State News

2.6 million ballots cast early in North Carolina

More than 2.6 million people – or about 42 percent of registered voters – have already cast a ballot in North Carolina, with turnout heavy among blacks and registered Democrats in a trend that could favor Barack Obama.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — More than 2.6 million people – or about 42 percent of registered voters – have already cast a ballot in North Carolina, with turnout heavy among blacks and registered Democrats in a trend that could favor Barack Obama.

Obama, who plans to visit Charlotte on Monday, has focused much of his attention on getting voters to the polls before Election Day in this surprise swing state. So far, his efforts appear successful: State Board of Elections data shows that 52 percent of people who have voted are enrolled as Democrats, while 30 percent are enrolled as Republicans.

By comparison, about 46 percent of all registered voters in the state are declared Democrats, while 32 percent are listed with the GOP. In 2004, the gap in early voting between parties was only 12 percentage points in favor of Democrats, compared with the 22-point split this year.

State Board of Elections director Gary Bartlett said such a strong turnout in early voting has eased concerns of an overwhelming Election Day. The state had initially anticipated as many as 3 million people would vote on Tuesday, an estimate now scaled back to about 2 million because of the surge of early voters.

"We've got a little breathing room," Bartlett said. "But certainly I've stopped trying to pick. We're part of history, and I guess we'll see what Election Day brings."

About 2.4 million voters cast a ballot on Election Day in 2004.

Bartlett's estimate of about 4.6 million total voters would mark a turnout of 74 percent of those registered. Four years ago, 64 percent went to the polls.

"By historical standards, you would figure it would be around the standard 65 percent at the most," said Hunter Bacot, the polling director at Elon University. "To see it tipping toward three-quarters is remarkable."

The record turnout in North Carolina is 69 percent, which occurred in 1984.

The numbers, which include both one-stop and absentee balloting, are not necessarily a harbinger of easy victory for Obama and his fellow Democrats. An Associated Press-GfK poll released last week showed that 14 percent of Democrats in the state planned to back Republican presidential candidate John McCain, while only 4 percent of enrolled Republicans planned to back Obama.

The early voting volume far outpaced the numbers from four years ago, when 1.1 million people cast a ballot before Election Day. Some one-stop sites this year have been plagued by hours-long lines, which led the State Board of Elections to urge counties to keep polling places open an extra four hours on Saturday, the last day of early voting.

Black voters – likely galvanized by the candidacy of Obama, the first black major-party nominee for president – have been surging to the polls. They comprise 26 percent of voters so far, even though blacks are 21 percent of the population. Blacks made up 17 percent of the early voting population in 2004.

Brent Woodcox, a spokesman for the state Republican Party, downplayed the numbers and said the GOP strategy for the state was to target infrequent voters – those who have only cast ballots once or twice in the past four elections – and get them to the polls in the early period.

"We're counting on our core supporters to come out on Election Day," Woodcox said. "Obama has banked a pretty large portion of votes, but I think they've turned out mostly their hard-core supporters and people that were going to show up on Election Day anyway."

The two major-party candidates for U.S. Senate both spent Sunday afternoon campaigning after morning church services. Democratic challenger Kay Hagan greeted voters in Fayetteville, Wilson and Greenville. Republican incumbent Elizabeth Dole spent her day in High Point, joining campaign volunteers as they went door-to-door talking with residents.

Hagan said she had expected this year to be a historic election, but didn't anticipate turnout to be as strong as it has been.

"You can feel the energy," she said Sunday between campaign stops. "These people, they want new ideas. There's truly a renewed passion for change in Washington."

In the governor's race, Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, the Republican nominee, had no public events Sunday. Democratic Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue visited the predominantly black Union Baptist Church in Durham.

On Monday, McCrory planned three rallies, including Charlotte, while Perdue scheduled five stops from her hometown of New Bern to Asheville.

Libertarian Party nominee Mike Munger has to teach classes at Duke University on Monday. He spent the weekend visiting voters along U.S. Highway 64, traveling more than 670 miles as he started Friday in Murphy and wrapped up Sunday evening in Dare County.

Munger said the people he talked to, especially in less-affluent towns in the mountains and eastern North Carolina, remain pessimistic about their future no matter who gets elected. "They're skeptical that change is going to help them," Munger said.

Munger is aiming to get more than 2 percent of the vote so that his party can remain on the ballot through 2012. An Associated Press-GfK poll released last week showed Munger with the support of 4 percent of those surveyed.

"I'm more confident than I was two weeks ago," he said.