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Early voting numbers continue to rise

fr earlyvotingAbsentee voters have been licking their stamps for weeks, and beginning last Thursday, early voters started arriving at polling places across Western North Carolina.

Preliminary numbers show that, overall, early voting numbers are up compared to 2008, continuing a trend of increasing popularity in early voting since it began more than a decade ago.

In Haywood County about 800 more people voted in the first few days of early voting than they did in the first few days of early voting in the last presidential election year. In the four-county area of Swain, Macon, Haywood and Jackson counties, all early voting numbers are up over those of 2008.

And registered Democrats are leading the charge, both in overall turnout and as a percentage of registered voters. In all three counties but Macon, registered Democrats have turned out in slightly higher percentages than registered Republicans.

For example, by the close of early voting in Jackson County Monday, about 11 percent of registered Democrats had already voted early whereas 10 percent of registered Republicans had done so.

Andy Miller, the Western North Carolina regional field director for the N.C. Democratic Party, said the early voting numbers don’t necessarily spell success or failure for either party.

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“I don’t think it necessarily helps one or the other,” Miller said. “If more people vote Democrat in early voting, then maybe more Republicans vote on Election Day.”

But he did say, in general, when more people vote, it tends to help Democrats.

In the South, however, a registered Democrat turning out to vote doesn’t necessarily translate to a vote for Democratic candidates. In 2008, the only counties in the region where Barack Obama won were Jackson and Buncombe counties, despite several counties having more registered Democrats than Republicans on voting rolls. And after taking the state by a slim margin in 2008, Obama now lags Mitt Romney in most state polls.

Norma Schulhofer, 75 and a registered Democrat from Waynesville, is a classic example of mountain Democrats jumping parties in the presidential race. Unlike her voter registration suggests, she decided not to vote for Obama like she did last time.

“Let’s just say I had to do some soul searching,” Schulhofer said. Rather than dragging it out, however, she went ahead and made up her mind and voted early on Monday for Romney.

“The economy stinks. We’re hurting,” she said.

Macon County was the only county out of the four where registered Republicans have gained the early voting advantage in sheer numbers and as a percentage of registered voters. Nearly 14 percent of the county’s registered Republicans have already voted. Macon County also has the greatest number of registered Republicans by proportion in comparison with the other three counties.

Robert Inman, director of the Haywood County Board of Elections, said since Jan. 1, 2,576 people registered to vote in Haywood County. He said although that number may seem like a lot, voters are constantly coming off the rolls as well. People die, move away or become ineligible to vote.

Perhaps the most important demographic in the election will be independents, or unaffiliated voters.

The number of unaffiliated voters has been on the rise in recent years. Haywood County there are 10,951 people registered as unaffiliated — 25 percent of all registered voters. That mirrors statewide statistics for unaffiliated voters.

That slice of the voting bloc has trailed Republicans and Democrats in early voting turnout, however, both in sheer number and as a percentage.

In some counties, as few as 6 percent of independent voters headed to the polls during the first days of early voting.

It’s not surprising that independent voters are less likely to vote early. Since they lack a particular party affiliation, these so-called swing voters are more likely to make up their mind at the last minute.

But independent voter Joy Thylander, 70, of Waynesville, had already made up her mind. She decided to fill out a ballot voting for Romney mixed in with some local Democratic candidates. She liked the idea that others would know her early vote.

“I voted early because I was happy I would be sending a message to other early voters,” Thylander said.

But for some, early voting is a matter of necessity.

On Monday (Oct. 22), at an early voting site in Waynesville, Margaret Jones, 70, was driving her friend Erma Hawkins to the polls. Hawkins, who was older than Jones but refused to give her age, saying only that she was old enough to vote, has no way to get to the polls on her own.

The early voting locations allow Hawkins the convenience of bringing friends and family who can’t drive themselves.

“Today, I’m bringing her to vote,” Jones said. “Later, I’ll bring my cousin who is sick.”

Both are lifelong Democrats, although Jones voted for Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, four years ago because of his service record. But this time around the choice was clear for the two women.

“Democrats help the elderly,” Jones said. “And with Republicans, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. That Romney is not for the people.”


Early voting by the numbers

In keeping with early voting trends during the past decade, fewer people are waiting until Election Day to cast their ballots. The first three days of early voting is up compared to the first three days of early voting in 2008. Below are how many have voted early by county during the first three days.

                         2012            2008

Haywood          4,516           3,757

Jackson           2,635           2,213

Macon             3,022           2,829

Swain               844              738

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