By Michael Bitzer
With the start of early, in-person voting beginning on Thursday, April 28 for the May 17th North Carolina primary election, we can look back at the past five elections to perhaps see what kind of trends are present when it comes to how many votes may be cast, and what method we should expect when voters cast their ballots.
So How Many Will Show Up for May 17?
First, what might we expect when it comes to the number of voters likely participating in this year's primary elections?
For both parties, there are some distinct trends when it comes to primaries held in presidential versus mid-term years. In presidential years, generally North Carolina sees about one million registered voters participate in each primary (for about two million total), depending on the competitiveness of the top-of-the-ballot contest.
In both 2012 and 2016, both parties saw about a million ballots cast, while in 2020, with the race on the Democratic side generating more interest (1.3 million) to the Republican's renomination of Donald Trump generating a little over 800,000.
In terms of registered voter turnout, both 2016 and 2020 saw around 30 percent show up to cast ballots in the primary elections for those presidential years.
In the mid-term primary elections of 2014 and 2018, the turnout dropped considerably, down to half-a-million in both party primaries (with Republicans in 2018 at only a little over 400,000 ballots cast). For both mid-term primary elections, the total registered voter turnout was only 15 percent state-wide.
Of course, these turnout rates vary considerably across the 100 counties of the state: with 2018's primary election state-wide turnout at 15 percent, Tyrrell County saw 40 percent of its registered voters show up, while Edgecombe County had a 2 (yes, two) percent turnout rate.
Of course, the uniqueness of 2018 was that it was a 'blue-moon' election cycle, with no major state-wide race (like U.S. Senate) on the ballot to command the attention of the voters. This year's competitive race to replace retiring U.S. Senator Richard Burr will certainly command a great deal more attention.
So, with presidential primary years commanding about 30 percent and mid-terms half that rate, we should see an overall turnout rate of 15 percent come May, meaning that about a million registered NC voters might participate, with a likelihood that the majority of those million voters casting ballots in the Republican primary.
Who Might Participate in Both Party Primaries?
With the rise of North Carolina's unaffiliated voter to a plurality of all registered voters, both major parties allow unaffiliated voters to participate in the select of a party's nominees.
But over the past few primary elections, it is still the registered partisan who command significant majorities who select the general election candidates.
In 2018, the division between registered partisans and unaffiliated voters ranged from a nearly 80/20 split between registered Democrats and unaffiliated in the Democratic primary to a nearly 70/30 split in the Republican primary between registered Republicans and unaffiliated. The next two charts give the numbers and percentages in both party primaries between who participated, based on party registration (or lack thereof, in the case of unaffiliateds).
With this year's competitive U.S. Senate nomination battle among Republicans, we'll likely see more unaffiliateds pick the GOP primary ballot than the Democratic this year, but something to watch.
How Might Primary Voters Cast Their Ballots?
In North Carolina's general elections, voters have become supporters of early voting: in 2020's election, less than 20 percent of the record 5.5 million votes came on Election Day. Certainly the substantial increase in mail-in ballots and early, in-person voting helped fuel those pre-Election Day votes cast, but the trends for some time in general elections have been to "vote early."
This "vote early" is likely due to strong and sure partisans knowing who their preferred candidates are and "banking" their ballots to be done with the campaign and election.
For primary elections, however, the trend is distinctly, and not surprisingly, in the opposite direction. In recent primary elections, the vast majority of ballots came on Election Day, but that trend has been shrinking in both party primaries.
Among Democratic primaries, more voters have been opting to cast their ballots early, seemingly indicating their political minds and preferences are made up before Election Day. In 2012, nearly three-quarters of Democratic primary voters waited until Election, but by 2020, that number had dropped to 60 percent.
Of course, we will have to wait and see the final results and data for the May 17th primaries to determine whether significant changes are occurring in the primary electorates, but for an election where the likelihood is that 15 percent of North Carolina's voters will determine not just the candidates for November's general election, but in some case, the outright winner of the general election (due to no party opposition in November).
If current trends continue, we will have to wait and see the bulk of votes come on Tuesday, May 17, but that number may continue to shrink if past trends continue. Another important factor will be the participation of unaffiliated voters, something that we can determine after the voter history data file is released for May's primary.
Dr. Michael Bitzer holds the Leonard Chair of Political Science at Catawba College, where he is a professor of politics and history and author of Redistricting and Gerrymandering in North Carolina: Battlelines in the Tar Heel State. He tweets at @BowTiePolitics.