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Concerns About Reporting Early Voting Numbers

Over the last week WFAE has reported on long lines and large turnout at early voting sites in North Carolina. But some of our listeners have been unhappy with our reports. Here's an example of the angry emails we've received from several WFAE listeners in the last week: "To whom it may concern. I was not happy to hear the statistics associated with early voting! It was fine to say 150-thousand have voted BUT to say so many were registered Democrats and so many registered Republicans is not helpful. It can possibly affect the outcome of the election. That is why when polls close on the east coast on Election Day, no results are given until the polls close nationwide. Please be more careful in the future." The listener is right - WFAE, like many media outlets, refrains from reporting exit poll results until the polls are closed. But is there a parallel to early voting turnout data? Is it possible someone will hear on the news that twice as many Democrats are voting early in North Carolina, and change their own voting behavior? And now that early voting has become so popular, is this something lawmakers failed to consider when they made it legal? First, we spoke to State Director of Elections - his name is Gary Bartlett - to find out why such detailed voter data is available on the state website. "It's a matter of public record," says Bartlett. "We usually receive many compliments for being transparent and open and not secretive." MIT political scientist Charles Stewart says there are some very good reasons for this information to be open to the public. First of all, it prevents fraud. "If it were sealed off, then it would encourage the parties and candidates to try to do fraudulent things," says Stewart. "So knowing who has voted is a major guard against fraud." Another important reason, says Stewart, is the campaigns have this information and are using it to their advantage, "so having more people aware of what the campaigns know is a good inoculator against the public being misled." One group that spends a lot of time working against such voter manipulation is The Advancement Project. It's a civil rights advocacy group. We asked their attorney -Edward Hailes - if he thinks the early voting data might end up discouraging voters in some way. "Since it is publicly available information and we support transparency of elections, it would be difficult for us to oppose that type of disclosure," says Hailes. Besides, Hailes points out that just because someone is a registered Democrat doesn't mean he or she will vote for a Democrat. That's particularly true in the South, where many Democrats lean more conservative on national races. So what about this concern some of our listeners have that publicizing the party affiliation of early voters will affect the election outcome? Election watchdog Bob Hall of the group Democracy North Carolina says there's nothing to worry about. "You could argue both ways," says Hall. "In this state, the Democrats seem to be surging, so maybe it's inspiring them, making them feel good. On the other hand it should charge up the Republicans to say 'Hey, we gotta get our act together, get our people together and redouble our efforts.'" Hall says it's also worth noting that even with the unusually large number of people voting early in North Carolina, they'll still only be about 15 percent of total votes when all is said and done. "There's gonna be millions of people that show up on Election Day," says Hall. "And they will dwarf what's happening now." Everyone we spoke to for this story agreed the media must be careful. We need to make it clear these are voter turnout numbers, not results. Knowing how many Democrats, Republicans and Independents have shown up at the polls before Election Day is not a reliable way to predict the election's outcome. But it does show well the campaigns are doing at getting out the vote. And that's certainly worth reporting.