Press "Enter" to skip to content

Posts published by “Rose Wong”

Ninth Street: A love story

From the moment I wandered onto Ninth Street as a clueless Duke freshman experiencing her first days of August humidity in the Southeast, I never quite looked at the world the same way.

On Ninth Street, I worked my first service industry job where I saw, heard about, and experienced more sexual harassment than I knew existed. I fell in love with a woman and jumped into a whirl of confusion. I formed many thoughts while walking back and forth between White Star Laundromat and Bruegger’s Bagels. I cried. I laughed more. 

About to enter my last semester of college, I now live in Erwin Mill, a Ninth Street apartment building converted from a cotton mill in the 1970s (which I didn’t know until reporting for this story). Driving on Ninth Street a few dozen evenings ago, I was struck by the pink and purple skies gently resting on the street’s low-rise buildings and reflected, once again, on how much I love my home. 

That thought came with a pang of guilt. My understanding of Ninth Street and West Durham was limited to the last four years. To truly love someone is to know someone. It was time to learn more. 

Readers — this is a love story, a farewell letter, and a chronicle of my home and the people who defend it. 

Mill village

For decades, wheat crop covered most of what is now Old West Durham — a neighborhood that stretches north from the Durham Freeway to Englewood Avenue and west from Broad Street to Hillandale Road. Except for Pinhook, according to John Schelp, former president of the Old West Durham Neighborhood Association and West Durham’s street historian. 

In the early to mid-19th century, Pinhook was a “rough and roaring” settlement whose great appeal was its tavern. After a day’s journey, travelers walking from Hillsborough to Raleigh would end up at Pinhook, which was “100 yards southwest of the southwest corner of Erwin Mill,” Schelp said.

They would kick back in the tavern, socialize with locals — including University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill students who could party at Pinhook away from authority figures — and rest up before continuing their journey the next morning. 

Ninth Street itself was part of farmland owned by the Rigsbee family, whose land now holds Hillsborough Road, Carolina Avenue, 15th Street, and most of Duke West Campus. In 1892, the Duke family bought that land from the Rigsbees to build a cotton mill to diversify their investments in tobacco and expand into other industries, like textile. 

The long red-brick building on Ninth Street was the first of eight Erwin Mills that the Duke family owned in the Southeast. I and many Duke students live in the first. Parizade and Local 22, both restaurants, and the 10-story Erwin Square Tower replaced the fourth, which was larger. 

The development of the mill village, which stretched from Monuts on Ninth Street to the Duke Gardens, left no room for Pinhook’s ruckus, Schelp said. 

If you drank too much, not only did you lose your job, you lost your mill house… all the houses were owned by the mills,” Schelp said. 

Relative to other mill villages in the Southeast in the early 20th century, life wasn’t too bad, Schelp said. Erwin Mill workers and their families had access to a health clinic, library, swimming pool, baseball field and tennis courts.

Unlike some mill villages that had company stores, Erwin Mills allowed private merchants to populate Ninth Street, Schelp said. There was a grocery store, hardware store, post office, and McDonald’s Drugstore, a pharmacy and soda shop for 80 years that served renowned milkshakes until 2003.

The Regulator

In the 1970s, during Erwin Mills’ slow decline, new businesses and ideas began flowing into Ninth Street. In 1974, Duke alumnus David Birkhead founded The Regulator Press, which printed political news for grassroots organizations, in the back of what is now The Regulator bookstore. A couple years later, he gathered friends — including fellow alumni Tom Campbell and Aden Field — and suggested that they rent the streetfront space and sell books, Campbell said. 

Field jumped on the idea; Campbell, who had recently finished his master’s degree in environmental management at Duke and could not yet find a job, agreed to help out for a few months. 

“A few months became 41 years,” Campbell said. 

The Regulator Bookshop opened in 1976. Field moved on after two years and John Valentine, another Dukie, joined Campbell until they both retired almost three years ago. 

The entire friend group — Campbell, Valentine, Birkhead, Field — were politically progressive. “Durham was still largely a conservative town, so we were a little different,” Campbell said. 

Campbell and Valentine invited provocative authors to speak at their store, including feminist novelist Margaret Atwood, Black historian John Hope Franklin, and former Vice President Al Gore during his book tour for Earth in the Balance.

