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BIG CITY: The lay of the land

By Kirk Ross

On political maps, Orange County is blue, with about a third of it – the southeastern corner – deep, deep blue. That’s blue, as in leans heavily Democratic in registration and voting patterns.

It’s not the bluest spot in the state by any means, but it is one of the state’s most dependable sources for Democratic votes.

And even though the demographics here in southern Orange are definitely changing, voting patterns for the most part are not.

If you’re looking for a reason why, the most telling statistic is in where people work. A huge percentage of the county’s residents are employed in the public sector. Government, mostly via a large public university and hospital, is the number-one source of payroll dollars in Orange County. Not everyone votes in their own self-interest, but around here saying government is the problem and calling for less of it isn’t going to win you a lot of fans.

By the numbers, we look a lot more divided than we vote.
According to the latest statistics from the Orange County Board of Elections there are 102,164 registered voters in the county.

Broken down by party there are 52,883 registered Democrats, 19,195 Republican, 30,777 unaffiliated and 309 Libertarians. In a lot of places those unaffiliated voters – the so-called independents – might break more evenly between candidates from the major parties.

In the OC, the split among unaffiliated voters is more like 2 to 1 Democratic. In the 2010 general election, for instance, almost 70 percent of the ballots cast for U.S. Senate went to Democrat Elaine Marshall, even though elsewhere it was a big year for the GOP. (Interestingly, Libertarian candidate Michael Beitler won 1,049 votes in Orange County that year – more than three times the number of registered Libertarians.)

The demographic breakdown of voters in Orange County pretty much mirrors the census data. The 55,598 registered women voters represent 54.4 of the total registered – very close to the 52.2 percent for general population. The percent of registered voters who are African-American is 12.3 percent while the overall population is 11.9 percent.

The registration numbers also show the continued migration (or annexation) of voters into the towns, with 64,008 voters, or nearly 63 percent, residing in either Carrboro (15,292), Chapel Hill (43,166), Hillsborough (4,545), Mebane (977) or Durham (28).

Primary voting in Orange County tends to be lackluster, mainly due to how late in the season North Carolina’s primaries are scheduled. A typical turnout is around 15 percent of those registered.

This year could prove a little different given the drawn-out GOP presidential contest. Even so, you don’t have to go very far back to find the last time this state had a significant impact in a presidential primary.

In 2008, after a string of losses in February, Sen. Hillary Clinton battled back in her run for the Democratic presidential nomination against Sen. Barack Obama, winning major primaries in March and April. Going into the North Carolina primary, the delegate count was close, with Obama at 1,746 to Clinton’s 1,611. Obama’s decisive victory that May was a key big-state win – a momentum builder that put Obama just 200 delegates shy of winning the nomination.

Statewide, turnout in May 2008 was around 37 percent, a fairly good showing. In Orange County, the enthusiasm was evident, with 48 percent of voters turning out for the primary. Obama beat Clinton here, taking 70 percent of the vote.

That heavy turnout in the primary, especially among minority and young voters, was a harbinger for what happened in the fall, when a surge of new voters caused North Carolina and Virginia to tip to the Democrats. It was the first time North Carolina voters selected a Democrat for president since Jimmy Carter in 1976, and for Virginia it was the first time since 1964, when LBJ beat Barry Goldwater. Both states are in play again this year.

If it were a normal year, those turnout numbers from the 2008 primary would be hard to even get close to. But with a still-active GOP nomination fight, Amendment One and contested gubernatorial primaries in both parties on the ballot, turnout isn’t likely to slide as much as you might think. It might not be as exciting as ’08, but there’s too much on the line not to show up.


Important Dates:
• April 19 – One-stop early voting begins
• May 5 – One-stop early voting ends (1 p.m.)
• May 8 – Primary election and Amendment One Referendum (polls are open from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.)

Orange County Board of Elections information:
Website: www.co.orange.nc.us/elect/
Ph: (919) 245-2350; Fax: (919) 644-3318

Polling places and elections:
Find out where to vote and who your elected officials are at aries.co.orange.nc.us/VoterInformation.aspx
Precinct locations are at www.co.orange.nc.us/elect/precincts.asp

Early voting:
If you are a registered voter in Orange County you may vote early at any one-stop early-voting site. If you are not yet registered but do live in Orange County you may complete a same-day registration form and vote at an early-voting site.

Same-day registration:
An N.C. resident who is qualified to vote but who misses the 25-day deadline for voter registration may register in their county of residence and vote at a one-stop site during the one-stop absentee-voting period.

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