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Early Vote Turnout Signals Interest In Key Primaries

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It's an off-year election in Mecklenburg County - with no big races on the ballot like president or governor. But among the races that are up for a vote, there appears to be more interest - at least judging by higher turnout in early voting. 

WFAE's David Boraks talked with "All Things Considered" host Mark Rumsey about those numbers, and some of the races attracting interest.

RUMSEY: Hello David. Early voting started April 19th and continues through this Saturday, May 5th. How is it going so far?

BORAKS:  Yeah, there does seem to be a bit more enthusiasm in this primary, compared to the last off-year primary in 2014.

As of Tuesday, 9,900 people had voted at the 13 early voting sites.  I talked with Mecklenburg County elections director Michael Dickerson - he said at a similar point four years ago, only about 6,000 people had voted.   

Overall four years ago, about 13,000 people voted early in the county. Dickerson expects we'll beat that.  

RUMSEY:  Any idea why the numbers are up?

BORAKS:  Well, first, interest in politics in general seems to be up and there are just more contested primaries. I talked to Davidson College professor Susan Roberts about that: 

"I think one of the moods in the primary is people are very surprised that there are primaries," Roberts said. "I think that's not been the case in the past. The trend nationwide is for more incumbents to be challenged this time around."

Also, some of the individual primaries in our area are getting a lot of attention, including races for Congress, the statehouse and county offices - like Sheriff and District Attorney.  

RUMSEY:  A lot of people are certainly watching Congress these days. Which races are noteworthy in our area?

BORAKS: Well, Mark, Democrats nationally are hoping to take over control of the House from Republicans.  They'll need to flip 24 seats. One they've got their eyes on is North Carolina's 9th District, a seat currently held by Republican Robert Pittenger.

The district was redrawn before the 2016 election and now stretches from south Charlotte east to Fayetteville. Pittenger won the primary two years ago by only 134 votes - over Baptist pastor Mark Harris. Now Harris is back for another try.  There's a lot at stake here. The winner is expected to face a well-financed Democrat in November - Charlotte businessman Dan McCready. Many people I've talked to think the race is Pittenger's to lose. But even if he wins, he's got a long campaign ahead.   

Two other Congressional races in our area probably won't be as close. Democratic Representative Alma Adams is running again in the 12th District against three challengers. And Republican Patrick McHenry is up for re-election in the 10th district, which stretches from Gaston County west to Asheville.  He has five Republican challengers.

RUMSEY: But there are no Republicans or any other candidates running for Mecklenburg county sheriff and district attorney, right?

BORAKS:  Right, that's why everyone's watching those Democratic primaries. They'll decide the election.

Current sheriff Irwin Carmichael has two challengers - retired CMPD Detective Garry McFadden and former CMPD officer Antoine Ensley.  Carmichael's in his first 4-year term. He actually beat Ensley in the Democratic primary four years ago - by 53 percent to 47 percent.  McFadden and Ensley both want to end Mecklenburg County's participation in the federal 287(g) program - which Carmichael supports. That's an immigration program where the county agrees to identify and hold prisoners who are in the country illegally.  

They've also criticized Carmichael's decision to end in-person jail visits for prisoners and replace them with video calls.  The question is whether McFadden and Ensley will split the vote and cancel each other out.

RUMSEY: And what about the District Attorney's race? 

BORAKS: Spencer Merriweather was appointed District Attorney last year with the recommendation of the man he replaced - former District Attorney Andrew Murray, who became a federal prosecutor. Merriweather has been a prosecutor for 10 years and has been trying to raise his profile by talking about criminal justice reforms. But he's facing a challenge from public defender and civil rights activist Toussaint Romain, who's basically arguing for a change in the status quo - to speed up reforms.  

RUMSEY: Several North Carolina statehouse primaries are being watched closely.  One is the seat now held by Republican Senator Dan Bishop, in the 39th District in south Charlotte. What's going on there?

BORAKS:  It's actually Bishop's work in a previous office - when he was a state representative - that's brought a challenge to his state Senate seat. He was the primary author of House Bill 2 - which banned local governments from enacting legal protections for LGBT people.  

He's facing Beth Monaghan, a moderate Republican. She said she's running because of Bishop's push for HB2. She's hoping voters will be looking for someone with less extreme views.

Interestingly, the Democratic primary in the 38th district is also getting attention - though for the opposite reason. Longtime state Senator Joel Ford - who ran unsuccessfully for Charlotte Mayor last year - is being criticized for being too willing to work with Republicans. Ford certainly has the power of incumbency, but he has three challengers - Roderick Davis, Tim Wallis and Mujtaba Mohammed.  Mohammed has picked up some key endorsements.

RUMSEY:  Just a few days left of early voting - when does it end?

BORAKS:  You'll still be able to vote Thursday, Friday and Saturday. After that, you'll have to wait for primary day, Tuesday. The polls are open 6:30 am to 7:30 p.m.

RUMSEY:  That's WFAE reporter David Boraks.  And you can tune in to WFAE on Primary Night Tuesday, May 8th for full results. Coverage begins at 7 o'clock when David will be hosting a one-hour call-in special, with two analysts in the studio - former state lawmakers Charles Jeter and Malcolm Graham. That's Tuesday at 7 p.m. here on 90.7 WFAE.

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David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.