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Voter Turnout For N.C. Primary Gets Off To Slow Start

Posted July 20, 2004

— Primaries typically have low voter turnouts. A presidential race can help boost the numbers, but without that, the lines at the polls Tuesday were not expected to be all that long.

At Southern High School in Durham, voters were trickling in for most of the day, but at one location in Cary, about 100 people had voted before noon. Polling supervisor Kent Miner said the turnout is disappointing.

"I wish people would be more excited about it and would feel more of a sense of supporting the community and civic obligation to come out and vote," Miner said.

That sentiment was carried by at least one voter.

"I know that I made up in my mind that I need to vote and I know that my vote will make a difference," said Twanna Warren.

The potential for a record-low turnout in the primary election had academics lamenting a lack of voter participation, but underdog candidates salivating at the prospect of upsets.

Some predicted that only 10 percent of North Carolina's 5.1 million registered voters will pick candidates from the Council of State to the Congress, courts and county commissioners.

North Carolina, which usually hold primaries in May, hasn't held one in July in recent history. This year's vote was delayed by a court fight over redistricting.

"It's not a primary. It's a poorly organized lottery," Duke University political scientist Mike Munger said Monday.

Even with expanded absentee voting and campaign placards dotting street corners statewide, most citizens are not expected to vote. Many are on vacation, juggling their children's summer schedules, or simply aren't paying attention.

That's why Munger, who said he would not be surprised by turnout under 10 percent, gives little weight to recent polls of likely primary voters, noting that they may actually be unlikely voters.

"They might be at Wrightsville Beach or in the mountains," he said. "This makes this race almost impossible to predict and impossible for candidates to campaign."

State Board of Elections executive director Gary Bartlett is hoping for 18 percent turnout, in line with previous primaries in presidential years, but he admits it may be wishful thinking. Turnout has fallen in recent elections as the percentage of unaffiliated voters rises in North Carolina.

During the primary, unaffiliated voters "usually sit out," Bartlett said. "That drives the turnout down."

According to Bartlett, preliminary figures on absentee voting have been running about even with the 2002 primary.

For the second consecutive election cycle, officials had to delay the May primary because of legal delays in approving new legislative district maps. In 2002, the primary was held Sept. 10.

This year, voters will choose general election candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and other down-ballot positions like judgeships and state legislators.

Six candidates are running for the GOP gubernatorial nomination. Democratic Gov. Mike Easley and Republican U.S. Senate candidate Richard Burr face token opposition. Democratic Senate hopeful Erskine Bowles is unopposed and isn't on the ballot.

The conventional wisdom is that a candidate with a smaller but active following gains the advantage during low-turnout elections because they can marshal activist voters to the polls better than the front-runner.

Munger said low-turnout races can create unusual results that come back to hurt parties in the general election.

"The oddball nominees have their moment, but then the party is ill-served" in November, he said. "We're not getting the best head-to-head matchup."

The Republican candidates for governor and Congress aren't much different on taxes and social issues, so voters haven't paid attention, said Jack Fleer, a Wake Forest University professor.

"It's an unusual time as far as a primary is concerned," Fleer said. "It's a time where the candidates haven't distinguished themselves."

Two Republicans are vying in each district to unseat Democrats Bob Etheridge and Brad Miller. The GOP's Howard Coble, Robin Hayes and Charles Taylor each will face one of two Democratic contenders. David Price, a Democrat, will have the voters' pick of four Republican challengers.

Republicans Billy Creech of Clayton and Robert Rogan of Raleigh hope to challenge Etheridge's bid for a fifth term in the Second District. Creech spent eight terms representing Johnston County in the state House. Rogan, a psychiatrist, ran unsuccessfully for city council in the fall and doesn't live in the district. By law he can run for the seat, but he can't vote for himself.

In the 13th District, Miller faces either tobacco lobbyist Graham Boyd or former congressional lawyer Virginia Johnson. Three House seats are up for grabs, the First, the Fifth and the Tenth.

In the Third, Seventh and Ninth districts, there's only one candidate running from each party.

In all the primaries except the nonpartisan judicial race, if the leading vote-getter doesn't receive more than 40 percent of the vote, the No. 2 finisher may request a two-person runoff, to be held Aug. 17.

Turnout is expected to be strongest in the Republican-friendly 5th Congressional District in the Piedmont and the 10th District in the foothills. In both districts, heated GOP congressional primaries will choose general election candidates who are expected to be heavy favorites to win in November.

Eight candidates are competing for the 5th District seat being vacated by Burr. Four people are seeking the 10th seat held by Cass Ballenger, who declined to seek a 10th term.

Among Democratic primaries, the most watched races are in the 1st Congressional District and for state agriculture commissioner.

Voters in 23 mostly rural eastern counties are choosing someone to fill the remainder of the term of former Rep. Frank Ballance, who resigned due to health reasons. Democrat G.K. Butterfield, Republican Greg Dority or Libertarian Tom Eisenmenger would serve in Congress through January.

In a separate vote, also being held Tuesday, parties will chose 1st District candidates for the November general election, which will decide the representative for the next two-year term. Dority and Butterfield are both running in those races as well, and each faces opposition.

The commissioner's race pits incumbent Britt Cobb of Raleigh against Guilford County nursery owner Tom Gilmore. Cobb replaced Meg Scott Phipps in the wake of the campaign finance scandal that led to her conviction and a federal prison sentence.

More than 40 of the 170 members of the General Assembly face primary opposition, including House Co-Speaker Richard Morgan, R-Moore and Senate Minority Leader Jim Forrester, R-Gaston.

The campaign between Morgan and challenger Peggy Crutchfield of Pinehurst highlights a feud within the Republican Party between allies of the co-speaker and those who pushed to have thrown off the state party's Executive Committee in May.

Forrester is running against Sen. R.B. Sloan, R-Iredell. The men were redrawn into the same Senate district in redistricting. Voters in six of North Carolina's congressional districts have primary fights of varying degrees to pick a challenger to incumbents with no primary opposition.


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