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Despite fragility of abortion rights, NC voter turnout remains strong but not extraordinary at the close of early voting

Campaign signs were numerous outside a Wake County early voting site. Photo: Clayton Henkel

The final push is on and get out the vote efforts shift to Tuesday in an election in which the key for Democrats and Republicans has been to rev up enthusiasm among their most reliable voters.

As early voting wraps up, the vote totals are higher than at this time in the last midterm election, but that’s mainly because the state has more registered voters. Turnout as a percentage is down slightly and, as yet, there are no signs of a red or blue wave.

In-person early voting ends at 3 p.m. Saturday. The total number of mail-in ballots accepted and this year’s 17 day early voting is expected to top 2 million running roughly 50,000 votes ahead of 2018’s 18 day early voting period.

Although there was no statewide race in 2018, turnout was the highest for a midterm election in more than 50 years. This year, with a close U.S. Senate race and critical legislative and judicial seats in the balance, turnout appears similarly strong. But this year’s outcome remains difficult to predict following the 2020 presidential election cycle, which saw record turnout and a big shift in voting patterns due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“A pattern of normalcy”

Two years ago, more voters chose to vote early, either by mail or in-person. Whether those voters continue to do so or shift back to voting on Election Day is an open question.

Professor Chris Cooper – Photo: WCU

“It’s a question of substitution versus turnout,” Western Carolina University political scientist Chris Cooper said. “Substitution being ‘I’m voting early instead of Election Day’ and turnout being ‘I’m voting early instead of not voting at all.’ There’s just no way to tease that out until Election Day.”

What he is seeing in the voting patterns so far is “a lot of normalcy.”

That’s probably good news for Republicans and underlines the challenge for Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Cheri Beasley and other Democrats in a cycle that’s traditionally tough on the president’s party, he said.

“They need to see a disruption in history, they need to see a different kind of voting pattern. Because this is Biden’s midterms, so we expect Republicans to gain and the Democrats to lose and I don’t see anything in the data thus far that challenge’s that assumption,” he said.

That includes the gender breakdown, which so far remains similar to prior elections despite predictions that the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, which ended federal protections for abortion, would drive up turnout among women as it has earlier this year in other states with primaries that followed the decision.

Impact of abortion rights debate remains unclear

A Meredith Poll released in late September showed the abortion ruling to be a strong motivator for North Carolina Democrats, but so far women continue to lead men in turnout at roughly the same pace as prior elections.

“Dobbs, thus far, has not led to a massive activation in female voters,” Cooper said.

Prof. Rebecca Kreitzer – Photo: UNC

Rebecca Kreitzer, an associate professor of public policy at UNC-Chapel Hill, said abortion is one of the only issues that’s had a long-term impact on races at the state, local and federal level.

“That’s unusual to have a policy issue that’s that impactful on elections, but at the same time, it’s an issue that’s been very contentious, but kind of vague — what the debate is really about,” she said.

The Dobbs ruling has put the issue is in sharper focus, Kreitzer said, but there’s still a lot of misinformation on the impact of new restrictions such as the spin that characterizes a proposal to outlaw abortion after 15 weeks as ban on “late term” procedures. That can dilute some of its impact as an election issue.

Until now, she said, there’s been an “asymmetric mobilization” on abortion between the parties, but that’s rapidly changing.

“I think Democrats didn’t really think that the Supreme Court would overturn Roe, and so they didn’t think that they needed to prioritize this issue that otherwise can be pretty controversial and contentious among constituents,” she said. “Republicans, similarly, didn’t necessarily think the Supreme Court would fully overturn Roe and so got in the habit of advocating for policies that are actually quite radical and more restrictive than most Americans will want. I think that they haven’t had to really be held accountable to that. Because many of those policies, all of those policies in the past, were enjoined.”

In the Meredith Poll 53% of respondents supported keeping or expanding the provisions in Roe v. Wade while support for making it illegal after 15 weeks was at 10% and illegal in all circumstances at 7%.

“What we’re seeing today is the politics around it are completely different. Now, Democrats do see this not only as an important issue, but potentially THE issue during the election, or among the most important issues. Republicans are being forced to reckon with and comment on policies that they maybe are not as confident in talking about today.”

Impact of NC vote to be felt regionally

The election outcome here is drawing interest from outside the state because, for now, North Carolina is providing reproductive health care for people from states that have enacted bans and tighter restrictions.

“If you look at the entire southeast region, all of the states have considered restricting abortion quite a bit more than it has been in the past. Some of those states’ laws aren’t yet in effect, because they’re still navigating the court process like in South Carolina for example, but it’s very much the case that North Carolina is and will maybe be even more of an abortion island now going forward.”

Tara Romano – Photo: Pro-Choice NC

Tara Romano, executive director of Pro-Choice North Carolina one of several groups trying to educate voters about the threat to abortion rights in North Carolina said groups are trying to build on the backlash this summer after the ruling. There were hundreds protesting in Raleigh, she said, but also in places like Southern Pines and Ashe County.

“We know that people really recognized the enormity of what happened,” she said.

A key point that advocates have been trying to get across, she said, is that while abortion is still legal in North Carolina, the state is one election away from that changing.

A return to GOP supermajorities in the legislature or a shift in the balance of the state Supreme Court would make it easier to impose new restrictions, she said.

She expects a fight in the legislature next year regardless.

“We know that even if we do prevent a supermajority, that they’re still going to try and pass an abortion ban or further restrictions because they’ve said they’re going to do so.”

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Despite fragility of abortion rights, NC voter turnout remains strong but not extraordinary at the close of early voting