North Carolinians are turning in their ballots at about the same pace as during the 2014 midterm elections.
By the end of the first week of early voting, elections officials had accepted 716,463 ballots — about 10 percent of registered voters. That includes ballots cast in person at an early-voting site and those sent in by mail.
The number is slightly lower than at the close of the first week of early voting in 2014, when 735,205 ballots had been accepted.
There are a couple of important differences between the midterm elections in 2014 and 2018. This year is a “blue moon” election, which means there are no major statewide races to draw voters out to the polls. In 2014, there was a U.S. Senate race. But this year, voters will consider six constitutional amendments, which some pundits predicted would boost turnout.
Another difference is that there were significantly fewer days of early voting in 2014. Because of that, the final early voting totals are likely to be much higher this year than in 2014.
People who closely watch North Carolina’s voting patterns say they expect a final turnout figure that beats the last blue moon election, in 2006. That year, 36.5 percent of registered voters cast ballots.
“We’re already a third of the way there,” said Jonathan Kappler, executive director of the North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation. “Given the robust voter turnout so far, I wouldn’t be surprised if we surpass the 42 percent” turnout typical of North Carolina’s recent midterm elections.
Unaffiliated voters stand out
The party that controls the White House is generally expected to lose legislative seats during a midterm election, and this year there have been many predictions of a backlash to President Donald Trump. But a News & Observer analysis of data from the North Carolina elections board found no clear evidence of a blue wave.
Ballots cast by registered Democrats make up 43 percent of the total so far this year, the data show. In 2014, the Democratic share was 48 percent.
The share of ballots cast by Republicans so far in 2018 is about the same as in 2014 — roughly 30 percent.
It’s unaffiliated voters who stand out. They have turned in 26 percent of the accepted ballots in the first week of early voting. In 2014, that figure was 20 percent.
In 2014, Thom Tillis narrowly defeated incumbent Kay Hagan to win a U.S. Senate seat, and Republicans maintained their veto-proof majorities in the legislature.
About 1 in 10 voters who have registered as a Democrat or as a Republican has voted so far in this election. The ratio is slightly lower for unaffiliated voters, whose numbers have grown significantly since 2014. More North Carolinians are now registered as unaffiliated than as Republican.
No group of voters appears exceptionally motivated to vote in this election. The share that has voted so far this year for each major political party affiliation roughly matches the pattern in the last midterm election.
Participation among registered African-American voters, however, is down this year. Elections officials have so far accepted ballots from just more than 9 percent of black registered voters. That compares to 12 percent in 2014.
High for a ‘blue moon’ election
It’s difficult to compare voting patterns to North Carolina’s last blue moon election, in 2006, because early voting was not as well established then. A week in, 105,200 people had voted — just 2 percent of registered voters. Of the ballots turned in, 49 percent came from Democrats, 37 percent from Republicans and 14 percent from unaffiliated voters.
Elections officials have gathered up far fewer votes in the first week of early voting this year compared to 2016, the last presidential election. A week into early voting that year, officials had accepted 972,625 ballots.
Kappler attributes this year’s voter turnout — elevated for a blue moon election — to two main factors: a generally charged political environment and outside groups working on voter outreach.
“President Trump is casting a long shadow across the country and down the ballot in North Carolina,” Kappler said.
“In addition to what candidates do and what parties do, outside groups are getting more involved. More entities are out there working to engage infrequent or low-propensity voters.”
Those factors could also influence whether voters choose to cast a ballot early instead of on Election Day. Kappler thinks a larger share will choose to vote early this year than in past midterm elections.