Thousands of North Carolina voters rushed to the polls bright and early today, eager to play their part in the final act of the 2012 election.
Most turning out today are traditionalist. They revel in the shared patriotism of joining neighbors at the voting station on the first Tuesday in November.
"It's exciting to be in the same place, the same day with all your neighbors. You feel like it counts," said Marshall Green, a Democrat who lives in the Oakwood neighborhood of Raleigh. Green, along with hundreds of others, showed up to vote at Trinity United Methodist Church on Bloodworth Street by 7 a.m. Green and others chattered with friends while they braved a line that snaked through a hallway into the parking lot.
Today is a final exam for thousands of campaign officials and volunteers. Voter turnout will be a test of months of preparation. Party staff and volunteers have tried to sway independents, called and knocked on the doors of their base and even offered free rides to polling stations today to ensure their favorites win.
Unlike the weather in New Jersey and New York, nature offered North Carolina voters no excuses for failing to turn out. The sun rose early as polling places hummed into action; forecasters promised cloudy skies and a tiny chill but moderate temperatures. Polls opened at 6:30 a.m. and will remain open until 7:30 p.m.
Nearly 2 million voters are expected to turn out today in North Carolina, bringing full voter participation in this state to nearly 70 percent. Poll workers wondered whether those estimates may be a little too modest.
"I have never seen a line that long before the polls open," said Betsy Buford, Democratic precinct chairwoman for much of the Oakwood neighborhood. "I think we may have underestimated turnout."
About 38 percent of registered voters cast their decisions in person during early voting; another 200,000 votes have been submitted on absentee ballots. But that leaves another 4 million or so eligible voters who hadn't made it to the polls. Realistically, election officials expect about 2 million to show up, for a total voter participation of 69 percent. That would be a percentage point slight of 2008's record turnout.
Voters' decisions will have tremendous bearing on the future in both state and local races. North Carolina has been a battleground state in the presidential election since President Obama narrowly defeated John McCain by 14,000 votes in 2008, turning this red state blue for the first time in 32 years. Republicans are looking to return North Carolina to its more traditionally conservative roots.
And, if polls prove accurate, the state could elect its first Republican governor in 24 years. Pat McCrory has claimed double-digit leads over Democrat and current Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton in surveys.
The Republicans are also expected to maintain their majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly.
Jonathan Gould, a native of Great Britain who voted for the first time as a citizen this morning, put the weight of his vote behind all Republicans, save one.
Recent news of marital drama about Republican candidate Debra Goldman led Gould to take more time with his ballot, not voting straight ticket. Goldman, a Wake County school board member running for state auditor, has been in the spotlight over a robbery complaint she made in which she fingered a fellow school board member as a suspect in the theft of more than $100,000 in jewelry and cash from her Cary home.
"She lost all that cash? That's not auditor material in my mind," said Gould, 33.
With the stakes so high in North Carolina, both parties will be stocking voting locations with lawyers on watch for fraud or intimidation. Both parties expect to rely heavily on legal teams to sort through shenanigans and new voter identification laws enacted in states across the country.
Operators of the national Election Protection hotline received more than 600 calls during early voting from North Carolina voters complaining of discriminatory treatment of curbside voters, confusion over ID requirements, illegal electioneering at the polls, broken machines and false information about voting by phone, said Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, a nonpartisan watchdog group.
"We could feel the emotional intensity of this election as we answered these calls," Hall said. "People were anxious to vote and suspicious of perceived barriers."
Some voters already encountered glitches at polling stations this morning.
Sandy Mitchum of Cary said the scanner failed at Mills Elementary School when she went to vote about 7:15 a.m. Poll workers told her they would put her ballot in an emergency bin to be scanned in later.
She was a little uneasy about that.
"I'm not real comfortable with that. I don't want someone else handling my ballot," she said.
Voters at the polls this morning ran the spectrum. Some were so apathetic they left most races blank. Some showed up out of duty rather than inspiration, certain that their votes and the next wave of elected leaders wouldn't change things much.
Daylon Perry of Southeast Raleigh is a registered Republican who cast all his votes behind his party. Still, he felt pretty down about the future.
"This country's going down one way or another," said Perry, 74. "It's all in the hands of God now."
Nearly half of the 2,550,000 early voters were registered Democrats. About a third were Republicans, with the balance unaffiliated or Libertarian.
Democrats hope to keep the state blue again this cycle. Obama supporters nourished their stronghold here since 2008, maintaining staff and offices in Raleigh over the last four years.
The election could turn on the choices of North Carolina's large unaffiliated block. About 25 percent of registered voters in North Carolina aren't affiliated with either major party.
Efforts turned in recent weeks to drawing known supporters to the polls rather than courting the undecided. Voters at the polls this morning admitted the persistent efforts by campaigns to get them to show up had little effect, except annoyance.
"If I could have shot some of those rob callers, I would have," Green said.
Staff writer Ron Gallagher contributed to this report.
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