Swimming in the Red Sea

Durham has never voted like the rest of North Carolina.

In 2016, nearly 78% of Durham county voted for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, but Donald Trump won North Carolina by 3%. Durham is part of North Carolina’s 1st district, which has been represented in Congress by Democrat George Butterfield since 2004, but 10 of the state’s other 13 districts are represented by Republicans. Durham County just elected an all female, all Democrat Board of County Commissioners, but both senators that represent North Carolina in the House are white male Republicans.

There is a clear contrast.

“We are a university town,” Riverside media coordinator Kate Mester said. “We are hard blue in a state that is light purple, mostly red.”

It is a known trend that college towns are more liberal than their geographic surroundings. Riverside social studies teacher Rebecca Stone, who grew up in Durham and attended UNC-Chapel Hill, says that this is especially true in the Triangle because Duke University, North Carolina State University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are Research I universities. Stone says that this means that within these college communities, value is placed on research, which often concludes cutting edge, liberal policies will solve social problems.

Additionally, she says, Durham is simply more diverse than its surroundings.

“Durham, even historically, has been more accepting of people who come from different backgrounds,” Stone said.

People of color make up 44.9% of Durham County’s population, compared to just 29.2% of North Carolina’s as a whole.

“Durham is a really good example of the U.S. and all of its nests,” Stone said. 

She pointed to immigration and the environment as issues that are important to Durham but not necessarily to its surroundings. Durham identifies as a sanctuary city in a state where some politicians, including President Trump, are actively trying to outlaw the idea of sanctuary cities. There is an EPA headquarters in Durham, while environmental action might be seen as an economic threat elsewhere in North Carolina.

Mester, who has lived in many different places, including Illinois and Washington, D.C.,  facilitates the Kids Vote Durham program at Riverside. Riverside’s U.S. and N.C. House and Senate Kids Vote election results show that students vote overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates. Mester noted that when students were provided with pictures of candidates, they also voted noticeably in favor of candidates of color.

All of this makes one thing clear: if everyone eligible to vote in Durham did, our state politics could look very different.

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