Thousands of Durham residents flooded voting sites starting last week in a tense election countdown that has state and local officials quietly preparing for disruptions. Among the precautions: positioning unarmed security at polling places.
The first few days of early voting in the county found eager Durhamites waiting in lines by the hundreds, sometimes as long as three hours, masked and socially distant.
“I really think the election in Durham is going to go well,” said Mayor Steve Schewel. “I want to encourage everybody to understand that early in-person voting is safe. It’s safer than going to the supermarket.”
But it isn’t just COVID-19 that has brought worry about voting in person. Around the country, concerns about what may happen at the polls — at early-vote sites and on Election Day — have arisen because of comments from President Donald Trump.
Trump has urged his supporters to go to polling places to expose alleged voter fraud, despite ample studies that show fraud is rare. His campaign has an “Army for Trump” website with videos encouraging loyalists to sign up to join the president’s “Election Day Operations.”
Elections are governed by strict state laws on allowed activities in and outside of the schools, libraries and community buildings where Americans vote, and some worry problems may occur if “Army for Trump” volunteers show up. Except for authorized observers, people are required to stay at least 50 feet away from polling places, for instance.
Last month, Trump supporters in Virginia stood outside an early voting site in Fairfax County, waving campaign flags and chanting “four more years.” Even though the group stood the required distance from the polling place, the demonstration intimidated some voters and election officials opened up part of the government building so people waiting to vote felt safer.
On just the second day of early voting in North Carolina, an incident in Wake County brought national headlines. A Republican poll observer, former State Rep. Gary Pendleton, was charged with misdemeanor assault when he allegedly pushed an election worker at an early-vote site. Pendleton was trying to get into a Wake Forest polling site earlier than the opening time, and the worker denied him access. “We are looking for fraudulent activity that might be occurring in polls around Wake County,” Pendleton said.
In downtown Durham last week, a voter made his way to the front of the line, said he wanted to skip everyone, and then verbally assaulted poll workers until he was escorted off the premises, said Clinton Goldston, a security officer stationed outside of the Karsh Alumni Center at Duke University on Monday. The man “presented [their] cane as a weapon,” said Goldston, who wore a neon green vest with the word SECURITY stamped on the back.
State and local elections officials are trying to balance the need for security at the polls with concerns that a visible police presence could, by itself, intimidate voters. Last week, Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the State Board of Elections, issued a memo telling local elections officials not to have uniformed police or sheriff’s deputies at polling places.
“In the event a county board must utilize law enforcement for parking and traffic issues at a voting site,” she wrote, “officers must be in plain clothes.”
“Law enforcement may periodically drive by a voting site in the event heightened security is needed,” she added.
Bell’s memo drew criticism from some Republican officials. “The State Board of Elections has no jurisdiction over police matters,” said Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, the Republican candidate for governor. “They do not have the authority to mandate when, where or how uniformed police officers do their jobs. This memo is insulting to the men and women in uniform.”
But Schewel agreed with the state board’s approach. “We don’t want to have officers stationed at the polls because we want to make sure that everyone feels comfortable,” he said.
Derek Bowen, director of the Durham Board of Elections, said he has coordinated with local law enforcement to prepare for any incidents at polling stations. “Some of Durham County’s plans are to have unarmed security at polling places, to help mitigate and diffuse anything that may present itself,” he said.
The board has hired a Raleigh firm, Night Hawk Security & Consulting, to provide unarmed security workers outside the polls to help with traffic, enforce social distancing and prevent interference with voting.
“We are in discussions with the [Durham Police Department] with regards to responding to an incident that may require them, but we will not have any officers on site,” Bowen said.
Why Durham matters
The past year has been a challenging one for law enforcement around the nation due to protests and violence around police shootings and the emergence of right-wing groups. Now police are confronted by a polarizing election. Trump’s claims about voting fraud risks and his hints that he may not give up power if he loses have raised fears of disorder. Concerns extend beyond Election Day on Nov. 3. The massive number of mail-in absentee votes may delay results for days.
Durham County could play a significant role in the outcome of a close U.S. Senate and presidential race in North Carolina. Hillary Clinton’s narrow loss of North Carolina, a key battleground state, helped Trump win the presidency in the Electoral College. Yet she won Durham County with more than 77 percent of the vote.
North Carolina this year, with 15 electoral votes, is again one of a handful of swing states that will decide the presidency. Most scenarios for a Trump re-election require him to win North Carolina again. And continued Republican control of the U.S. Senate could hinge on whether Senator Thom Tillis beats Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham.
Ready if needed
Durham law enforcement agencies say they are ready if needed during early voting, on Nov. 3, and in the days after the election.
“I understand this election is critically important,” Durham County Sheriff Clarence F. Birkhead said in an email. “My office has been in contact with our state and federal law enforcement partners, and we have not been informed of a specific threat against any of our polling locations.”
“I support the needs of the Durham County Board of Elections and the State Board of Elections as they ensure a safe environment for all citizens to exercise their constitutional right to vote,” Birkhead added.
Durham Police Lt. J.E. Werner said her agency has been communicating about the election with the elections board and the sheriff’s office about “best practices and procedures,” as well as state public safety officials.
Although she declined to discuss plans or tactics, she said the department, with 550 sworn officers, has “the personnel and resources to respond effectively” to any disturbances.
Wanda Page has been Durham’s interim city manager since the retirement of Tom Bonfield last month. When asked about possible election-related problems, she said: “We talk about a lot of things in the city, and yes, we have had these conversations in some of our meetings. But I’m not really sure if there’s, you know, additional detail I can provide about that.”
At the state level, the Department of Public Safety typically focuses on providing assistance when bad weather threatens to disrupt elections, and works with other state and federal agencies to protect elections from cyber attacks. But DPS also houses the State Highway Patrol and other law enforcement agencies that are available to help local law enforcement deal with major disturbances.
“We must always be ready to stand in support of our communities if any issues arise,” said DPS spokesman Sgt. Christopher Knox.
Despite all this readiness, Schewel expressed optimism that the election will be free of disruption.
“I don’t have any major concerns about it in general,” he said. “I certainly think it’s possible. But I think it’s unlikely that would happen in Durham. And I think it’s especially unlikely to happen in a significant way.”
9th Street Journal photographer Henry Haggart contributed reporting to this article. 9th Street Journal reporter Cameron Oglesby can be reached at email@example.com.
At top: Poll volunteer Emma DeRose wipes down a voting booth after a voter leaves. Photo by Henry Haggart.