Shortly after the 1979 Greensboro Massacre, when the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party killed four members of the Communist Workers Party, members dropped off copies of their newspaper on a rack at The Regulator where locals could share flyers and free information, Campbell said. 

Flyers soon circulated the neighborhood, stating that there were communists on Ninth Street. “They were referring to us,” Campbell said. 

Some people in Old West Durham were clearly not communists. 

Don Hill’s Lock and Gun (renamed Don Hill’s Lock and Safe in 2007) on Hillsborough Road had a large cannon facing the street out front. For a while after the flyers that falsely claimed Campbell and Valentine were communists spread throughout the neighborhood, that cannon was turned towards Ninth Street, Campbell said. 

“It was a little scary,” Campbell said. “This was just a few months after people who were communists got killed in Greensboro.” 

Progressive shift

By the 1980s, Ninth Street was a hub for progressives and the intellectually curious. Ninth Street Bakery, which opened in 1981 where Dain’s Place and Durham Cycles are currently, was the first bakery in town to offer organic and whole grain options, co-founder Frank Ferrell said. 

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel, who helped Campbell and Field organize their bookstore the night before The Regulator’s opening, recalled often meeting other left-leaning thinkers  at the Ninth Street Bakery and bouncing thoughts back and forth for hours. 

While attending graduate school at Duke, Schewel worked for North Carolina Public Interest Research Group, which rented office space above what is now Wavelengths. Vaguely Reminiscent owner Carol Anderson said that “a network of lefty groups” rented offices above the hair salon back then. 

Based on their interests in vintage fashion and basket weaving, Anderson and then-business partner Deb Nickell founded Vaguely Reminiscent in 1982, taking the name from folk singer Charlie King’s 1979 song “Vaguely Reminiscent of the 60s.” 

Baskets and used clothes were not enough to fill a store, they soon realized, so they expanded to crafts and natural-fiber clothing. Today, that’s where you find Kamala Harris prayer candles and magnets that read “Wake Up And Smell The Complete And Utter Bullshit!” (Yes, I bought one.)

A piece of Durham history occurred in Vaguely Reminiscent. In preparation for the first official Durham pride parade in 1986, queer and progressive organizers asked then-Mayor Wib Gulley to make an anti-discrimination proclamation to protect them. Gulley did them one better and created an anti-discrimination week. 

The backlash was immediate. Local religious leaders and conservatives, led by U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms’ National Congressional Club, organized a recall campaign against Gulley. Activists set up booths around Durham and sought to collect the 14,000 signatures in six weeks they needed to trigger a new mayoral election.

Anderson mobilized volunteers to visit the same places that the recall campaign was collecting signatures to tell community members why they should not sign the petition. They met on the back porch of Vaguely Reminiscent to collect the tables, chairs and informational materials they needed, Anderson said.

The recall campaign did not get enough signatures. 

“There was a lot of political activism and interest in changing our community for the better,” Mayor Schewel said about Ninth Street back then. “The culture we were part of then has shaped what Durham is now.” 

‘Money is pouring’

Like a metronome set at 100 beats per minute, time lords over places and lives, demanding that all keep up. Ninth Street is not exempt.

As national chains move into spaces on the street where local stores once thrived, Ninth Street is becoming increasingly gentrified. Construction workers are turning the parking lot across from Anderson’s store into a Chase bank, the second bank on the street. The lost lot was critical to small businesses on the east side of the street. 

Anderson had planned to sell her business to a longtime employee this year. Not only has the pandemic delayed her retirement, she doesn’t know if anyone will want to take over a small business that’s a vestige of the past, perhaps vaguely reminiscent of the 80s. 

“It doesn’t have the political left vibe that it did,” Anderson said of Ninth Street.  

But that doesn’t mean the community hasn’t taken steps to defend itself. Between 2006 and 2008, Schelp worked with the City Council to create the Ninth Street Plan, which aimed to stave off corporate enterprise and preserve local businesses for as long as possible, he said.

The plan mandated a two-story limit on much of the east side of the street, an even split of three- and four-story buildings on the west side, and banned drive-through windows (The Wells Fargo drive-through was built before the plan.) 

Fast-food chains like MacDonald’s are less likely to move in if they can’t have a drive-through, Schelp said. Knocking down a one-story unit sounds less profitable when you can only replace it with a two-story building. 

