Chatham County ranks No. 1 in NC for early voting. Durham and Orange aren’t far behind.

Early voting started on Oct. 17 across North Carolina.
Early voting started on Oct. 17 across North Carolina. News & Observer staff file photo

When it comes to early voting in North Carolina, the western part of the Triangle has seen some of the highest turnout.

Chatham County ranks first in the state in early voting, as more than 38 percent of registered voters have already cast their ballots. The county has ranked among the top 10 in early voting since 2010.

Orange and Durham counties are also in the top 10 this year. Orange comes in at No. 7 with 31.4 percent, which is a 9-point jump from 2014. Durham is No. 10 with 30.6 percent, nearly double the percentage of voters who cast early ballots four years ago.

So what’s driving the trend in these counties?

“We have some very motivated voters,” said Pandora Paschal, elections director for Chatham. “I don’t know if they just like to vote or if they’re just politically active.”

Chatham is smaller than other Triangle counties, with about 54,000 registered voters. That compares to about 740,000 in Wake, 230,000 in Durham and 115,000 in Orange.

Small counties with higher early voting turnout tend to have strong political organizers, according to UNC-Chapel Hill political science professor Marc Heatherington, who studies early voting trends.

“What early voting turnout often means is that in relatively small counties where people know each other a little bit better, they’re getting their friends and neighbors out to vote,” he said.

Chatham also led the state in early voting in 2016, when 59 percent of registered voters cast their ballots before Election Day. It ranked second in 2014, with 31 percent.

Matt Ryan made his way to one of Chatham’s four early-voting sites on Friday. He was in and out in less than 15 minutes.

“I like the early voting because I can sort of do it on my own schedule,” he said. “If I’ve got the opportunity to vote early, I’m always going to take it.”

Ryan said he was interested in the race for Chatham County commissioners, but he also was paying close attention to national story lines.

“The midterms are really important this year,” he said. “And they’re important to me. I’m pretty avid following the national scene.”

Larger counties, lower early turnout

North Carolina’s largest counties typically see lower turnout for early voting.

In Wake, a quarter of registered voters have voted early, a 10-point bump over 2014. Wake is 45th overall in the state.

Mecklenburg County, which has slightly more voters than Wake with just over 741,000, has seen an early turnout rate of 23 percent.

But early voting is up throughout North Carolina. Compared with 2014, an additional 500,000 people have cast early ballots this year.

There were 18 early-voting days this year, compared to 10 in 2014.

Statewide, there were 1.7 million early votes cast through Nov. 1. Democrats cast 42.8 percent of the early votes, Republicans 30.4 percent and unaffiliated voters 26.6 percent.

Heatherington said it was too early to tell how those numbers will affect election outcomes.

“Democrats are going to try to mobilize Democrats, Republicans are going to try to mobilize Republicans because they know they can count on their votes if they can get them out,” he said. “And I have to say it is a puzzle to me why there’s been a big spike in early voting among unaffiliated voters. It could suggest good news for Republicans because the unaffiliated tend to lean Republican in a lot of southern states and North Carolina being one of them.

“The alternative is that these are people who don’t have a strong attachment to either party and kind of fed up with the politics that they’re seeing out of Washington.”