There is a statewide primary election on Tuesday.
That will be news to tens of thousands of North Carolinians who have been spending their summer paying little attention to big decisions the ballot tally will make final on Tuesday.
The voting will help determine the candidates on November’s ballot for five of North Carolina’s most important public positions: lieutenant governor, insurance commissioner, labor commissioner, secretary of state, and superintendent of public instruction.
Those jobs make up half of the Council of State, a body of top elected officials that controls, among other things, the state’s property.
There are other races on ballots around the state, too, including three contests for Congress in districts west of Raleigh. Voters will pick nominees for seven General Assembly seats scattered around the state.
For the most part, interest in what is officially called a “second primary” has been weak.
Gary Bartlett, director of the state’s elections board, summed it up in one word: “Anemic.”
“I actually was giddy in the beginning about this primary,” Bartlett said. “I mean, we have five statewide races on the ballot, and that’s more than in any time in modern history. Never been that many.”
But the second primary election date is also later than ever, the result of a state law intended to allow members of the military to have more time to cast ballots from overseas. Officials believed that federal election rules made the change necessary, thus pushing the voting deeper into summer, Bartlett said.
So far, about 28,000 people have cast ballots through early voting with 158 of those from overseas, according to election data.
That’s a very small portion of the electorate, about half of 1 percent of the possible turnout.
Bartlett said he hopes Tuesday’s voting sends the turnout at least over 2 percent.
In contrast, the high mark for a second primary was in 1990, when nearly 20 percent of voters cast ballots in the second primary that made former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, not then-Brunswick County District Attorney Mike Easley, the U.S. Senate opponent to Jesse Helms.
A hot statewide courts race in the mid-1990s brought out about 8 percent of voters for a second primary, Bartlett said.
“This one is basically out of sight, out of mind right now. Folks are on vacation,” he said.
Mining for votes
The most interest in the second primary has been in the still-undecided Congressional districts, one in the far western part of the state and two closer to Charlotte.
Dan Forest and Tony Gurley, two men who live in Raleigh and are running to be the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor, have spent plenty of time mining votes in those areas, banking on the higher turnout there as being a likely deciding factor.
In interviews Sunday, the Republicans both said they have seen first-hand how little attention voters are paying these days.
Forest recalled riding through parades in an RV, blaring one message over and over.
“It was July 17th, July 17th,” he said. “People don’t know about July 17th.”
Many people saw him campaigning and thought he was just out and about, already going hard for November, he said.
He said his campaign has scoured voting rolls to find people who are regular, consistent voters in the more obscure primary and off-year elections.
“Even with your faithful voter,” Forest said, “when we talk to them, I’d say it’s about half who even know of this election.”
Gurley said he’s seen much the same, describing similar contacts with super-frequent voters as yielding maybe three or four in every 10 hard-core voters who know there is a primary Tuesday.
In advance of the May vote, Gurley had broadcast radio ads that featured his name some 16 times in a minute seeking to build recognition.
A more recent advertisement is much different.
“The spot, for the first 23 seconds, doesn’t even mention my name,” Gurley said. “It’s basically a (public-service announcement), a call to action that there is an election on July 17.”
They are competing to face Democrat Linda Coleman for the lieutenant governor’s position in November.
While 769,000 voters cast ballots in their race in May, the forecast is for fewer than 100,000 to decide the nominee on Tuesday.
Bartlett said he wishes he had a way to encourage more voters to show up.
“If it was possible to (tick) off people and make them come vote, I’d do that,” he said. “I will say this: Low turnout gives those who vote a much larger voice. And normally, in low turnout elections, you do see surprises. So, go vote.”