Schelp and others from the neighborhood negotiated with other developers on and near Ninth Street, including Harris Teeter, the Berkshire Ninth Street apartments, Station Nine, and Duke Medical Center. They succeeded in influencing the exteriors of some buildings — lots of brick is  visible on upscale apartment buildings. But no units were set aside as affordable housing with less-than market rent, as some desired.

“Money is pouring into Durham,” Schelp said. “You can either complain about the bulldozers when they show up or you can months in advance, sit down at the table, roll up your sleeves and negotiate with the developers to make something that is more acceptable to the community and the builder.” 

A 1987 state law prohibited rent-control on the county or city level. While inclusionary zoning — policy requiring a given share of a new construction to be affordable for residents of moderate- to low-income — is not illegal, it is not explicitly legal either (a 2001 bill to allow mandatory inclusionary zoning died in committee).

Municipalities considering mandating inclusionary zoning worry that the Republican-held General Assembly would not only respond by suing the city, Schelp said, but also ban the affordable-housing strategy altogether.

Accepting development

Change is coming. 

Durham City Council member Javiera Caballero said that the city is currently updating the Durham Comprehensive Plan in ways that will expand affordable housing. In coming years, the city will see a rise in multi-family homes — duplexes, triplexes, quads — to accommodate the influx of people moving to Durham and keep housing prices from skyrocketing, she anticipates. 

The Comprehensive Plan will affect the entire city and supersede the Ninth Street Plan, Caballero said. 

The gentrification plaguing Durham today is the inverse of 20th-century white flight, when white people moved in large numbers out of racially-mixed urban areas for the suburbs, taking wealth and jobs with them.

Affluent whites are now moving to the city, displacing long-time Black residents who cannot compete financially for a number of reasons. For one, mortgage applications for Black residents here are less likely to get approved than  applications for white residents.  

Although Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson could not predict the future of Ninth Street, she said that “all Durham neighborhoods are going to need to densify in the coming years in order to ensure adequate availability of housing, particularly housing that’s affordable to lower-income residents.” 

So Ninth Street will change; the question is for whom? While some see rampant commercial growth (has anyone given Capital One a call?), others envision a compact and financially accessible community for all. 


Since I was born, I moved back and forth between Canada, Hong Kong and Michigan. In each place, I lived with different adults. I’ve been asked countless times — which is home? 

Perhaps my answer will change years from now when I settle down somewhere and start a family. But Durham is the first place that has truly felt like home. 

Ninth Street today is far from the dwindling-mill-village-up-and-coming-lefty-hub where Schewel and Campbell hung out years ago. The steady march of gentrification could bury those roots. 

Still, I find my story aligning and intersecting with the experiences of the mayor and the landmark bookstore founder. This street helped change how I think about politics, race, and gender too. 

I also spent countless hours in The Regulator, particularly when I was desperate to escape the toxic demands of campus life. And if only you could meet all the wonderfully strange people I met here as well.  

Even though I may just be another Duke student cruising through, the impact that Durham has on me and the thousands of students who wander onto Ninth Street for the first time every year far outlasts our time here. 

I have wondered what this street will look like when I return to Durham as an alumna, and whether it will still hold magic like it has for me and so many before me. I don’t know, but I still have a lot of faith in the people who choose to call it home for the long haul.

All photos by 9th Street journalist Rose Wong, who can be reached at

Analysis: 1 million mail-in ballots, not many problems

After months of concerns about Postal Service delays, unfounded allegations about ballot fraud and worries that mail-in ballot deficiencies would disenfranchise voters, the 2020 election has mostly put the mail-in voting frenzy to rest – at least in North Carolina. 

Even so, mail-in voting had its challenges. Processing 1,001,300 mail-in ballots required unprecedented resources. 

“It was no small feat, but I am pleased to report that the election administration process in North Carolina went very well,” Damon Circosta, chair of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, said in an email to The 9th Street Journal.  

The “no small feat” that Circosta referred to involves the 1,001,300 absentee-by-mail ballots cast in the battleground state as of Thursday, Nov. 12. Election officials counted mail-in ballots that were postmarked by Election Day and received by Thursday.  

This happened 1 million times. That gave the state a lot of ballots to process. Photo by Rose Wong | The 9th Street Journal

Tens of thousands of ballots were still counted as outstanding ballots this week, meaning  ballots that were requested but not yet returned. It is unlikely that the state board will receive all of them because some people ultimately chose to vote at the polls or not to cast a ballot. 

