Raleigh, N.C. — After all the polls, speeches, debates and more campaign ads than anyone cares to count, Election Day is finally here. Even before the polling stations opened on Tuesday morning, 41.2 percent of the state's 6.65 million registered voters had already cast their ballots.
As millions more head to the voting booths and the ballots get counted, many of the story lines we've been watching will come to a close. But each has the potential to create what we in the news business call "a next day story," something we'll be reporting on in the days, weeks and maybe even months to come.
Here are the 10 items at the top of our list to watch Tuesday and beyond.
Controversy heightened by a tight election
Elections officials often joke that their bedtime prayer is something along the lines of, "Dear Lord, whoever wins, let them win big." Closely contested races mean incidents that affect small numbers of voters become hugely important.
North Carolina is no stranger to voting controversy. For example, in 2004, a malfunctioning voting machine in Carteret County lost hundreds of votes and delayed a final result in the Commissioner of Agriculture race until well into the new year.
Throughout the early voting period, we've been getting reports of various sorts of scams, misbehavior, voting problems and other issues that have folks worried about the integrity of the vote. Between jokes that get out of hand, voting machines with quirks, suggestions of unqualified voters and problems with redistricting, voters are on edge.
With millions heading to the poll all in one day, chances are good we'll be fielding more calls about mistakes and chicanery.
In the wake of Election Day, many of these episodes will quickly fall out of the spotlight. But if the election is close, some problems could swing the outcome of ballots for Congress, state legislature or even which presidential candidate gets our state's electoral votes.
What to watch for: If voting problems are widespread or significant enough, we may not know who has won some key races until the week after Election Day – or beyond. Also, will voters trust the outcome of a close election after so many charges and allegations have been traded?
Does NC revert to red?
As the race for electoral votes plays out on the national stage, North Carolina voters will be looking to see whether the Tar Heel State will stay blue or revert to red. President Barack Obama won North Carolina by only 14,177 votes in 2008, and a preponderance of polling indicates whoever wins here in 2012 could be looking at a similarly slim margin.
Our first hint of who is pulling ahead may come from bellwether counties like Wake and Forsyth, where Obama was able to win majorities in 2008 despite his Democratic predecessors struggling there.
What to watch for: Will Ohio, or even North Carolina, provide the scene for a recount like we saw in Florida in 2000? And if there is a clear victor, what will their administration mean for the state?
Does spending pay off in Supreme Court outcome?
The race between Paul Newby, the Republican incumbent, and Sam Ervin IV for an eight-year term on the state Supreme Court is supposed to be nonpartisan. But millions of dollars have flowed to committees supporting Newby in the final weeks of the election.
At a tactical level, this race comes down to a question of whether Ervin, who bears the name of a legendary U.S. senator – his late grandfather – can ride his name to victory or whether television ads by outside groups – including the so-called "banjo ad" – will sway the race.
What to watch for: If Newby wins, will big spending by Republicans and corporations call his impartiality into question? If Ervin wins, will a shift in the partisan makeup of the state Supreme Court change how the justices rule in key decisions?
Does governor's race play out as predicted?
Polls have been telling us for months that Republican Pat McCrory, a former Charlotte mayor, has a big lead on Democrat Walter Dalton, the current lieutenant governor. If Dalton pulls out a victory, there will be some serious questions for pollsters.
For Dalton, the biggest question may be whether he can keep it close enough to mount a political comeback in 2016.
Meanwhile, McCrory may be looking for a big mandate from the electorate and hoping that he has coattails. For example, McCrory has lent his name to efforts on behalf of Newby.
Does new lieutenant governor remain in the shadows?
While Dalton has trailed throughout the election, Democrat Linda Coleman has kept things close against Republican Dan Forest in the race for lieutenant governor. Some Democratic consultants say Coleman could shorten McCrory's coattails and blunt a Republican rout on the ballot.
The race presents a clear difference between Forest, who has run on his social and fiscal conservative credentials, and Coleman, a long-time government worker who has been critical of the Republican-controlled legislature.
What to watch for: Will either candidate be able to pursue his or her own agenda as lieutenant governor, or will the winner be overshadowed by a newly elected governor and a state Senate with its own plans?
Does scandal undo Debra Goldman?
Despite a high-profile scandal involving allegations of an affair and home robbery by fellow member of the Wake County school board member, polling shows Debra Goldman remained within striking distance of unseating Democrat Beth Wood as state auditor.
What to watch for: Regardless of whether she wins or loses, how will Goldman's troubles play out in her public life as a school board member or the state's newest auditor?
McCrory's coattails could yield change in Council of State
The Council of State is made up of the 10 officials elected by all voters in North Carolina. Some, like the governor, are relatively well known. Others, such as the insurance commissioner, treasurer or labor commissioner are not as high profile. Their fates are often tied to who is winning at the top of the ticket.
Some Democratic incumbents, such as Treasurer Janet Cowell, may find themselves in trouble against unknown and under-funded challengers if Republicans get on a roll.
What to watch for: Could wins by relative unknowns lead to big changes in state policy?
Lawmakers look to surpass veto threshold
The GOP will be aided by new legislative districts designed to give Republican candidates an edge. Democrats are hoping that get-out-the-vote efforts in urban and suburban counties by the Obama campaign will allow them to begin to roll back GOP gains.
What to watch for: If it's a good night for Republicans, will they have the 72 votes they need in the House and the more than 30 votes they need in the Senate to override gubernatorial vetoes and propose constitutional amendments at will?
GOP looks to control congressional delegation
The race in the 7th Congressional District has been one of the most closely watched, and contentious, in the nation. Incumbent Mike McIntyre, a Democrat, is trying to hold off Republican challenger David Rouzer. Both have accused the other of distorting their records, and plenty of money has been spent in the race by national Republican and Democratic groups.
The winner in the 7th District will be part of a statewide effort by Republicans to expand their majority in the U.S. House.
What to watch for: Currently, Republicans hold only six of the state's 13 congressional seats. After the smoke clears on election night, the GOP could hold as many as nine or 10 of those 13 seats.
You never know what the future holds
There are dozens of school board races, county commissioner seats and other contests up for grabs across the Triangle. Any one of them could produce the surprise outcome that we'll be following into next year and beyond.