Early voters in North Carolina produced a record turnout this year, with more than 3.1 million residents voting by mail or in person, according to voting data compiled Saturday.
This year’s early voting total represents an 11.8 percent increase over early voting results in the 2012 general election, according to data from the State Board of Election, and the number of early voters is still growing as mail-in ballots continue to arrive.
The high early turnout is driven by a 40.3 percent surge of unaffiliated voters, many of them millennials, whose candidate selections can’t be deduced from political affiliation because they have disassociated themselves from the two traditional political parties. In more than half the state’s 100 counties, unaffiliated voters accounted for the second highest vote total, State Board of Election numbers show. And in at least two counties the unaffiliated voting bloc is the highest early vote generator in that county, casting more early votes than either of the two establishment parties.
The high numbers of unaffiliated voters have surprised election analysts and have become the election’s “great wild card,” said J. Michael Bitzer, professor of political science at Catawba College.
North Carolina’s razor-thin margin in the presidential contest renders the unaffiliated bloc difficult to categorize. Some analysts speculate that unaffiliated voters, who are younger than the general voting population, are more likely to vote for liberal candidates. At least one has noted that about half of North Carolina’s unaffiliated voters cast ballots in the primaries, and the majority of those chose to vote on Republican ballots, suggesting that may be their true party preference.
The early voting numbers make clear that interest in this year’s general election is strong. Early voting tallies show that 45.2 percent of North Carolina’s registered voters had voted as of Saturday afternoon, up from 41.7 percent in 2012, state data show.
The numbers also show that unaffiliated representation grew in early voting this year as Democratic early votes shrank, suggesting that some of the unaffiliated may be coming from the ranks of Democrats. Historically, Democrats in North Carolina have taken advantage of early voting more than Republicans, while Republicans have preferred to wait to vote until Election Day.
This year’s increase in early voting is partly attributed to the wider availability of early voting options than in previous elections. North Carolina’s 17 days of early voting provided 16 percent more hours of public access than four years ago, and the 444 voting locations this year represent a 21 percent increase from 2012.
But the most significant factor driving early voter turnout may be the combative presidential campaign between Republican Donald Trump and Democratic Hillary Clinton.
It is more likely that a lot of people just want to have this election done, and they decided to use the convenience of early voting. Certainly this is a record year for early voting.
J. Michael Bitzer, political science professor
“It is more likely that a lot of people just want to have this election done, and they decided to use the convenience of early voting,” Bitzer said. “Certainly this is a record year for early voting.”
Gerry Cohen, a political analyst, lobbyist and former bill drafting director at the state legislature, said many of the unaffiliated are first-time voters and according to polls younger voters are more liberal, but the statewide unaffiliated surge offers no pat answers.
“That’s the hidden kicker in the whole election,” Cohen said.
In seven of the state’s counties, the highest category of registered voters is unaffiliated, ahead of Democratic or Republican. Statewide, the unaffiliated are the third-largest voting bloc, with 2.06 million registered, just behind the 2.08 million registered Republicans.
In early voting this year, 808,422 unaffiliated voters accounted for 26.1 percent of all early ballots cast, compared with 20.8 percent cast in 2012 by 576,273 unaffiliated voters, state data show. As of Saturday, unaffiliated votes led Democratic and Republican votes in two western counties: Watauga and Transylvania. The unaffiliated also carried Watauga County, home to Appalachian State University, in 2012, but the unaffiliated came in third in Transylvania County four years ago.
As of Saturday, the unaffiliated contingent had also posted a strong showing in the Triangle, representing the second-highest early voting category in some counties. Wake County posted a record number of early voter turnout, where unaffiliated voters accounted for 31.4 percent of early ballots cast, above the statewide average. Additionally, unaffiliated voters represented 32.1 percent of early votes cast in Chatham County and 35 percent cast in Orange County.