Another uncertainty: lots of lawsuits. They challenged various aspects of the state rules and demanded changes in the mail-in voting process. In one, for example, the North Carolina Alliance for Retired Americans asked that the North Carolina Supreme Court suspend the witness requirement for single-adult households, among other changes.  

While the state board initially agreed to let voters fix missing witness signatures with an affidavit, Republican leaders resisted. That triggered a back and forth, which finally ended with an Oct. 18 decision that voters who submitted a ballot with missing witness information must cast a new vote.  

Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Oct. 28 to uphold the mail-in ballot deadline extension to Nov. 12.  

“We were in the midst of both people from the left and the right taking our processes through litigation…I can’t say that that back and forth didn’t come without its trials and tribulations,” Circosta said. “But even through all of that, even with uncertainty provided by courts from NC all the way to the Supreme Court, we were still able to conduct our process.”  

Phil Lehman, chair of the Durham Board of Elections, said this year’s surge of mail-in ballots due to COVID-19 led to an unprecedented workload for election officials.  

“We’re not a vote-by-mail state, so we’re not really set up to process huge numbers of mail ballots,” Lehman said. “They’re very labor intensive. They take a long time to review.”  

Gerry Cohen, a member of the Wake County Board of Elections, said that he didn’t see any major problems in the voting process either. Still, he acknowledged that mail-in voting required more resources than in-person voting.  

“It’s more expensive to process absentee ballots, but we completely understood why people wanted to vote by mail versus potentially risking themselves in person,” Cohen said.  

Despite working around the clock with his colleagues, Circosta wrote that he was pleased with how the election had gone in the state.  

“The election process was secure, accessible and safe,” Circosta wrote.

Progressive advocacy group wants you to vote, and they are not afraid to tell you

Getting multiple mailers from the Center for Voter Information or Voter Participation Center? 

You may be part of the “rising American electorate.” 

That’s what the organizations’ founder Page Gardner calls young people, people of color and unmarried women. She targets them with voter registration and absentee ballot requests forms through the Washington D.C.-based Center for Voter Information. A connected organization Gardner also founded, the Voter Participation Center, gets after white progressives with similar mailings.

It’s working. Gardner, who founded both groups in 2003, said CVI and VPC have sent out tens of millions of mailings to potential North Carolina voters, and claimed responsibility for about half of all absentee ballot applications submitted across the state. The State Board of Elections did not respond to requests for comment on the claim.

The “rising American electorate” now comprises 64% of the eligible voting population, but they do not vote in the strength of their numbers, Gardner said. In 2018, they were 62% of the voting population, she said, but the demographic only accounted for 53% of people who voted.

“The idea for both organizations is to close the gap in terms of participation and opportunity to have a voice and a say in this democracy,” Gardner said. 

Despite those seemingly patriotic intentions, election officials have not been particularly grateful.

Expansive and contentious

CVI and VPC’s mailing efforts have drawn criticism from election officials, who said that the groups’ mailers confuse voters, especially because their letters look like they could come from the government. The mailers have also gone, by mistake, to people who are already registered or too young to vote, according to NPR

“The State and County Boards of Elections encourage third-party groups to consider the overwhelming toll that misleading or confusing mailings and other outreach efforts take on elections resources and the damage they cause to voters’ confidence in elections,” wrote Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the State Board of Elections, in a press release posted Aug. 6.

Page Gardner, founder of both the Center for Voter Information and the Voter Participation Center (Courtesy of Page Gardner).

Two months earlier, CVI sent 80,000 absentee ballot applications to voters with their names and addresses filled out. That also prompted a press release from the State Board of Elections.  The state Legislature banned pre-filled forms in 2019, so those applications were invalid.  

ProPublica reported that President Donald Trump has used CVI’s blunders to stoke fears of voter fraud, after the organization sent 500,000 vote-by-mail applications to Virginia voters with the wrong return address. (Tom Lopach, president and chief executive officer of CVI and VPC, wrote a six-page open letter addressed to ProPublica’s editor-in-chief, highlighting alleged “significant factual and contextual inaccuracies” in the story.)  

Gardner said that election officials who claim that her organizations’ mailers mislead voters are “misinformed.” 

