Raleigh, N.C. — Early voting in North Carolina got off to a fast start Thursday, surpassing first-day vote counts from 2008, as candidates and campaigns continued to encourage voters to hit the polls before Election Day.
Throngs of people swamped one-stop voting locations statewide and waited for up to an hour to cast ballots. In Wake County, votes outpaced 2008 numbers by nearly one and a half times.
"For a very first day of early voting, I do think we've had a much better turnout than in 2008," said Cherie Poucher, elections director for Wake County.
In 2008, 7,917 ballots were cast on the first day of early voting at five one-stop voting sites across Wake County, Poucher said. On Thursday, with three additional early voting sites, Wake County received 11,245 ballots – a 42 percent increase.
All eight early-voting sites open in Wake County on Thursday saw heavy traffic, Poucher said. Eight more will open next week, and she said she doesn't expect much of a slowdown.
"All of the campaigns have been touting vote early, vote early," she said. "I think it's going to carry through."
Final statewide numbers for Thursday's turnout won't be available until Friday morning, but ballots surpassed the 2008 first-day count of 117,372, said state Board of Elections Director Gary Bartlett.
Lines snaked out the Chavis Park Community Center in southeast Raleigh even before early voting began at 11 a.m., and traffic was backed up onto Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard as people coming to the community center waited for parking spots to open up.
"I don't want to be in the back of the line on the last day," voter Vivian Lee said.
"I wanted to make sure to get my vote in so it counts," voter Marian Best said.
More than 350 one-stop voting sites opened across North Carolina on Thursday, and scores more will open next week to give people opportunities to cast ballots before Election Day.
"I was excited about the election and kind of wanted to get it out of the way," voter Matt Lee said, noting that there wasn't much of a line when he voted early four years ago. "It tells me that there's a lot of interest in this election."
More than 2.4 million people cast in-person early votes in 2008 in North Carolina, which accounted for 55 percent of all ballots cast in the general election.
At the time, Democrats had the advantage among early voters, said David McClennan, a political science professor at William Peace University. This time around, both parties have been pushing early voting to build momentum for their candidates in the final weeks of the campaign.
"Early voting is driven by enthusiasm," he said. "Historically, it benefits Democrats. Democrats do a better job of getting same-day registration voters and getting early voters out."
This year, however, McClennan predicts that about two-thirds of voters will cast ballots during the early voting period, and that a near equal share of them will be Republicans.
"Republicans are not going to get steam-rolled like they did in 2008," he said. "Republicans learned from that. They are not going to let it happen again."
First lady Michelle Obama called on students to vote early during a Tuesday visit to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and leaders of both parties stopped in the state Thursday.
"From here on out, every day in North Carolina is election day – every day," Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, said in a rally on the North Carolina State University campus.
Four hours after she left, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus was at N.C. State to encourage students and others to vote early for GOP candidates.
"Democrats dominated early voting in 2008 ... (and) they barely beat us in 2008," Priebus said. "I don't think the Democrats have the enthusiasm they did four years ago. We do."
Republicans already have captured the early lead in mail-in absentee voting. So far, 67,350 ballots have been mailed back to county elections offices statewide – slightly more than a third of the number of absentee ballots that have been requested – and more than half of them are from registered Republicans. Only a quarter are from registered Democrats, with independents and Libertarians accounting for the rest.
"We need everyone behind us so we can turn this country around," 2nd District Congresswoman Renee Ellmers said at the N.C. State rally.
"Republicans will say they've caught on. They're talking a good game, and I'm sure they'll have some folks out at the polls too," 4th District Congressman David Price said. "Nobody can be complacent, but I do feel like our side has the edge on early voting."
Wake County election officials said voting will likely take longer than it did four years ago because of the profusion of ballots. There were 47 ballot styles in the county in 2008, but redistricting that split precincts and a number of local bond issues and other referendums have more than doubled that to 102 this November.
"I didn't expect too many people to be here on the first day, but I think this is a pretty important election to everybody, trying to make their voice heard," voter George Pinther said.
McClennan said he expected the race to be very close and competitive through the early voting period and the general election.
Voter Marjorie McWilliams said she saw no reason to wait before casting her ballot.
"Anyone who has not made up their mind yet has not been paying attention," she said.
"I hope the energy will carry on all the way up to November," voter Priscilla Johnson said. "I'm just here to do my part."