More than 2 million North Carolina voters cast their ballots throughout the early voting period, which ended on Saturday night. The state’s all-but-final early-voting statistics — some of the data is still trickling in — reflect a heightened interest among voters compared to the last non-presidential election in 2014.
Now the question, with election day approaching on Tuesday, is: What it will mean come Wednesday morning?
“Who shows up Tuesday?” said Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College political scientist who has followed North Carolina politics and elections since 2002. “And do we in total hit 45 percent voter turnout? Or is it higher? .. Do we get another million votes, or is it more than that?
“I don’t think anybody has a clear sense of what the final outcome will be.”
Four years ago, according to the board of elections, 18 percent of North Carolina’s 6.6 million registered voters cast their ballots early. This year, 29 percent of voters in the state did so. Overall, 2,038,810 of North Carolina’s 7,067,260 registered voters cast their ballots early.
Such a turnout would not be surprising during a presidential election, or one in which there was an especially high-profile statewide race. But this election cycle, however, is representative of what’s known as a “blue moon” election — one without a governor’s race to decide, and also without one of the state’s two U.S. Senate seats at stake.
Political analysts and others who follow elections closely have been left to speculate about what has driven the increased early turnout.
Gerry Cohen, a Raleigh resident and former special counsel to the N.C. General Assembly, didn’t on Sunday discount the effect of what he described as “angry Democrats” — those who might have been inspired to vote early as a way of protesting President Donald Trump, and the Republican-led Congress.
During his time in the legislature Cohen led its bill drafting division, and these days he pays close attention to elections and voter turnout.
Cohen recalled similar backlashes among North Carolina’s Republican voters in the mid-term elections of 1994 and 2010, when Democratic presidents (Bill Clinton in 1994, and Barack Obama in 2010) were halfway through their first terms in office. This election cycle comes halfway through Trump’s first term, at a time in which national politics has become especially divisive.
“It’s like, there’s something going on with angry Democrats,” Cohen said. “It could be the flip-side of ‘94 and 2010.”
During the 2016 presidential election, more than 3.1 million North Carolina voters (46 percent of the state’s registered voters at the time) voted early. Though the early-voting turnout in this cycle doesn’t compare to that of the presidential election two years ago, the numbers are still considered unexpectedly high for a mid-term election that doesn’t include a high-profile statewide race.
According to the board of elections data, voters who identified themselves as either Democrats or Republicans comprised a smaller share of that overall early-voting turnout than they did four years ago. In 2014, voters who’d registered as Democrats accounted for 47.3 percent of that turnout, while registered Republicans accounted for 32.1 percent. This year, Democrats accounted for 42.5 percent of the early-voting turnout, while Republicans represented 30.3 percent.
The difference, according to the statistics, came in the rising number of unaffiliated voters. Four years ago, 20.4 percent of North Carolina’s early voters were unaffiliated to any political party. This year, unaffiliated voters represented 26.9 percent of those who cast their ballots early.
Within their own populations, Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters all saw a double-digit percentage increase in early voting compared to 2014. Twenty percent of the state’s registered Democrats voted early in 2014, compared to 32 percent in this cycle. The percentage of Republicans who voted early increased from 19 percent in 2014 to 29 percent this year. And 24 percent of unaffiliated voters voted early this year, compared to 13 percent in 2014.
Among the other notable results from North Carolina’s early voting:
▪ Younger voters accounted for more of the early-voting turnout than they did four years ago. In 2014, voters between the ages of 18-29 accounted for 5.9 percent of the turnout. This year, 9.1 percent of early voters were in that age range. Voters between the ages of 30 and 44 also increased their share of the turnout, by almost 3 percent, compared to four years ago.
▪ In the Triangle, Durham, Orange and Wake County all saw double-digit increases, by percentage, in early-voting turnout. So did Mecklenburg County, which is home to Charlotte.
▪ Durham County saw the largest increase in the state in early voting, compared to 2014. Four years ago, 16.7 percent of its voters voted early; this year 36.2 percent of its voters did so. The 19.5 percent increase was the highest in the state. Orange County saw a 16.4 percent increase in early voting (22.4 percent to 38.8 percent). That was the third-highest increase in the state. Wake County had the ninth-highest increase in the state (14.8 percent in 2014 to 28.9 percent this year; an increase of 14.1 percent).
▪ The increased turnout this year, compared to the last mid-term election, held true regardless of voters’ location. In 99 of North Carolina’s 100 counties, voters cast their ballots early at a higher rate than they did four years ago. Halifax County was the state’s only county where that didn’t happen, though its early-voting rate remained nearly identical (14.4 percent in 2014; 14.1 percent this year).
Bitzer, the political scientist, said it was impossible to draw conclusions about how the numbers might translate on election day. Though North Carolina doesn’t have a governor’s race, or one for the U.S. Senate, the make-up of the state’s entire legislature will be decided on Tuesday, as will North Carolina’s 13 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“If you look at the last blue moon (election), that was in 2006,” Bitzer said. “We had 36 percent voter turnout. We came close to matching that entire turnout in just early voting this year.”
Part of the high early-voting turnout, Bitzer said, is the result “of people having fairly firm beliefs about the president, either positively or negatively. Mid-terms are always referendums on the party in power. And I think we’re seeing that certainly play out.”
And yet Bitzer, who writes about North Carolina politics on the website oldnorthstatepolitics.com, was hesitant to suggest that the early-voting trends might lead to a so-called “blue wave” in North Carolina. The state’s general assembly has been under Republican control since the 2010 election.
In the years since, the legislature faced an outcry after creating voting districts — both Congressional districts for the U.S. House and districts that decide representation in state government— that favor Republicans. Federal judges earlier this year reaffirmed rulings that those districts were unconstitutional, but it was too late to redraw them in time for this election.
“If this is a democratic wave year, how big is the wave and can it crest over these gerrymandered districts?” Bitzer asked, repeating one of the key question in the state approaching election day. “I think we’ll have to wait until Tuesday evening to see how it plays out.”