- Associated Press - Monday, December 22, 2014

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Voting by people registered with no party surged in North Carolina during the midterm election and helped contribute to an overall increase in turnout compared to four years ago and likely to Thom Tillis’ narrow U.S. Senate victory.

Detailed voter data from the State Board of Elections for Nov. 4 showed the number of unaffiliated voters accounting for 63 percent of the more than 250,000 additional ballots cast this fall compared to the last midterm in 2010.

Bob Hall, executive director of the election reform group Democracy North Carolina said Monday that unaffiliated voters played a key role in helping Tillis, a Republican, defeat Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan by nearly 46,000 votes.

Almost 640,000 of the 2.9 million voters this fall were registered as unaffiliated, a one-third increase over 2010, according to the board data. Democrats saw a 4.5 percent increase and Republicans a 3.5 percent increase in overall participation.

The major “parties didn’t really grow their base of voters, and so the real growth came from unaffiliated voters,” Hall said. “So their decisions played an important role in who won.”

The number of unaffiliated voters - now almost 28 percent of the electorate - has grown dramatically during North Carolina’s population boom of the past two decades and as people become less devoted to established parties.

Overall turnout also grew from 43 percent in 2010 to 44 percent this year. Black voters (more than 21 percent of ballots cast) comprised more of the turnout and white voters (more than 74 percent) less of the turnout than four years ago, too.

The overall turnout increase came as North Carolina residents voted under new rules approved by the General Assembly in 2013 that reduced the number of early voting days from 17 to 10, eliminated same-day registration during the early-voting period and ended the practice of counting votes cast outside assigned precincts on Election Day.

Civil rights groups, the U.S. government and voters among others have challenged the law in federal court, arguing the provisions are making it more difficult for minority groups and older people to vote. A trial is scheduled next summer.

Conservatives argue the turnout numbers are proof new election laws did not harm participation.

“There was no significant ‘voter suppression’ in 2014,” wrote John Hood, chairman of the right-leaning John Locke Foundation. “The vast majority of voters who wanted to vote cast their ballots without incident.”

Hall disagrees, saying there’s evidence from poll monitors and calls to a hotline of long lines in more than a dozen counties on Election Day that discouraged people from sticking around to vote. And since more than 21,000 people registered to vote for the first time during early voting in 2010, it’s reasonable to suggest similar numbers would have used same-day registration in 2014, Hall said.

“A judge will have to determine whether the restrictions were burdensome on voters,” he said. A photo identification requirement to vote in person starting in 2016 also is being challenged in the lawsuits.

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