- Associated Press - Thursday, October 20, 2016

APEX, N.C. (AP) - Voters in the key presidential battleground of North Carolina demonstrated keen interest on the first day of early voting, as some waited in line for more than an hour Thursday to cast ballots.

Figures from the N.C. State Board of Elections show 137,341 ballots were cast across the state. In 2012, 166,943 ballots were cast on the first day of early voting, board spokesman Patrick Gannon said. Gannon said a full update is expected Friday.

In the fast-growing Raleigh suburb of Apex, dozens fanned or shaded themselves with political leaflets while waiting in a line that snaked around the polling place and doubled back on itself near the entrance. Unseasonable temperatures topped 80 degrees, but voters said they were eager to make their mark in the contentious election.

“I’m hoping we can move this country forward in not so much a liberal-versus-conservative agenda, but a healthy agenda for the country,” said Vernon Hobbs, a 55-year-old Democrat who stood in line over an hour to vote for Hillary Clinton.

Still, he wasn’t upset about having to wait: “It shows people are engaged.”

Nearby in line, Republicans Barbara and Jim Koob of Apex said they were picking Trump. Asked about Trump’s suggestions the election is rigged, Barbara Koob said she’s concerned about voter fraud.

“I really hope that our voting process is fair and correct,” she said. “I know that there’s fraud. I’m really sad to hear that in America that people don’t have honesty and integrity.”

In downtown Raleigh, more than 200 stood in line at lunchtime outside the Chavis Community Center. A DJ played upbeat music on an adjoining baseball field while cars waited for parking spaces to open up for assisted voting at curbside.

Attorney General Roy Cooper, who is running for governor, and Josh Stein, running to succeed Cooper - both Democrats - greeted people eager to vote on the first day, including North Carolina State University student Zach Houser, who is voting in his first presidential election.

“I was excited to vote. This is a pretty important election,” said Houser, 20, a political science major and registered Democrat. “There’s a pretty big difference between the (top) candidates, and down ballot, too.”

Cooper’s race against incumbent Republican Gov. Pat McCrory is closely contested, as is a race for U.S. Senate.

At least one site opened in each of the state’s 100 counties. The early-voting period covers 17 days until Nov. 5. It had been set for 10 days under a 2013 law, but grew by a week after a federal court struck down that law.

Early in-person voting has been popular; 56 percent of people in North Carolina who voted in the 2012 presidential election cast ballots by that method. People can also register to vote at early-voting centers and vote at the same time.

At University City library in Charlotte, lines were two hours long Thursday morning and growing.

Kevin Lawhorn, 57, told The Charlotte Observer that he didn’t mind the wait because he wants to put the election behind him. “I just wanted to get it out of the way,” he said. “Basically can’t wait ‘til it’s over.”

Elsewhere, 120 were in line at a polling place in Henderson in Vance County Thursday morning. A site in Johnston County opened an hour late because of a wreck on Interstate 95, but officials planned to keep it open an additional hour, according to the State Board of Elections.

Back in Apex, JoAnn Burkholder said she was eager to cast her ballot after a contentious campaign season.

“It’s just been such a horrific campaign, and I’m afraid of what Donald Trump could do to our country,” said the North Carolina State University professor who studies water pollution science. “I have great respect for Hillary Clinton so I wanted to get it done now.”

Registered Republican Mark Williams was more ambivalent. He was picking Clinton for her experience and because he dislikes Trump, saying: “Sometimes we have to choose the lesser of the two evils.”

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