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Biden visits Durham, pushes voter turnout at drive-in rally

The Biden campaign passed through Durham on wheels.

Spinning down Rose of Sharon Road Sunday afternoon, the Democratic presidential candidate’s motorcade glided by expectant Durhamites, many of whom had learned about the Joe Biden-fronted drive-in rally through social media and local news. Unable to enter the actual rally, they had parked bumper-to-bumper and half on the grass outside Riverside High School, hoping to catch a glimpse of the former vice president. 

“I’m hoping we can hear something, but we definitely at least want to see him go in,” Celeste Sloop said from the road outside of the rally. She awaited Biden’s arrival out of sight from the stage where he would speak. “You wouldn’t particularly know that things are going on.”

Her best view was a sharp left turn up the road, but even with her disappointment, the limitations of the event were evidence for Sloop, who has not voted yet, of how serious a Biden presidency would be about the coronavirus pandemic, which she said would be a motivating issue at the polls this year.

As Biden rolled into Durham, he sought to build the momentum of record-breaking voter turnout in the battleground state, all while guarding against coronavirus. Invited guests, including Reps. G. K. Butterfield (NC-1) and David Price (NC-4), attended the drive-in rally, while an estimated 200 people who could not enter the event listened from the parking lot — a sharp contrast against Donald Trump’s campaign rallies, which remain in-person and inundated even after his coronavirus diagnosis. 

The campaign stopped by on the fourth day of early voting in North Carolina, with just over two weeks until Election Day.

Over 1.5 million ballots have already been cast early in North Carolina, as of Sunday night — 905,245 in person and 608,381 by mail. In Durham, over 40,000 ballots — representing 16.6% of the city’s registered voters — have been cast via in-person early voting .

Some of those voters spectated from the overflow parking lot, even without an event for them in particular. There, they stood socially distanced, small neon orange cones marking how far they could go, all wearing masks — one with “vote” scrawled in black marker over top, another with Durham’s “No bull, I voted” sticker fixed on and flapping in the breeze.

“We were voting against what we see as far as the police and the division related to racism, versus for what we think would be at least more open-minded and more willing to bring us together than divide us,” said Kathy Greene, who voted early with her family. “We were voting against something even more so than we are for Joe Biden.”

Kathy Greene, who stood outside Riverside High School to catch a glimpse of Biden, said she has already voted for the Democratic candidate.

Unable to hear Biden from the overflow parking lot, some watched a livestream of the event, sharing earbuds, peering over shoulders, his remarks echoing as they played from phone speakers and rang softly from the actual event. 

“Filling out my ballot, I felt the most proud of this vote as I have in many years,” Thomas Whitmire said. “This goes beyond policy, deeply into the tone of our leadership, and that’s really the main issue at this point. If he’s in, I’m sure I’ll be a little more selective with policies.”

Speaking for 19 minutes, Biden touched on healthcare, employment, criminal justice, and how systemic racism seeps into each issue. He encouraged attendees to turn out and support down-ballot Democratic candidates as well.

“It’s time to restore America’s soul,” Biden said. “We got to keep the momentum going.”

When event goers from the drive-in rally honked in support, those in the overflow parking lot responded with applause and whoops, pulling signs from underneath their elbows to wave in the air.

Most spectators remained in the parking lot for the duration of Biden’s remarks, waiting afterwards with the hopes that Biden would exit near them. A procession of cars drove through, Biden-Harris signs hoisted through sunroofs, but the former vice president did not appear among them.

Spectators watch as a Biden campaign bus leaves Riverside High School after a drive-in rally on Sunday.

After the event, Betsy Albright lingered in the parking lot. “It’s good to see people out in support of our democracy,” she said. “I voted for the protection of our democratic institutions, climate change, health, education, all of it.”

After the drive-in rally, the Biden campaign parted ways: the campaign hosted a separate car parade called “Todos con Biden,” driving from Compare Foods, a supermarket in south Durham, to South Regional Library, an early voting site.

Biden, on the other hand, continued onto Cook Out, ordering vanilla and chocolate milkshakes for himself and his granddaughter Finnegan before leaving Durham.

At top: Bearing phones and masks, Durhamites stand along the street outside a drive-in rally for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden on Sunday at Riverside High School. All photos taken by Henry Haggart.