Politics & Government

Could elections be won or lost in the early vote?

Early voting begins in North Carolina

Early voting started at 8 a.m. in Mecklenburg County.
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Early voting started at 8 a.m. in Mecklenburg County.

Political campaigns began an all-out push for North Carolina’s early voters Thursday, kicking off a 17-day sprint that could decide who wins the state on Nov. 8.

Early voting has become a key part of campaign strategies, with more than six in 10 N.C. voters expected to cast ballots by Election Day.

“You’re talking almost two-thirds of the ballots cast, and if a candidate can run those numbers up and bank those votes, they could certainly swing the election in their favor,” said political scientist Michael Bitzer of Catawba College.

Amplifying all that is North Carolina’s importance as a battleground, with tight races for president, U.S. Senate and governor. Not surprisingly, both campaigns are pulling out their big guns.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump holds a rally near Asheville on Friday. Democrat Hillary Clinton is scheduled to be in the state Sunday. Her running mate, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, will campaign in Charlotte and Durham on Thursday. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, the Republican vice presidential nominee, was in the state on Tuesday.

In the last two presidential elections, Democrats won the early vote while Republicans won Election Day balloting in North Carolina. Taking nearly 56 percent of the early and absentee vote in 2008 helped Democrat Barack Obama to a 14,177-vote victory in the state.

Four years later, he won 53.6 percent of the early vote in losing the state to Republican Mitt Romney by 92,000 votes.

“I think the Democrats have the upper hand at it,” said former Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt. “The early vote will be one of the things that helps Democrats carry North Carolina.”

N.C. Republican Chairman Robin Hayes won’t concede that Democrats have an advantage in early voting.

“I wouldn’t say they’re better at it,” he said. “They have a way of picking up people, assembling them (and) instructing them in very clear terms, ‘You need to vote and this is the way you need to vote’….

“You don’t counter it. You just make sure people understand the critical nature of this election.”

Race for absentees

Early voting was extended to 17 days from 10 this year when a federal court overthrew a Republican-written law that would have reduced the early voting window even while preserving the same number of hours as in 2012. The law also would have required voters to show a picture ID.

As of Wednesday, 170,000 voters had requested mail-in absentee ballots, according to an analysis of data by Bitzer. As usual, more Republicans than Democrats have requested absentee ballots. But Bitzer found that Republicans were under-performing against their 2012 levels while Democrats and unaffiliated voters were over-performing.

Democrats take that as a good sign.

“We are already seeing some turnout in the vote by mail requests, we expect to see very high turnout in early vote,” Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook told reporters this week. “And we are working very hard to remind our supporters to turn out (in) very hotly contested gubernatorial and Senate races.”

Mook said the campaign is making “dramatic advancements” in seven battlegrounds including North Carolina, adding over $6 million in mail and digital advertising designed to get out the vote.

Surrogate parade

Both sides are bringing in parades of surrogates.

Wednesday a group of nine military officers visited Charlotte and Greensboro on Clinton’s behalf before going to the Triangle and Fayetteville.

“We’ve got a message – we trust Hillary Clinton to be our next commander-in-chief,” said retired Rear Admiral Jamie Barnett.

On Thursday the Communications Workers of America and their allies will gather in Charlotte and start sending more than 2.4 million personalized text messages to voters on behalf of Democratic candidates.

Also Thursday, Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT group, will be encouraging early voters at Charlotte’s University City Library.

Republicans also will be out. Former Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison will campaign this weekend. And the state party has asked candidates to work early voting sites.

“It’s very important,” said N.C. GOP Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse. “We tell (supporters) that it’s helpful for the party to vote early.”

Charlottean Chris O’Shea, a real estate agent, has been part of a group waving Trump signs along Pineville-Matthews Road. He plans to go to early voting sites as a poll watcher.

“There’s a lot of people like myself who’ve never been involved in politics before,” he said, “but I’ve pretty much dived head first into this one. This is an election that’s obviously going to steer us in one direction or another.”

Staff writer Tim Funk contributed.

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill