are non-citizens. Consequently, while Baby Boomers and Millennials will have virtually the same number of adults in 2016, there will be 2.27 million voting eligible Baby Boomers compared to 2.14 million voting eligible Millennials.

Registration

Just as citizenship patterns are distinct across generations, so, too, is voting registration and election behavior. In general, the likelihood of registering to vote and actually voting increases with age; older generations participate in elections at a higher rate than younger ones.

Voting registration data from North Carolina’s State Board of Elections indicates that there were 6.3 million registered voters in North Carolina as of May 23, 2015. Of these, 85% belonged to one of the three largest generations: Baby Boomers (2.1 million), Gen X (1.8 million), and Millennial (1.5 million). A quick comparison to the projected 2015 voting eligible population reveals that fully 92% of Baby Boomers are registered to vote in North Carolina compared to only 74% of Millennials.

This registration number contains individuals classified as both “Active” and “Inactive.” Inactive means that their voting registration is not confirmed or they have not participated in multiple federal general election cycles. (The precise meaning and coding is unclear from the data format, but a quick perusal revealed that some people whom I know to be living and voting in another state are still in NC’s data as “Inactive,” which suggests there may occasionally be challenges in removing movers from the file.) In total, just over 5 million registered voters were active in the recent SBE data, meaning nearly 20% of all registered voters are currently classified as inactive. There are similarly large generational differences in the proportion of inactive registrations: 13% of Baby Boomers are inactive compared to 23% of Gen X registered voters and 29% of Millennials.

Accounting for differences in voting eligibility, overall registration rates, and voter activity status substantially changes the generational composition of the potential electorate in 2016. Among Baby Boomers who are eligible to vote, 79% are active, registered voters. Only 57% of voting eligible Millennials are currently active, registered voters.

Shifting Generational Composition of 2016 Electorate

Although Baby Boomers and Millennials will comprise roughly the same share of North Carolina’s adult population in 2016—30%—their share of the likely 2016 electorate will differ markedly. Provided that registration rates do not change substantially in the upcoming election cycle, there will be about 5.2 million active, registered voters in North Carolina in 2016. Of these, 1.8 million or 35% will be Baby Boomers. Gen X will be the second largest generation in the potential electorate with just over 1.4 million active, registered voters. Millennials will remain an important force, but underrepresented compared to their broader population share. In 2016, the current data suggest there will be just over 1.2 million active, registered Millennials in North Carolina, representing 24% of the state’s potential electorate in 2016.

Turnout

Last, but certainly not least, individuals who are eligible to vote and registered to vote actually have to show up to vote on Election Day. There are well documented generational differences in turnout. In the most recent presidential election cycles, Baby Boomers had much higher turnout than Millennials. If this remains true, Millennials will be even more underrepresented at the ballot box than their overall proportion of the adult, voting eligible population.

Of course, a lot can change between now and early November 2016, and we know from past campaigns that voting registration and mobilization campaigns can significantly impact registration rates and turnout.

For more analysis of North Carolina’s electorate, check out Dr. Michael Bitzer’s Old North State Politics blog.

About Rebecca Tippett

Rebecca Tippett is Director of Carolina Demography at UNC-Chapel Hill's Carolina Population Center.
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