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Heated local races help boost turnout in North Carolina

May 7, 2018

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Roughly 1 out of every 25 registered voters in North Carolina have cast ballots before Tuesday’s primary elections, which lack statewide races but include heated local contests that appear to be boosting turnout.

With no races for governor or U.S. Senate on this year’s ballot — a so-called blue-moon election that occurs every 12 years — 2018 elections were expected to be lower-turnout affairs. An additional challenge to attracting voter interest was that the legislature canceled this year’s primaries for local trial and state appeals court races. Turnout was 12 percent in 2006, the only other “blue moon” election North Carolina has held since early in-person voting for primaries first began in the early 2000s.

And yet, early turnout this year is already 4.2 percent — almost identical to the early turnout in 2014, when a competitive GOP U.S. Senate primary was happening. Primary turnout reached nearly 16 percent that year.

About 293,000 of the state’s 6.9 million registrants either voted at early-voting sites across the state before they closed Saturday or have turned in mail-in absentee ballots, according to state elections board data. Traditional absentee ballots were expected to continue arriving this week.

Voters will cast ballots at 2,700 precincts statewide on Tuesday.

Legislative and regional primary elections are spurring more interest this year because they are more competitive than usual, a reflection of a political environment in which Democrats are energized by their opposition to President Donald Trump. State Democrats, backed by Gov. Roy Cooper, have candidates for all 170 General Assembly seats this fall, and are hoping to end the GOP’s veto-proof majorities. Republicans have responded with candidates in nearly every district too.

Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College political science professor who analyzes early voting data, said he anticipates overall primary turnout will reach around 15 percent, or about 1 million voters.

This year’s political vigor has resulted in 75 legislative primary elections and 18 congressional primaries Tuesday. Nearly three dozen Democratic or Republican legislative incumbents are being challenged within their party Tuesday. And eight of the 13 members of the congressional delegation have primaries. Only two congressional incumbents did in 2006.

State elections executive director Kim Strach said Monday that competitive races for sheriff also are boosting voter interest: “There are some counties that are seeing really good turnout.”

Democrats have disproportionately voted early compared to their overall registration: 47 percent of early voters were Democrats compared to comprising 38 percent of total registration. Unaffiliated voters — who can choose to vote in either the Democratic or GOP primaries — and Republicans are voting slightly less than their registration proportions.

Bitzer said the fact that nearly 60 percent of early primary ballots cast were for the Democratic primary “shows that there is enthusiasm at the grassroots level among Democrats.” But he said Republican ballots have comprised two-thirds of those cast in the 10th Congressional District, where GOP Rep. Patrick McHenry faces five primary challengers.

Two Republican congressional incumbents — Rep. Robert Pittenger of Charlotte in the 9th District and Rep. Walter Jones of Farmville in the 3rd District — have faced well-funded rivals.

But Bitzer said twice as many Democratic ballots than Republican ballots have been cast in the 9th District, where there is also a Democratic congressional primary featuring Dan McCready and Christian Cano.

Some primary voters Tuesday also will choose nominees for district attorney and scores of county officials. A handful of Libertarian primaries also are being held.

The primaries mark the first under a new law lowering the threshold for a leading candidate to avoid a runoff with the second-place finisher. The leading candidate now must receive more than 30 percent of the vote, down from 40 percent. Runoffs would be held this summer.

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