Early voting turnout rising in North Carolina, Mecklenburg

Early voting numbers are outpacing previous midterm elections, as both parties look to boost turnout amid a shortened period to cast ballots.

Last year, the General Assembly shortened the early voting period from 17 days to 10 days but required that polls stay open same number of hours as they did four years ago. So far, that hasn’t affected turnout, data show.

As of Tuesday morning – five days into the early voting session – about 37,000 Mecklenburg County residents had voted.

That’s about 5,000 more ballots than were cast during the same period in the 2010 midterm elections.

Statewide, some 428,000 residents voted early as of Tuesday morning. That mark wasn’t reached until 11 days of early voting four years ago. Early voting ends Saturday.

Experts say turnout is largely being driven by the country’s most expensive U.S. Senate race. Incumbent Democrat Sen. Kay Hagan and Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis are expected to spend more than $100 million on a race that polls show is statistically even. In 2010, the race at the top of the ballot was a relatively quiet re-election bid for incumbent Sen. Richard Burr.

Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College who is following turnout closely, said he would not be surprised if this year’s final turnout for all voting tops the 2010 mark, which saw 44 percent of registered voters go to the polls.

“We all wondered what a cut of seven days (of early voting) would do, and I think – at least on the Democrat and unaffiliated sides – they have responded without any problems,” Bitzer said. “It looks like Democrats are acting as if this is a presidential year, and Republicans are acting like it’s a midterm year.”

Turnout has already topped 6 percent in dozens of precincts around Huntersville, Davidson and south Charlotte, locations that tend to favor Republicans.

The same is true for several precincts just north and west of uptown, areas that usually vote for Democrats, the Observer found.

Democrat vs. Republican

Democrats, who tend to take advantage of early voting in North Carolina, are turning out again, data show.

About half of North Carolina voters who have cast a ballot so far are registered Democrats, though it’s unknown whether they’re voting with the party.

According to Raleigh-based, Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling, 81 percent of Democrats are likely to vote for Hagan. About the same percentage of Republicans are likely to vote for Tillis, the poll found.

In Mecklenburg, registered Democrats far outnumber registered Republicans. They also have outpaced them at the polls by a more than 2-to-1 rate: 20,100 to 9,200. About 7,500 unaffiliated voters have cast a ballot.

But in other local counties, such as Gaston, Catawba and Union, registered Republicans have outnumbered Democrats at the polls.

“Both sides have learned to adjust this year, and I think they’re operating well under these new rules,” Bitzer said. “We’ve basically got two polarized sides that are locked into supporting their particular candidate, and there are very few undecided.”

Moving ‘reliable voters’

Democrats make up 88 percent of registered voters in Mecklenburg’s Precinct 16, located north of uptown near the intersection of Interstate 85 and Interstate 77.

As of Tuesday morning, Precinct 16 had Mecklenburg’s strongest turnout. Nearly 11 percent of voters there have already cast a ballot, compared with a county average of 5 percent, data show.

Daisy McCoy, 72, was one of the early voters.

“I’m very pleased what’s happening here,” said McCoy, a registered Democrat. “I hope the other precincts will get out there and do what they have to do.”

Urban areas around uptown have had some of the strongest turnout so far. Turnout in neighborhoods along West Boulevard have topped 8 percent, for example.

But south Charlotte precincts have reached high marks, too, said Michael Dickerson, director of the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections. They usually favor Republicans.

Nearly 10 percent of voters in Precinct 131, near Pineville-Matthews and Rea roads, had voted as of Tuesday morning, the Observer found. Several nearby precincts saw turnout top 7 percent.

Bitzer said that showed the Republican “ground game” in full swing.

“That’s your base election,” he said. “Because North Carolina has settled into two respective camps, what the campaigns have to do is go after their reliable voters.

“For Democrats, it’s urban. It’s African-American. It’s women. For Republicans, it can be rural. It can be suburban. It can be affluent.”

Related stories from Charlotte Observer