Monday, February 19, 2024

Past Trends in NC's Primary Elections & Voting Methods: More Primary Voters Moving to Early Voting

By Michael Bitzer

With North Carolina's start to early in-person voting (what has traditionally been referred to as "Absentee OneStop" since voters could both register to vote and cast their ballot in a one-stop process), past trends might give us a sense of what we could expect over the next few weeks leading up to the March 5th primary election day.

In calculating the below charts for the 2016, 2020, and 2022 primary elections, I relied on the NC State Board of Elections "voter history" data files that keeps a record of the vote method and party primary that voters cast their ballots in. 

In pulling this information together, I decided against using 2018's primary election, as it was a 'blue-moon' election cycle with no major state-wide contest on the ballot (no presidential contest, for example, nor a U.S. Senate contest). With this year's presidential primary contest, I'm looking at the past two presidential primaries and the most recent mid-term U.S. Senate primary election (2022). 

In terms of the overall primary election, North Carolina voters are of a different mind when it comes to primary elections than when they cast ballots in the November general election. In general, most of the 2016, 2020, and 2022 primary ballots came on primary election day. However, a noticeable trend is very obvious in the data since 2016.

Data compiled by author from the NC State Board of Elections' Voter History Data Files.

In 2016's primary election, over two-thirds of the total primary ballots were cast on that election day, but by 2022, that same percentage had fallen to below 60 percent. 

The major shift is among voters using Absentee OneStop (or in-person early voting) that typically spans slightly more than two weeks, ending on the Saturday just before the Election Day. That percentage of ballots cast has increased from just below thirty percent to now almost forty percent. 

But is there any difference between the two political parties and their primary voters casting ballots? 

The next chart shows the vote methods used in the Democratic Party primaries for the same three years. 

Data compiled by author from the NC State Board of Elections' Voter History Data Files.

For Democratic Party primary voters, they have been more willing than the state averages to use early in-person voting, from one-third in 2016 to 44 percent in 2022. Correspondingly, the number of votes cast on primary election day has dropped, with a slight majority being cast on election day in 2022. This year could be the potential tipping point of a majority of votes being 'banked' before election day arrives for Democrats. 

This Democratic propensity of casting early votes mirrors their November general election vote methods, as most Democrats have come to casting their ballots early before the election day.

For Republicans, they have been more of a "wait and cast" type of voter, with the over 70 percent of 2016's primary ballots coming on Election Day. But again, like the state dynamics indicate, GOP primary voters are utilizing early voting more and more since 2016. 

Data compiled by author from the NC State Board of Elections' Voter History Data Files.

In 2020 and again in 2022, a third to slight over a third of GOP primary voters have cast their ballots before the primary's official election day. As my colleague Chris Cooper noted in his most recent blog post, with a conservative group publicly advocating for Republican primary voters to 'bank their ballots early,' it will be interesting to watch how many Republicans shift their voting habits to cast an early in-person ballot. 

Voter habits tend to be consistent, but perhaps the convenience of early voting lures folks more and more to that vote method, thereby spreading out the administrative costs for both other voters (shorter lines on Election Day, if they wait) and for election administrators in the counting process. 

I'll be able to track who is making the various shifts in voting method habits once the dust clears on the March 5 primary and when the counties upload their new voter history data records for this primary, but two questions will be worth considering: 

  • do Democrats cross the threshold of casting a plurality (or even a majority) of their primary votes early, and,
  • do Republicans continue to adopt early voting as a growing portion of their primary ballots cast?


Dr. Michael Bitzer holds the Leonard Chair of Political Science and is a professor of politics and history at Catawba College. The author of Redistricting and Gerrymandering in North Carolina: Battle Lines in the Tar Heel State, you can usually find him on a variety of social media platforms at @bowtiepolitics.