By Richard Sullins |

In just over two weeks, we’ll find out which direction our government will take for the next two years. Early voting in Sanford and Broadway began last Thursday and, with the exception of this past Saturday and Sunday Oct. 30, will continue every day before ending on Saturday, November 5. And if early numbers are any indication, more voters will be voting in a midterm election in Lee County this year than ever before.

The county’s Board of Elections designated two locations for early voting this year: the McSwain Agricultural Center at 2420 Tramway Road in the southern part of the county and the board’s own offices at 1503 Elm Street to service the northern portions. Early voters can make use of either site.

Around 900 voters went to the polls to cast their ballots during the first two days of early voting. The McSwain site reported that 1,029 persons had voted there, with the Board Office checking in another 779 voters during last Thursday and Friday. The board had previously scheduled a one-day pause for Saturday, October 22, and voting resumed on Sunday, when 169 people cast ballots at the board office and 203 voted at McSwain.

A second option for voters who want to avoid standing in line on Election Day is to request an absentee ballot. The Board of Elections has been filling those requests for the past several days and residents will have until Tuesday, November 1, to submit their request on paper. All absentee ballots must be returned the board office by 5 p.m. on the day of the general election, Tuesday, November 8.

If voting on Election Day is your tradition, the polls will open that day at 6:30 a.m. and close at 7:30 p.m. in each of the county’s 10 precincts. The board will begin the process of counting absentee ballots until the 5 p.m. deadline for delivery to the office arrives, and the results of early voting will be the first results released by the board just after the polls close on November 8.

Lee County has about 29,000 registered voters and trendlines suggest that at least half that number will likely cast their ballots in this year’s election. Historically, turnout in off-year elections like this one has been less than a third of those who were listed on the voter rolls. But during the past two decades, that percentage has steadily increased and that’s what the board is preparing for in 2022.

There are about 2.5 million registered Democrats in North Carolina and another 2.2 million are registered as Republicans. Growth in registrations within the two major parties appears to be stagnating but the fastest growing block of voters includes those who register “unaffiliated.” When the deadline for new voter registrations was reached a few days ago, 2.6 million persons in the state were registered to vote without a preference for party.

In Lee County, about 1,000 more Democrats are registered to vote than Republicans (12,913 to 11,884). But it’s unaffiliated voters again who are in the majority here (14,227) and it is to these voters that candidates are making their final appeals to in the runup to November 8.

In counties like Lee where the numbers of rural versus urban residents are about evenly split, driving voter turnout on a partisan basis takes on an extra sense of urgency because of key races on the ballot. There is an election for a new United States Senator on the ballot and this year, the county finds itself again shifted to a new Congressional district (the 9th).

So, party affiliations can help determine who will win an election. So can other factors, like the rural versus urban divide. And there are many other ways that parties use to determine which slice of the electorate they need to focus on in order to win. “Soccer moms” is a well-known example, as is “suburban voters.”

But it’s more often the case that contests within the county are a main determinate in the numbers of people who vote. This year, voters will decide whether control of the county Board of Commissioners and the school board will change parties for the next two years.

Republicans are defending three seats on the Board of Commissioners, while incumbent Democrat Robert Reives Sr. is running unopposed. Democrats could gain control there by picking up just one of the Republican seats.

In the school board race, three Democrats are facing off against three Republicans. Incumbent Christine Hilliard and Pat McCracken are joined by first-timer Walter Ferguson on the Democratic ticket, with Republicans Eric Davidson, Alan Rummel, and Chris Gaster each vying for their first term on the board. Democrats control the board by a 4-3 margin, which Republicans could flip by winning one of the Democratic seats and keeping the one now held by retiring member Pam Sutton.

As important as these is the contest between the candidates for Lee County Sheriff. Republican incumbent Sheriff Brian Estes was appointed to wear the badge almost a year ago when Tracy Carter decided to retire after serving for almost 20 years. Estes is up against Democrat Carlton Lyles, a veteran of 26 years in law enforcement with service in the Lee County Sheriff’s Office and the Sanford Police Department.