Turnout takes the spotlight in 2008

It was a banner election year for North Carolina. At press time, voter turnout hovered between 69 and 70 percent, awaiting full tabulation of provisional and absentee ballots. That amounts to more than 4.3 million of the state’s nearly 6.3 million registered voters, more than half of whom took advantage of early voting.

“Turnout overall was great,” said Bob Hall, executive director of the nonpartisan voter-advocacy group Democracy North Carolina. “Some of the national data suggests North Carolina’s [turnout] increased more than any other state,” he told Xpress, adding ruefully that the increase was a reflection of “how pitiful we were.”

Indeed, not since Reconstruction has such a high percentage of registered voters actually made it to the polls; the final tally is expected to surpass the 69 percent participation in 1984, when President Reagan won his second term and former Gov. Jim Hunt made a bid to unseat Sen. Jesse Helms.

In Buncombe County, a total of 124,216 ballots were cast, according to unofficial figures from the Board of Elections—a 17.2 percent increase over the last presidential-year turnout in 2004. Early voting accounted for 82,105 of the 2008 total.

“We are very pleased at the number of people we were able to serve with the early voting program, [which] contributed heavily to making Election Day run smoothly for voters,” Director of Elections Trena Parker said in an e-mail to Xpress, tipping her hat to the local facilities that served as early voting sites.

Meanwhile, aggressive action by both public-interest groups and election officials seems to have turned the tide this year on the state’s historically high undervote (the discrepancy between the total ballots cast and the number of votes for president). In 2004, North Carolina’s 1.5 percent undervote ranked among the highest in the nation (the national average that year was 1 percent). This time around, North Carolina whittled its average down to roughly 1.1 percent. Out of 4,321,001 total ballots cast, the presidential race received 4,272,702 votes: an undervote of 48,299. Obama’s margin of victory currently stands at 13,692.

The undervote problem is generally traced to the state’s unique ballot system, which separates the presidential vote from the straight-ticket vote. But public education plus clearer directions at the polling places seem to have helped keep the problem more in check. “It certainly does demonstrate the impact of voter education,” noted Hall, who says he’d like to see the problem eliminated altogether.

Western North Carolina’s high voter turnout was generally in line with the rest of the state. Most western counties saw between 60 and 70 percent of voters make it to the polls; Buncombe and Transylvania counties did even better, with 70.95 and 72.13 percent, respectively.

Buncombe voters also followed the rest of the state in their preferences in most of the other races: president (Barack Obama, Buncombe County 56.33 percent/N.C. 49.7); U.S. senator (Kay Hagan, 57.83/52.67); governor (Bev Perdue, 57.25/50.23).

In the Council of State races, the results were mixed, with Ronnie Ansley (54.15/47.95) getting the nod for commissioner of agriculture in Buncombe but losing to Steve Troxler statewide. The same held true for Mary Fant Donnan (54.96/49.4), who won locally for commissioner of labor but lost out to Cherie Berry across North Carolina.

Buncombe voters concurred with their Tar Heel neighbors in the remaining Council of State races: lieutenant governor (Walter Dalton, 54.91/51.08); attorney general (Roy Cooper, 63.56/61.12); auditor (Beth Wood, 58.62/53.56); commissioner of insurance (Wayne Goodwin, 55.91/51.56); secretary of state (Elaine Marshall, 60.30/56.80); superintendent of public instruction (June St. Clair Atkinson, 58.79/53.66); and treasurer (Janet Cowell, 58.76/53.61).

Those results also produced another historic first: a majority of women on the Council of State.

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