North Carolina basks—and sweats—in election spotlight

North Carolina, North Carolina, North Carolina.

The 2016 election could hinge on the Tar Heel State, and with the polls now open, the cross currents here can be mind-boggling.

Hillary Clinton is counting on heavy turnout in urban areas including Raleigh and Charlotte, while Donald Trump needs white, rural voters in the rest of the state to step up. Most analysts agree it will be nearly impossible for Trump to win the White House without North Carolina's 15 electoral votes, which Mitt Romney won in 2012.

Final early voting figures released by the State Board of Elections on Tuesday show Trump still has a legitimate shot at the state, and could explain why Clinton chose Raleigh for her final campaign event early this morning.

A record 3.1 million people voted by the end of the early voting period on Saturday, officials say, and registered Democrats cast 42 percent of the votes compared to 32 percent for Republicans. But African-American turnout — which exceeded 50 percent in 2012, dropped to 45 percent this year. That is a potential warning sign for the Clinton camp, which increased its get-out-the-vote effort going into Election Day.

"There might be a little room for (African-American turnout) to drop off," said Steven Greene, a political science professor at North Carolina State University, "but if it drops off more than a few points from what we've seen in previous elections, then that makes it very hard for Hillary Clinton to win North Carolina."

Voters cast shadows as they wait in a line at a polling station in Durham, North Carolina
Jonathan Drake | Reuters
Voters cast shadows as they wait in a line at a polling station in Durham, North Carolina

State officials reported relatively few issues in a midmorning briefing. In Durham County, officials were ordered to abandon electronic poll books — the lists used to check voter registrations — because of unspecified technical issues. The county switched to paper poll books, and officials say there was no disruption in voting.

According to NBC News, voting rights advocates want the county to extend voting hours, citing the technical problems. "We have received dozens of calls as of 11 a.m. today of issues in Durham County," wrote Allison Riggs, a lawyer with the Southern Coalition for Justice, to the North Carolina State Board of Elections.

Riggs wrote that the problem with the electronic poll books caused long delays. She added that this also caused precincts to run out of paper "Authorization to Vote" forms. As a result, Riggs wrote, some voters were told to come back later. "This is not acceptable," wrote Riggs.

She asked that the polls be kept open until 8:30 p.m., an hour later than scheduled, and said if the board declines to do so, "we will pursue all legal options available to us."

Patrick Gannon, a spokesman for the state board, said he would have a response to the request shortly, NBC News said.

Voter rolls in North Carolina have been the subject of dispute after the state chapter of the NAACP alleged thousands of voters were illegally purged ahead of the election, and a federal judge ordered that they be restored.

The state says the names were restored to both the electronic and paper poll books.

"We are fully in compliance with the order that put back on the rolls the number of voters who had been taken off the rolls through a challenge process in three counties," said Josh Lawson, general counsel for the State Board of Elections. "That was fully resolved before the week began."

In addition to the presidential race, North Carolina's U.S. Senate race — with Democratic former state Rep. Deborah Ross trying to unseat two-term incumbent Republican Sen. Richard Burr — could decide which party controls the Senate. And Republican Gov. Pat McCrory faces a stiff challenge from state Attorney General Roy Cooper. Polls show both races — as well as the presidential race — essentially deadlocked.

But Gannon insists that all the attention is not creating any additional pressure.

"It's a great day for North Carolina," he said.