FILE - A worker prepares tabulators for the upcoming election, in Raleigh, North Carolina, Sept. 3, 2020. Early in-person voting starts Oct. 15, 2020, in all 100 counties in the battleground state.
FILE - A worker prepares tabulators for the upcoming election, in Raleigh, North Carolina, Sept. 3, 2020. Early in-person voting starts Oct. 15, 2020, in all 100 counties in the battleground state.

Voters in the electoral battleground state of North Carolina are the latest in the United States to get their chance to cast early ballots in person for the Nov. 3 election.
 
The start of early voting Thursday coincides with campaign events in the state for President Donald Trump and Democratic vice-presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris. Trump is visiting Greenville, while Harris is making stops in Charlotte and Asheville.
 
Many states have seen a surge in early voting, with concerns about crowds at polling places in the middle of a pandemic driving many voters’ decisions to find a way to cast their ballots on a less busy day or by mail.
 
According to the United States Election Project, which is tracking state election data, more than 16 million people in the United States had voted as of Wednesday night.  That included 500,000 in North Carolina, a figure equal to 10% of the state’s entire turnout in the 2016 election.
 
That number will likely rise sharply with Thursday’s in-person voting, mirroring scenes in other states this week where people turned out in record numbers for their states’ opening of early voting.
 
North Carolina’s half-million votes already cast have come in the form of absentee ballots returned through the mail, a system that has come under legal challenge in the state and elsewhere in the country.
 
Rules vary by state, but in North Carolina all absentee ballots must have the signature of a witness affirming the identity of the voter.
 
A federal judge ruled Wednesday that if an absentee ballot lacks a witness, voters can no longer remedy the situation and have their vote counted by sending in an affidavit to prove it is legitimate.
 
State officials had issued a directive allowing such fixes, but Republicans challenged the system, arguing it both took away state legislators’ power to make election rules and diluted the votes of people who followed the original rules.
 
Wednesday’s court ruling did allow other smaller fixes to absentee ballots, such as if a witness signature was in the wrong place.
 
State board of elections data showed that as of Wednesday, in addition to the 500,000 absentee ballots that had been accepted, election officials also received about 12,000 others that had some type of problem.
 
In 2016, Trump defeated Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton 49.8% to 46.2% in North Carolina.  Two polls released this week show another close contest.   
 
A New York Times/Siena poll put former Vice President Joe Biden ahead of Trump 46% to 42% in North Carolina with a 4.5% margin of error.  A Reuters/Ipsos polls gave Biden a 48% to 47% percent advantage with a 4% margin of error.
 
U.S. presidents are elected using a system called the Electoral College.  Each state is assigned a number of electors based on its representation in Congress, and the winner must amass a majority of the 538 total electors.  North Carolina has 15 electoral votes, the tenth most of any state.