Despite having fewer days to cast their ballot, turnout among early voters in Mecklenburg County jumped 39 percent this week compared with the midterm election four years ago.
More than 91,600 residents voted early, said Michael Dickerson, director of the county’s Board of Elections. And as of last Tuesday, an additional 5,000 cast absentee mail-in ballots.
Statewide, more than 1 million people have already cast a ballot, surging past the 2010 mark of about 900,000 early votes.
“I think we’re seeing that early voting is indicative of both a competitive (U.S. Senate) race and probably a focus on the ground game,” said Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College. “It does seem to me that both parties and both campaigns took into account the change of the rules and have reacted accordingly.”
Last year, the Republican-led General Assembly shortened the early voting period from 17 to 10 days but required that polls stay open the same number of hours as they did four years ago.
Meanwhile, experts say turnout was largely driven by the country’s most expensive U.S. Senate race. Incumbent Democrat Sen. Kay Hagan and Republican state House Speaker Thom Tillis are expected to spend more than $100 million on a race that polls show is statistically even.
Bitzer said he expects turnout to pass the 2010 midterm election, when 44 percent of registered North Carolinians went to the polls.
The state is home to 6.6 million registered voters, up from 6.2 million four years ago.
Mecklenburg has some 683,000 registered voters, compared with 603,000 in 2010. More than 13 percent of the county’s voters went to the polls early this year, data show.
Dreary Saturday at the polls
Voting in Mecklenburg increased steadily last week from about 10,500 on Monday to about 13,300 on Friday.
About 7,700 voted on a cold and wet Saturday, the last day to cast a ballot before Tuesday’s election.
Marc Friedland, chairman of the Mecklenburg Democratic Party, said he was initially worried that the dreary conditions would prevent people from voting early, a period typically popular among North Carolina Democrats.
“But as soon as the polls opened, I got reports of very long lines,” Friedland said. “Apparently, the weather didn’t stop people from coming out.”
Ann Conway of Cornelius was one of those in line. She cast a ballot at Cornelius Town Hall.
“I love early voting, absolutely,” she said. “I believe in the system and want to see the right people in office.”
Craig Miller of Davidson said he travels a lot in his sales job, and early voting “makes it convenient for me. I’m always on the road.”
Although the rain, wind and chilly temperatures might have made staying at home an option on Saturday, Miller said “it’s our obligation to vote. We wanted to show we did our part. This couldn’t be more convenient.”
Through Friday, registered Democrats made up 49 percent of North Carolinians who voted early. Registered Republicans made up 31 percent, said Bitzer, adding that Republicans usually see strong numbers on Election Day.
“For us, it’s not winning early voters,” said Will Allison, spokesman for the North Carolina Republican Party. “It’s keeping the margin as close as possible.”
But questions remain.
Are early voters new voters or the same people who would have gone to the polls on Election Day? What party will unaffiliated voters side with? Who will win the votes of rural Democrats – historically a moderate group?
“Certainly, Democrats have responded well,” Bitzer said. “The question is what type of Democrats. We really don’t know that right now.”
Staff writer Joe DePriest contributed.