CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Blacks are already surging to the polls in parts of the South, according to initial figures from states that encourage early voting _ a striking though still preliminary sign of how strongly they will turn out nationwide for Barack Obama in his campaign to become the first African-American president.
There have been predictions all year of a record black turnout for Obama. The first actual figures suggest that wasn't just talk:
_ In North Carolina, blacks make up 31 percent of early voters so far, even though they're just 21 percent of the population and made up only 19 percent of state's overall 2004 vote.
_ Roughly 36 percent of the early voters are black in Georgia, outpacing their 30 percent proportion of the state's population and their 25 percent share of the 2004 vote.
No one but the voters can be sure how they voted. And John McCain's campaign officials note that the Obama camp has put much more effort than they have into early voting. But the numbers are still notable.
Democrats are outvoting the GOP by a margin of 2.5-to-1 in North Carolina, where early voting has been under way for a week. That's roughly double the margin from 2004.
More than 210,000 blacks who are registered as Democrats have cast early ballots in the Tar Heel State _ compared with roughly 174,000 registered Republicans overall. Four years ago, the number of GOP early and absentee voters was more than double that of black Democrats.
"It's a sign about how energized African-Americans are about this election," says David Bositis, who tracks black voting trends at the Washington-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
In Louisiana, more than 31 percent of the early voters are black, and Democrats are topping Republicans nearly 2-to-1. In the crucial battleground state of Florida, nearly 55 percent of early voters are registered Democrats _ well above their 41 percent share of the electorate in the Sunshine State.
Virginia, another Southern state that usually votes Republican _ but where Obama is doing well in opinion polls _ does not track voter registrations by race or party. But some of the largest increases in registrations this year were in Democratic-leaning cities with large minority populations.
Absentee voting _ as the name suggests _ was originally designed for people who couldn't make it to the polls on Election Day. But this year, more than 30 states allow any registered voter to cast an early ballot, and many election officials are encouraging voters to do so to ease the strain on Nov. 4. About a third of voters nationwide are expected to cast their ballots before Election Day
Obama's campaign has focused heavily on turning out those voters, using advertising and campaign events. That's the message the Illinois senator brought to North Carolina during his last stop, when he addressed a predominantly black crowd in Fayetteville.
"We want to get as many votes in as possible as early as possible," he said.
Louise Boyd, a 61-year-old Charlotte retiree, voted early this year and then returned to wait in line two days later with her sister, Nyata Frazier. Boyd, who is black, said she expected a very large turnout from watching rallies and noting the historic nature of voting for a black presidential candidate.
"I had a little more pride," she said. "It shows how vastly the U.S. has changed."
The surge in black voters follows a similar trend this year in voter registration. In the five states that track voter registration by race, blacks signed up to vote at twice the rate of whites in the six months through September.
The question then was would those newly registered voters turn out to vote, and now there are signs that they will. In Georgia, 230,000 more people have cast early ballots than voted absentee in 2004.
Many of those early voters have come from metro Atlanta counties, including heavily Democratic Fulton and DeKalb.
In Marietta, just north of Atlanta, poll workers were warning arriving voters of waits up to four hours on Thursday. Many were not deterred.
"Take off work, get in line and just expect a long wait," said Kristy White, 30. "Bring a book if you have to."
Georgia election officials expect 1.4 million people to vote early this year _ more than double the total from four years ago.
It's the same in North Carolina, where State Board of Elections Director Gary Bartlett said two months ago he told senior staff members that mail-in and in-person early voting could reach 2 million ballots. Bartlett said his colleagues thought he was a little crazy.
But based on results so far _ more than 735,000 people had voted early as of early Thursday _ "it looks like that we're going to be pretty close to that."
"We're seeing historic numbers with a historic election year," Bartlett said. "I'm very proud to be a part of that historical process."
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 requires several Southern states to report racial breakdowns among voters, an effort designed to prevent discrimination. But North Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana are the only ones reporting that information as early voting is proceeding.
"We believe in transparency," Bartlett said.
North Carolina has long had more registered Democrats than Republicans but hasn't voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1976. President Bush won the state by 12 percentage points four years ago. Bush beat John Kerry by 17 points in Georgia, a state that last voted Democratic in 1992.
This year's trends are daunting for McCain, the Republican nominee. Polls out this week favor Obama in both North Carolina and Florida.
Last year, Obama said his place on the Democratic ticket would boost African-American turnout by 30 percent _ potentially opening up Southern states that his party hadn't won in more than a generation. But Obama campaign officials now play down the prospect that his place as the first black to top a major party ticket would sway enough voters to win the presidency.
"I don't think we should talk only about race. There are so many other factors _ age, geography," said spokeswoman Carolina Adelman. "This campaign's not about race, it's about bringing people together."
Republicans also caution it would be a mistake to read too much into the early totals. McCain spokesman Mario Diaz said the GOP will benefit from high turnout on Election Day, and he noted the party has focused less on early voting than Obama.
"We anticipate the support to only intensify by Election Day," he said.
Associated Press Writers Gary D. Robertson in Raleigh, Greg Bluestein and Shannon McCaffrey in Atlanta and John Parsons at the AP's News and Information Research Center in New York contributed to this report.