- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 8, 2016

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Nowhere is the nation’s election-year schism more apparent than in North Carolina.

The state with a marked urban-rural divide is making choices on Election Day that will shape its identity. Will voters reject the state’s recent rightward policy shift, exemplified by a law limiting protections for LGBT people and restricting restroom access for transgender people?

Or will they embrace Donald Trump, endorse the conservative legislative agenda supported by Gov. Pat McCrory and re-elect U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, the powerful chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee?

Many voters say they felt the need to make their vote count despite misgivings about the choices on either end of the political spectrum.

“I wasn’t comfortable with either candidate, but I’m more for Hillary than for Trump,” said Onika Smitherman, a Democrat who voted Tuesday at a busy Durham polling place where cars spilled out of the paved parking lot onto a grassy field.

Smitherman said she also voted for Democrats down the ballot, including Roy Cooper in the governor’s race and Deborah Ross for U.S. Senate.

“I think it’s Democratic time. Things haven’t been going right,” she said, referring to the state’s direction since the GOP took control of the legislature in 2010.

She said she’s offended by what she sees as Republican efforts to make it harder to vote. A GOP-enacted state law curtailing early voting and requiring photo ID from voters was struck down by a federal court but continues to reverberate in voters’ minds.

The law known as HB2 also been divisive. It requires transgender people to use restrooms in many public buildings corresponding to the sex on their birth certificate, and it excludes gender identity and sexual orientation from statewide antidiscrimination protections.

Registered Republican Melanie Green cast her ballot for Trump, McCrory and Burr. But she didn’t feel as excited as she did four years ago, when she hoped McCrory’s election, along with GOP control of the legislature, would cause more of an economic boost.

Green, 45, said she still struggles to get by, working odd jobs. She cleans houses, does repairs and serves as a caretaker for the elderly.

“Our schools still don’t have what they need. The economy doesn’t seem much better. They have been so concerned with bathrooms that they miss the important things,” Green said Tuesday outside her busy polling place in Zebulon, east of Raleigh.

Republican Constance Peake said she has misgivings about HB2, but still voted Tuesday for McCrory and Republican legislative candidates because she thinks GOP leaders have done a good job overall.

“I think they’ve done extremely well, but I’d like to see this HB2 straightened out,” she said.

Referring to the restroom-access issue, the 86-year-old retired physical therapist from Durham said: “It just seems like: Why can’t people do what they want?”

The differing opinions illustrate what has made North Carolina something of a political enigma - and also a key presidential battleground. Growing cities such as Charlotte and Raleigh contain troves of Democratic voters, while vast rural swaths are conservative. A 2012 Census analysis found that only Texas had more rural residents.

Democrats represent about 40 percent of the state’s 6.9 million registered voters, while Republicans and independents are about 30 percent each. But the state has voted reliably for Republican presidential candidates since 1980, with the exception of Barack Obama’s 2008 victory. Meanwhile, Republicans have controlled the General Assembly since 2010 and are expected to retain majorities.

Voting access also has been on many peoples’ minds. The overturned measures curbing early voting hours and requiring photo ID to vote in person targeted blacks “with almost surgical precision,” according to a July federal court ruling. Black voters are typically a reliably Democratic voting bloc.

Last week, a federal judge ordered three North Carolina counties to restore the registrations of thousands of voters after the NAACP sued over residency-based challenges.

Overall, early ballots beat their numbers from 2012 - with more than 45 percent of the state’s registered voters casting ballots before Election Day. Fewer black voters cast early ballots than in Obama’s re-election year, though voters from other races increased their numbers.

The fight over voting access helped motivate Vernon Hobbs of Apex, a Raleigh suburb, to cast an early ballot for Clinton and other Democrats. The 55-year-old small business owner in the health care field, who is black, hoped that strong early voter turnout sends a message.

“This should be another sign to our state officials that early voting and making voting easier is the way to go,” Hobbs said.


Associated Press writer Jeffrey Collins in Zebulon contributed to this report.


Follow Jonathan Drew at www.twitter.com/jonldrew

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