The North Carolina State Board of Elections released the rest of remaining absentee and provisional ballots on Saturday. While the results are still unofficial as the populace waits on the Board’s vote audit and certification, the outcomes of some of the highly contested Council of State races are becoming clearer.
Incumbencies hold great power in N.C. Council of State elections. According to unofficial results, every incumbent in North Carolina for a Council of State position has either won re-election or is leading over their opponent:
- In the Commissioner of Agriculture race, Steve Troxler, the Republicanincumbent since 2005, has beaten Jenna Wadsworth, the Democratic candidate, by a margin of 7.72 points despite Wadsworth’s innovative social media campaigning strategies.
- Democrat incumbent since 1996 Elaine Marshall beat E.C. Sykes, the Republican candidate, by a margin of 2.34 points for N.C secretary of state.
- In a more contested race with an incumbent, Attorney General Josh Stein has the lead over Jim O'Neill, the Republican candidate, by only 14,336 votes, or a margin of 0.26 points, although the race is still too close to all and neither candidate has declared victory.
There are no term limits for the nine Council of State positions in North Carolina, so candidates can run for re-election until they choose not to.
Each position has its own executive duties that work together with the governor to run the state. Unlike many other states, instead of the governor appointing their own Council of State, N.C. voters have that power.
Incumbents have name recognition on their side, Joe Czabovsky, an assistant professor of journalism at UNC, said.
“The biggest stretch tends to be those that have the power of incumbency, like Cherie Berry, infamous as our outgoing head of labor,” he said. “People know her as ‘elevator lady’ as you've heard over the years. People have seen her face on every elevator in the state.”
Czabovsky said a study found Berry actually performed better in counties with more elevators.
This power of incumbency extends beyond the Council of State positions — it can be seen in the state legislature races and state’s judicial races as well.
In the race for N.C. Supreme Court chief justice, incumbent Cheri Beasley has a narrow lead of 35 votes over Paul Newby.
State results will be finalized on Nov. 24. In order for a recount to happen for statewide contests, the vote difference must be 10,000 votes or fewer.
Mac McCorkle, public policy professor at Duke and former Democratic political consultant, said name recognition isn’t always the result of incumbency — sometimes it comes from having the same last name, like with the Kennedys.
“That's why you see a lot of times sons and daughters and relatives with the same names of experienced politicians sometimes have a leg up,” McCorkle said. “Because people go ‘Oh, yeah, I voted for (their relative).”
In the three Council of State races where there were no incumbents, mobilizing the candidates' potential voters became crucial.
According to unofficial results:
- Republican Mark Robinson has won over Democrat Yvonne Lewis-Holley by a margin of 3.26 points for N.C. lieutenant governor.
- Republican Josh Dobson has won over Democrat Jessica Holmes by a margin of 1.64 points for N.C. commissioner of labor.
- Republican Catherine Truitt has won over Democrat Jen Mangrum by a margin of 2.76 points for N.C. superintendent of public instruction.
Daniel Kreiss, an assistant professor of journalism at UNC, said on average 90 percent of both Republicans and Democrats vote along their party line down the ballot. This year, 78 percent said they would, according to a Pew Research Center study.
“You're dealing with a very small slice of the electorate, and it really comes down to, can campaigns mobilize their base of support as much as possible,” he said.
Because voters are less likely to vote all the way down the ballot, non-incumbent races are more likely to have smaller margins between candidates.
North Carolina had one of the longest ballots in the country during this election cycle. Orange County had a total of 31 races from the president and vice president to the soil and water conservation district supervisor.
“It's about who is more effective at reminding partisan voters to vote down ballots and depending on the year there's a bigger drop off, depending on the party,” Czabovsky said.
Czabovsky said campaigns look at how their candidate did by the turnout for their race as compared to the top of the ballot, or the “Big Three” — president, U.S. Senate and governor.
He said the N.C. lieutenant governor race is important when distinguishing how many voters actually voted down the ballot because it is the first race below those three. The N.C. governor race had 5,500,684 votes compared to 5,422,129 votes for lieutenant governor — a difference of 78,555 votes that could’ve had a large impact on smaller races like the Council of State.
Kreiss said some of the tactics that campaigns used this cycle to push people to vote down the ballot were TV advertising, text messaging, phone calls and other forms of virtual outreach, especially including social media.
He said it's harder to get the attention of the public now than it was 40 or 50 years ago when campaigns could run ads on three major television networks and hit up to 80 percent of Americans.
Today, he said an effective campaign is one that moves the middle through platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat.
"One of the big reasons why campaigns take to social media is the simple fact that that's where voters are," he said.
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