In less than a month, voters in Western North Carolina decide the Republican nomination in the 11th Congressional District. Outside of whether Lynda Bennett or Madison Cawthorn wins on June 23rd, how voters cast their ballots during a pandemic will be a major takeaway from the race - and a potential foreshadow of how prevalent mail-in voting will be for the November general election.
Bennett and Cawthorn will face each other after neither garnered the necessary 30% of the vote needed to avoid a runoff in the March 3rd primary. The runoff was originally scheduled for May 12th, but was pushed back to June 23rd because of the Coronavirus pandemic. The winner will face Democrat Moe Davis in the November general election for a full-term starting in 2021, and most likely also in a special election the same day to fill out the remaining weeks of the term of Mark Meadows, who resigned the seat in March to become President Trump's chief of staff.
Mail-in voting for the runoff is underway, and the deadline to request an absentee mail-in ballot is June 16th, exactly one week before the runoff. Early voting takes place from June 4th to 20th. Thus far the number of mail-in ballots returned is nine-times as many as at the same point for the March primary. Political scientist Dr. Chris Cooper of Western Carolina University has been following those numbers and says the amount of mail-in voting in the runoff is a likely preview of what all of North Carolina will see this fall due to COVID-19 that could make voters uncomfortable voting in person at polling places. Cooper spoke with BPR's Matt Bush. You can hear their full discusion above.
EXCERPTS OF INTERVIEW
Who is eligible to vote in the runoff? - "All Republicans who are registered in the 11th District are eligible to vote. Unaffiliated voters are also eligible to vote as long as they did not vote in another party's primary (on March 3rd of this year)."
How can voters get a mail-in absentee ballot for the runoff election? - "So the process to get an absentee ballot is not very difficult at all. You get on the board of elections website and you can download a a form (which can be found by clicking here), print it out and send it in and they will send you a ballot. Some voters are getting ballots sent automatically to them. So if you received a mail-in ballot for the previous primary, and you checked the box to continue to receive mail-in ballots throughout the entire 2020 (election cycle), then you'll receive one automatically. Otherwise you'll have to request a ballot."
Turnout for the runoff was already expected to be very low even before the pandemic. How can these two political newcomers get voters to show up? - "This is a little bit of a head scratcher on campaign strategy for sure. We've got two folks who have not run for office before, who've been involved in politics before but not in elected office and have not run a campaign before. And they're running in a runoff, a second primary that has been moved due to the pandemic. So it has a lot going against it for turnout purposes. It's also as we noted before a little confusing about whom can vote and how they can even vote for this round. These (two) need to communicate not only to vote for them but how to vote for them. Right now it looks like Madison Cawthorn has been visiting with the press at least virtually a little bit more than Lynda Bennett has. Some newspapers in the western part of the district tried to get a debate together and were only able to get Cawthorn to show up. Lynda Bennett is the favorite going into this. We don't have any polling, and I wouldn't trust any polling if we did given the unlikelihood of anyone knowing what the turnout is going to look like. Bennett did get the most votes in the first primary, and she may be banking on the fact that she's the favorite and that more press coverage is better for her opponent and not for her."