As eastern North Carolina continues its recovery from Hurricane Matthew, polls are open for early voting. North Carolina is among the most coveted states in the Presidential Race and has one of the tightest Senatorial and Gubernatorial races in the nation.
But is voting a high priority for areas hit hardest by major flooding less than a month ago?
Chris Thomas spoke to voters and has this.
Downtown Greenville in early November: sunny skies and unseasonably warm conditions – ideal early voting weather. At least, that’s what Martin Tanski’s counting on. He owns and operates Peddlin’ Pirates, a bicycle rickshaw business.
“We’ve been contracted out to carry people to the early voting polling place from campus this afternoon.”
CT: How busy have you been today?
“This is time over here actually. I just started at 2 so I think people are starting to come out on campus and they’re signing people up at the booth and I’m going to be taking people over here throughout the day.”
Tanski takes students from ECU’s main campus to the Willis Building about five blocks north. It’s also owned by the university and it overlooks the Town Common.
“The guy that set up the charter, he was saying there was a lot of people that expressed interest in voting and he thinks there’s going to be a big turnout this afternoon.”
Tanski said he hasn’t voted yet. He plans on it but he’s been preoccupied. He lives just east of the Town Common, on the other side of the Town Creek Bridge – a neighborhood that experienced heavy flooding after Hurricane Matthew.
“Well I actually got back from a little vacation in Florida and when I got back the city was under a state of emergency and they evacuated my neighborhood. There was water about 8 feet from coming into my house.”
Some weren’t so lucky. Abby Lewis, a Fayetteville native and East Carolina Sophomore saw that starkly when she went back home.
“We helped people get…everything out of their homes. One of my best friend’s houses was actually was completely underwater. They had a picture of it where it was literally – the peak, the beacon of their house was only 6 inches out of water…so they lost everything and I had so many friends that lost, like, everything.”
But she cast her vote this week anyway – part of a steady stream of balloters, passing by colorful signs and last minute campaigners.
“I mean, everyone needs to take part in it and when people say that their vote doesn’t matter, you know, you have to think that it’s not one big country where everyone just casting one vote, it goes from county to county to county – from county to state, from state to nation.”
As of Wednesday, more than 2.2 million North Carolinians have turned out to vote ahead of Election Day. That’s up 15 percent from the same time four years ago, according to Patrick Gannon of the state Board of Election.
Pitt County is following the state’s overall pattern. The early voting rate is up by 7-and-a-half percent there.
“When you combine that with all of the other absentee – the mail-in absentee ballots – we’re well over 2.3 million…and overall, turnout is already at 34.1 (percent).”
Gannon said he wasn’t sure what to expect this year, due in part to the storm’s impact. Five eastern counties – Columbus, Cumberland, Lenoir, Pitt, and Robeson – had to move voting precincts for Election Day.
But that hasn’t stopped thousands of early voters across the east.
“Dare and Currituck Counties are up 57 percent and 66 percent respectively. But then there are a few counties – Robeson being one of them – that are down slightly.”
Gannon went on to say he expects those numbers to improve since more polling stations opened during this final week of early voting. One of the counties to benefit from that is Craven County, which has seen early voter turnout improve by 9 percent since 2012.
That’s no surprise to Meloni Wray, Craven County’s Board of Elections director.
“I’ve been in this county, like I said, 3 years and there have been increases in previous years and I think with it being a new Presidential candidate coming in because the terms are up, I think it brings more interest when you have a complete turnover.”
The Board of Elections office on Broad Street wasn’t directly impacted by flooding – but some of its employees were.
“Well, actually, I have some workers that have some workers who live in Vanceboro that came in and tried to get here to work as well during that time of the flood and Obviously, roads were blocked and they had to have different routes to get here.”
One of those workers is Ella Mitchell of Vanceboro. Her home made it through the storm without extensive damage but some of her relatives live at the heart of Craven County’s flood zone and had to evacuate.
“I did have some family who was affected to come and spend two weeks with me. They live on Swift Creek and they had to be out for awhile.”
Despite record setting flooding from the Neuse River, Mitchell said hotly contested races up and down the ballot haven’t been forgotten in Craven County.
“A lot of people have been really concerned about School Board. And they want to make sure that they’re able to vote for their school board candidate of their choice in their district.”
Dealing with a flood can leave a person feeling powerless. Voting, Mitchell said, can be part of the recovery process.
“It gives you a little bit of an empowerment…so, your one vote is something that you can control and when you’re in a situation where you have been flooded or have any kind of major loss, it’s a kind of helpless and you don’t feel like you have any control over that. So, getting out to vote is one thing and one process that does give you normalcy and it does let you know that I have control over this part.”
Early voting continues through Saturday and Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 8.
I’m Chris Thomas.