Runoff vote's main issue: What vote?

acurliss@newsobserver.comJuly 12, 2012 

  • There’s an election? On Tuesday? Tuesday’s second primary is for voters to further winnow candidates from the May 8 primary, setting the ballots for November. The May voting sorted out almost all of the political parties’ nominees for the General Assembly, Congress and other statewide positions that will be on the November ballot. But in some races, no candidate grabbed at least 40 percent of the vote. A second primary between the two top vote-getters in those races is now necessary to decide the nominee. Can I vote? Most people are eligible to vote on Tuesday, whether or not they voted in May. But not all. You are allowed to vote on Tuesday if you: •  Voted in May and are registered as Democrat or Republican. •  Did not vote in May and are registered as Democrat, Republican, or unaffiliated. •  Voted in May and are registered as unaffiliated, with the following restrictions: Unaffiliated voters who voted a Democratic ballot in May can vote only a Democratic ballot on Tuesday, while unaffiliated voters who voted a Republican ballot in May can vote only a Republican ballot on Tuesday. (Unaffiliated voters who did not vote in May will be able to choose from either party’s ballot on Tuesday.) The only voters who are not eligible to vote on Tuesday are those either registered Libertarian or unaffiliated who voted in the May primary on a Libertarian or nonpartisan ballot. Who is on the ballot? In the Triangle, the ballots will help decide five statewide races. Voters in some counties outside of the Triangle will be choosing Congressional and General Assembly candidates. Here is a glance at the local ballots: DEMOCRATIC Commissioner of Labor Marlowe Foster vs. John C. Brooks REPUBLICAN Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest vs. Tony Gurley Commissioner of Insurance Richard Morgan vs. Mike Causey Secretary of State Kenn Gardner vs. Ed Goodwin Superintendent of Public Instruction John Tedesco vs. Richard Alexander Sources: N.C. State Board of Elections, Wake County Board of Elections

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.”

Curliss: 919-829-4840

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