Breaking down NC rural-urban divide in early voting patterns

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RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Rural counties account for the vast majority of counties with the smallest early voting rates, a data analysis found.

The record number of voters casting their ballots either by mail or at one-stop early voting locations — more than 4.5 million, according to the North Carolina Board of Elections on Monday, the day before the polls reopen for traditional in-person Election Day voting — was not evenly distributed across the state.

The countywide percentages of registered voters who have already cast ballots ranged from a high of 75 percent to a low of 39 percent.

Of the 36 counties with the lowest early voting rates, 35 of them are classified as rural by the NC Rural Center.

The center counts 82 of the state’s 100 counties as rural because they have an average population density at or below 250 people per square mile. The 12 regional city and suburban counties have population densities between 250 and 750 people per square mile, while that figure exceeds 750 for the six urban counties.

In all, less than 60 percent of registered voters in rural counties have already voted, compared to 62 percent for suburban ones and more than 64 percent for those that are urban.

Western Carolina political science professor Chris Cooper, a contributing writer for the Old North State Politics blog, says there are two possible ways to explain the trend.

“One is that there’s simply more excitement in the urban areas to vote,” Cooper said. “That somehow the candidates’ messages are getting through better in urban areas and there’s just something about the excitement there, we’ll see that on Election Day.

“Of course, the other possibility is that the urban counties might be sort of cannibalizing their own vote, so we might actually have lower urban turnout on Election Day whereas the rural counties might see more,” he added. “It’s still too early to know the solution to the puzzle, but that’s one of the key things I’m watching for.”

At the bottom of the list was Hyde County, where only 39 percent of the county’s 3,168 registered voters have already cast their ballots.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are nine counties where more than two-thirds of its voters have already voted, and four of them are either urban or suburban.

Four counties in the Triangle have rates exceeding 67 percent: Durham, Orange, Wake and Chatham, where the rate is a state-high 75 percent.

The low rates of early voting could translate to more crowded polling places Tuesday on Election Day. Of the 22 counties with the lowest early voting rates, 17 of them leaned red in the 2016 presidential election.

As the results roll in, that could lead to what Cooper called “a slow red creep.”

“Now those rural areas, by definition, are smaller, right? There’s fewer votes, there’s fewer folks in there,” Cooper said. “But if you combine them together, they can kind of be the mouse that roared. They can be a difference-maker in North Carolina politics. So I think the solution to that puzzle will go a long ways toward determining who ends up winning a variety of offices in this very purple state.”

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