Older voters are hitting the early polls in force this election year, according to data gathered by Western Carolina University professor Chris Cooper.
In the 11th Congressional District, people choosing the early vote are “overwhelmingly white” — a whopping 96 percent — clock in with an average age of 62, and split pretty evenly down gender lines with 51 percent being female.
As for numbers, though, early voting hasn’t proven more popular this midterm than in recent elections.
According to Kim Bishop, Macon County’s elections director, early voting there was on track to match the 4,974 tally she saw in 2006. On Oct. 15 – about halfway through – 2,049 voters had already cast their ballots.
In Haywood County, the story is roughly the same. Haywood’s election supervisor, Robert Inman, said that 2006 — the last non-presidential election — saw about 6,600 early voters, and halfway through the early voting cycle 2,357 had cast ballots.
Cooper said this fits with the data that he has: there’s really no evidence to show that early voting changes who is showing up to the polls. He also points out that, despite common belief, one of the great myths of early voting is that it benefits one party disproportionately.
“I think one of (the misconceptions) is that early voting is really benefiting one party or the other. The reality is that neither one is really true,” said Cooper. “I don’t think early voting tends to benefit one party or the other. It’s a way to reduce excuses, but it doesn’t change the electorate.”
Cooper has been collecting and analzying data this election year that looks at Western North Carolina’s early voting numbers. He’s trying to see what those numbers say about not only the election, but the electorate. So far, he hasn’t come across too many surprises for this region.
“In general, it doesn’t look radically different than you’d expect,” he said, with the exception of a few counties like Graham. In this region, the statistics are relatively predictable: where there are more registered Democrats, there are also more early-voting Democrats. In counties that are more Republican-heavy, they’re getting more to the polls.
For most early voters, the draw is really the convenience. Lines are negligible, times are flexible and voting before Election Day is a significantly more hassle-free experience.
Howard Turner, a Haywood County resident who voted last week, said he was surprised by how many of his friends and acquaintances were not even registered voters, so that stirred in him a desire to make his vote count. But as for why he early voted?
“The lines,” Turner explained simply.
Jim and Wanda Marquart, Waynesville transplants from the North, said they were regular voters and voted early for the first time this year. But it wasn’t enthusiasm or strategy that took them to the polls.
“We’re going to be gone out of the state when Election Day comes,” said Jim Marquart, so they got in early.
While early voting might not be a game-changer for constituents, however, it does change things for candidates, who have to plan their strategies taking into account the shortened stumping timeline they’ll have. To win, candidates must plan ahead to win the hearts of early voters, not just the Election Day crowd.
“I think elections now are about who’s winning the mobilization game,” said Cooper. “Who’s getting people to show up and who’s not getting people to show up.”
District Court judge candidate Roy Wijewickrama said he knows that all too well.
“We’re still out there asking for votes, but it changes it in that we just have to get people out there earlier,” said Wijewickrama.
And Cooper’s data shows that, this year, they’ll have to win over more independent hearts to really take the early vote.
“Independents seem to be turning out in greater numbers this time than they did in 2006,” said Cooper on the blog where his results and analysis are posted. “Democratic turnout in the 11th District does seem to be down a bit and the Republican turnout is holding pretty steady compared to 2006. Maybe in our district it’s not an ‘enthusiasm gap’ with Republicans being more excited and mobilized than Democrats, but rather an ‘independent enthusiasm gap.’”
But whatever way the early vote swings, Cooper said he hopes his data will encourage all voters to pay attention to what’s going on where they live locally, instead of just keeping an eye on the national scene.
“These local races are important,” said Cooper. “These local races are worth paying attention to.”