Local News

Polls Close; NC Election Officials Worry About Low Voter Turnout

Posted September 10, 2002 8:09 a.m. EDT

— Voters along the coast braved a tropical storm while those in Robeson County dealt with faulty ballot machines as North Carolina's long-delayed primary finally took place Tuesday.

Election officials worried that postponing the primary from its original May 7 date would mean light turnout at the polls, and they noted low participation in early and absentee voting.

But they said Tuesday afternoon that voters in the Outer Banks were largely undeterred.

Two polling places on Cape Hatteras were forced to close about an hour early due to flooding. Melva Garrison, director of the Dare County Board of Elections, said the stations in Hatteras Village and Frisco closed at about 6:15 as rain from Tropical Storm Gustav collected around the buildings.

She said election officials were trying to make arrangements to have those ballots counted elsewhere and included in vote totals reported Tuesday night.

Johnnie McLean, deputy director of the state Board of Elections, said election officials on Ocracoke Island stacked sand bags around the building where the polling place had been set up and kept on going.

"I heard from the people in Ocracoke. The water is rising, but the people are coming right in anyway," McLean said. "Those folks out there are pretty hardy and elections people are pretty hardy too. They are going to do what they need to do to get the job done."

McLean said some candidates and residents had called state election officials Monday to discuss possibly delaying the election because of the storm.

Local election officials wanted to move ahead, she said.

More substantial problems were taking place in Robeson County, where ballot tabulating machines were not working when polls opened Tuesday.

Machines at 10 of the 41 precincts were working by midmorning, but ballots were being stored and would have to be hand counted in the remaining 31, McLean said.

Campaign officials for Democratic Senate candidate Dan Blue were especially upset by the problems.

"For obvious reasons, this is a great concern to us," said Blue spokesman Cecil Cahoon. "This is the largest minority county in the state. This is Dan Blue's home county."

The primary was delayed because of a court challenge to redrawn state legislative districts.

"Unfortunately, it seems that even though we have had this surge of patriotism, it has not translated into a surge of voter participation," state Elections Director Gary Bartlett said.

Voters appeared to be confused because of the redistricting, particularly in the U.S. Congressional races, said Jane Marshall, who worked the election station at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Winston-Salem. Some people weren't sure who to vote for in their new districts, she said.

Still, turnout appeared to be on track with previous primary and general elections, she said.

Johnston and Wake counties saw lower turnout in the morning.

Eighty-three people had cast ballots by 8:15 a.m. at Farmington Woods Elementary School in Cary.

Robert and Ruby Powell said they chose Elizabeth Dole in the Republican primary because of her experience.

"I felt she was more qualified and more conservative," Robert Powell said. "I think she can get more done."

Lisa Bright, 48, of Cary said she also chose Dole after a careful examination of issues including abortion. Bright said she liked Dole's anti-abortion stance.

"I do see eye-to-eye with her on the issues," said Bright, a homemaker.

Dole's chances to win in November also played a strong role in her vote. "If you're voting for someone who doesn't have a good chance of winning ... it's almost a thrown-away vote," Bright said.

North Carolina's primary turnout in non-presidential years traditionally has been around 20 percent of registered voters. Just before to the primary, almost 5 million people were registered to vote in races ranging from sheriff to state legislator to U.S. House and Senate.

The major race in the state is for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by longtime Senator Jesse Helms.

Helms will retire in January. Elizabeth Dole is the front-runner for the Republican nomination, while Erskine Bowles, Dan Blue and Elaine Marshall are considered the Democratic front-runners.

Voters also chose who will run to represent the state's new 13th district in November.

The general election is November 5.