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In WNC, abortion drove Democrats to the polls – but it wasn’t enough to stop the red wave

Photo of the Planned Parenthood sign in Asheville.
Lilly Knoepp
At the Asheville Planned Parenthood, 74 percent of the patients were from out-of-state in August, compared to 37 percent in August of last year.

In the 2022 midterm elections, Democrats hoped the US Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision would bring out voters who cared about abortion access.

While the issue drew voters in a number of states with ballot measures to protect abortion rights, that didn’t happen in North Carolina – even in the West where Democrats actually turned out at a higher rate than Republicans.

Chris Cooper, head of the public policy institute at Western Carolina University says that in North Carolina there were early signs that abortion didn’t drive turn out for women.

“Before the election we thought we would see a Dobbs effect – this abortion decision effect - in terms of gender voting patterns but the reality is the place to look at it was in terms of party ID,” said Cooper.

A complete understanding of voter turnout in the state became available after the statewide canvass on November 29th.

Through that data, we can better understand why Republicans won big in the region.

Longtime Democrats at the county level were voted out and Republicans won on the state and federal levels by a majority. Fewer than 10 Democrats won a seat across the region.

“There were some people fired about Dobbs, but those were people who were already fired up about politics,” said Cooper just after Election Day. “Inflation was something, that fairly or unfairly, everybody was feeling, everybody was talking about.”

Despite Republican wins, in seven Western North Carolina counties, Democratic turnout outweighed turnout by Republicans, according to Cooper.

Those seven counties are Transylvania, Haywood, Swain, Polk, Madison, Jackson and Buncombe, which make up the 15 county far-west 11th Congressional district.

Graph of voter turnout by party and total turnout in Transylvania, Haywood, Swain, Polk, Madison, Jackson and Buncombe Counties.
Data courtesy of Chris Cooper
The turnout for Democrats and Republicans is the percentage of registered voters from each of the parties.

But if turnout was so high, why did Democrats still lose?

“The problem in the West wasn’t that Democrats didn’t turn out their voters – it was that they didn’t have enough voters to turnout in the first place,” saids Cooper.

That’s different than the rest of the state, where only 13 out of the remaining 85 counties had higher democratic turnout.

Cooper posits this could be because of competitive races in the West like the 11th Congressional race and House District 119. Respectively, local candidates Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara of Buncombe County and Al Platt of Transylvania County could have brought out voters for their respective races.

Then there are the unaffiliated voters – they represent the largest bloc in the majority of these counties and the state. But they had the lowest turnout.

“So we have got this interesting situation in the West and statewide where more and more people are registering as unaffiliated everyday but reaching them and getting them to turn out to vote is becoming a harder and harder challenge,” said Cooper.

Voter voices at the polls

Ahead of the November election, BPR asked voters what drew them to the polls.

In Franklin, Mother Rebecca McNeely and her son Carter have been voting together since he turned 18. He’s now 24. Both agree that this year the main issue on the ballot is women’s rights.

“It was very important that I come out and vote and be an ally to women,” said Carter McNeely.

“I am almost 58 years old and I didn’t think that in 2022 I would still be fighting for women’s rights. It’s sad,” said Rebecca McNeely.

Mother and son in Franklin stand in front the Robert C. Carpenter Community Building during early voting in 2022.
Lilly Knoepp
In Franklin, Mother Rebecca McNeely and her son Carter have been voting together since he turned 18. He’s now 24.

McNeely says women’s right to an abortion was clarified further for her this year after a close relative almost died due to a misdiagnosed ectopic pregnancy.

“I think that’s the big picture that people don’t understand. This isn’t women using this as birth control. This is healthcare and you are putting women’s lives at risk,” said McNeely.

Others wanted more restrictions on abortion, including Konda McCauley of Franklin.

“This administration has almost ruined our country. We need some Republicans back in office. I want people who are in there are who against abortion,” said McCauley.

While it’s impossible to know if abortion was the main issue driving voters to the polls, Cooper says it was an important factor in this election.

“I think clearly abortion did matter. Was it the most important? Was it the only one? Heck, I don’t know but I think clearly it did matter. It was the number one issue for many Democrats. They did turn out. They did vote,” said Cooper.

Beyond that, this election also failed to provide answers on what could drive more young people to vote. In North Carolina, turnout numbers for young people were slightly lower than during the last midterm election in 2018.

“So for whatever set of circumstances, this was not the magic elixir to cure the youth voting problem in America,” said Cooper.

The Dobbs decision drove Dems to the polls. Here’s how access has been impacted

Many reproductive rights activists are keeping their focus on the big picture: nationwide access to abortion. Because the laws for abortion now differ in states across the country, people who are looking for access to abortion are now traveling more often and navigating new laws.

While North Carolina further restricted access to abortion over the summer, its 20-week ban is still less restrictive than its neighbors.

All of these additional restrictions have impacted the region.

North Carolina had one of the largest increases in abortions, growing 37 percent between April and August 2022, according to a report by the Society of Family Planning.

Since the US Supreme Court's June 24th decision, more than a third of the total number of patients accessing abortion care at North Carolina’s six health centers have been from out-of-state, according to Planned Parenthood North Carolina. Prior to the Dobbs decision, it was approximately 15 percent.

In Asheville, that number is even higher because it is the only clinic in the region. (Other Planned Parenthood clinics are located in Wilmington, Fayetteville, Chapel Hill, Winston Salem and Charlotte. There are fourteen clinics total that provide abortion access in the state.)

As a result, 74 percent of the patients in Asheville were from out-of-state in August, compared to 37 percent in August of last year.

Bans in surrounding states as a result of the Dobbs decision means wait times for appointments have also increased. According to Planned Parenthood North Carolina, patients may need to wait as long as three weeks for an appointment. Asheville and Winston-Salem have the longest wait times for patients seeking abortion right now.

The long wait times and the 20-week ban have forced some North Carolina residents to seek care out of state.

Maren Hurley is one of the co-founders of Mountain Area Abortion Doula Collective. She explained that abortion was almost inaccessible even before the Dobbs decision was formally issued in June.

“The ripple effect essentially compounds all of the existing problems in the other states. We're about to see like a collapse that was like abortion access in most of the states that border North Carolina,” said Hurley.

But some are optimistic following the 2022 midterms, after voters in five states approved measures to protect abortion access.

“I'm encouraged,” said Jenny Black, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood in the South Atlantic region. “This is the first midterm cycle in decades that didn't see a wave of opposition to the party in control of the White House. And I believe abortion changed the trajectory of this election.”

But here in North Carolina, more abortion restrictions could still be put into place. In January, the General Assembly will return with an almost veto proof majority; Republicans have a majority in the Senate while the House of Representatives is one seat away from a supermajority.

There will also be a new Republican majority on the NC Supreme Court. That’s concerning for Black.

“The reality is that the future of abortion access and all of our fundamental freedoms in North Carolina, including our democracy, is still unclear,” said Black.

The NC General Assembly will reconvene in 2023 on January 11th.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.