2016 brings record early voting turnout in North Carolina

RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina voters have gotten lots of attention this fall with routine visits by Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, their running mates and a host of surrogates, including President Barack Obama.

Add expensive and tight races for other top statewide races that also generated tens of millions of dollars in television ads and the voters responded vigorously: unofficial totals show early in-person voting reached a record 2.95 million people, a 15 percent increase over 2012. Add already received mail, military and overseas ballots and the 3.18 million cast is 13 percent higher.

SPECIAL SECTION: Vote 2016

Much is at stake in North Carolina, a key battleground state where the public fight over House Bill 2 -- the law Republicans approved that limits protections for LGBT people - has loomed large.

PRESIDENTIAL BATTLEGROUND

Polls still show the race close for North Carolina's 15 electoral votes. While winning the state is critical for Trump to accumulate the 270 needed for the presidency, Clinton has many paths to clinch the White House that don't include the state.

The Clinton campaign and state Democratic Party kept the pressure on Trump during the fall, outgunning Trump and the GOP when it came to staff and campaign advertising. Trump's crowds at large arenas - like his rally Monday in Raleigh - reinforced his popularity, however. Clinton planned her own final campaign late Monday night on the North Carolina State University campus.

Clinton brought in top surrogates like the president and first lady Michelle Obama. Bernie Sanders also campaigned with Clinton in the final days. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin were in North Carolina for Trump in the final days.

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NEAR THE TOP

Ballots ask voters to decide whether to keep Republicans Pat McCrory as governor and Richard Burr in the U.S. Senate. Both have faced tough challengers.

Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper has outraised and outspent McCrory handily on the airwaves and made the race a referendum about the conservative bent the state has taken this decade.

Cooper was relentless criticizing McCrory for signing House Bill 2, which created a national controversy. McCrory defended the law but focused his campaign on the state's recovering economy and his leadership following Hurricane Matthew.

Former state Rep. Deborah Ross was once considered a second-tier candidate but outraised Burr most of this year and along with her allies labeled him a Washington insider. Burr highlighted his legislative record and chairmanship of the Senate Intelligence Committee. His campaign and outside groups were persistent scrutinizing Ross' past lobbying for the American Civil Liberties Union.

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WHEN AND WHERE CAN I VOTE TUESDAY?

Roughly 2,700 polling places will be open statewide from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. People in line at 7:30 p.m. will be able to vote.

A federal court ruling last summer eliminated requirements that most people show photo identification to vote in person. Ballots cast by people voting Tuesday in the wrong precinct in their home county also will be counted.

People filling out traditional absentee ballots must return them to their county elections office by 5 p.m. Tuesday or get them postmarked by Tuesday.

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A LONG BALLOT

Take a deep breath before voting. Ballots list candidates for more than 20 federal or statewide offices, not including local judgeships, county commissioners, school board seats and local referenda.

There are several down-ballot races for lieutenant governor, attorney general, treasurer and six other Council of State seats. There are choices on representation to Congress and the General Assembly, and to the state appellate courts.

This is the first presidential election since straight-ticket voting was eliminated. It was used by 2.5 million voters for partisan races in 2012, or 56 percent of ballots cast, so it may take longer to fill one out. The State Board of Elections says it's taking voters 4 to 6 minutes on average to fill out ballots.

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THE LEGISLATURE

While it remains likely Republicans will extend control of the General Assembly for two more years, Democrats could collect enough seats to prevent veto-proof majorities in the House, the Senate or both. That would give the next governor more bargaining power.

Republicans currently control 75 of the 120 seats in the House and 34 of the 50 Senate seats. Democrats would need to win five additional Senate seats or four in the House to sustain vetoes. A handful of races in Wake, Mecklenburg and adjoining counties could decide the outcome.

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THE COURTS

There's one seat up for the officially nonpartisan state Supreme Court, but the court's political balance could shift to the Democrats if Wake County Superior Court Judge Michael Morgan defeats Associate Justice Bob Edmunds. Edmunds is one of four Republicans on the seven-member court. Morgan's a Democrat. A Democratic majority could serve as a stronger counterweight to a Republican-led legislature.