“We would not have generated more than half a million vote-by-mail applications if our [mailers] discouraged voters,” Gardner said.

This year, CVI has sent out more than 20 million pieces of mail in North Carolina, Gardner said, while VPC has mailed over 12 million. The organizations are focusing on battleground states, where voters may have received up to five absentee ballot request forms from either group so far, Gardner said. 

How that letter got in your mailbox

Before sending any letters, CVI and VPC turn to data.

The organizations track their target electorate’s voting activity through voter files, Gardner said. The database allows the organizations to know whether people have registered to vote, voted and how their voting frequency compares to the rest of their state. This information is used to determine which mailer to send someone, when to stop sending mailers and each person’s “voting propensity score,” which is shown as a small bar graph printed on a letter sent to the voter. 

The organizations track the response rate of the mail-in ballot applications mailed to voters through individualized barcodes printed on the return envelopes, Gardner said. 

When a voter mails a CVI or VPC return envelope to their county board of elections, she said, the U.S. Postal Service scans the barcode, which alerts the groups that the voter has sent out their absentee ballot application. 

Later, the organizations check the state’s voter files to see if the individual has officially voted, Gardner said. 

Before starting this year’s mailing effort in January, Gardner said that CVI and VPC conducted experiments to learn how voters respond to absentee ballot request applications mailed to them.

The organizations studied a treatment group, voters who received the mailers, and a control group, voters who did not. They then looked at the response rate of the treatment group and the number of people who registered and ultimately voted in both groups, Gardner said.

The finding was that the likelihood of voters acting (voting or registering to vote) increased with the number of mailers that they received, Gardner said, which explains the groups’ current strategy. 

“That’s why VPC and CVI are such successful organizations,” Gardner said. “We use metrics-based and science-based research to run our programs and we measure everything.” 

Who are these organizations?

CVI and VPC comprise about 25 staff members, many of whom work for both organizations, Gardner said. 

In 2018, CVI raised $19,038,970 in revenue and by the end of the year, had $4,674,696 in net assets, according to the organization’s 990 forms. In the same year, VPC raised $26,319,659 in revenue and $4,161,042 in net assets, 990 forms show. 

Gardner, who is currently living in Durham, N.C., is also the founder of Women’s Voice Women Vote, which she described as a “forerunner organization to VPC.” After identifying a gap in voter turnout between unmarried and married women, Gardner created the organization to target unmarried women as an electorate. 

Women’s Voice Women Vote was mixed in controversy during the 2008 primaries when the organization made robocalls to voters in 11 states telling them to register to vote days after the voter registration deadline. Many of the registered voters who received the calls were expecting to vote in the primary that day, and said that they were confused whether they were registered or not, according to NPR

NPR also reported that these calls indicated typical signs of voter suppression — attempting to drive down voter turnout by sowing confusion. The robocalls seemed to target Black communities, where President Barack Obama was expected to be well ahead of Secretary Hillary Clinton. 

“A dozen years ago, a forerunner organization for VPC issued some robocalls in North Carolina. The call was a follow up to a successful registration mailer and did not meet all the state regulations regarding disclaimers,” Gardner wrote in response to the Robocall allegation. “We corrected the issue and VPC and CVI have helped more than 354,000 North Carolinians register to vote since our founding.” 

Women’s Voice Women Vote had ties to the Clintons: A former leadership staffer worked as Secretary Clinton’s campaign manager and a former board member was President Clinton’s chief-of-staff. Gardner herself previously worked on President Clinton’s 1992 campaign, NPR reported.

At top: letters mailed by the Center for Voter Information, which has sent over 20 million pieces of mail to NC voters in an effort to increase turnout among young people, people of color and unmarried women. Photo by Rose Wong. 

My adventures with mail-in voting

A week after I mailed my registration form to the State Board of Elections, I still hadn’t received my voter card. I looked myself up in the North Carolina Voter Search and saw that I was still listed under my old address. I was starting to get nervous…did my form get lost in the mail?

An occasional series on the 2020 election in North Carolina.

That was just one of several worries and speed bumps that I encountered in my weeks-long effort to mail my ballot to the Durham County Board of Elections. In an ordinary year, that would be a routine act. But with President Donald Trump repeatedly attacking absentee voting and calling this “the greatest rigged election in history,” I was worried: Would my ballot get to the elections office in time to count?

My adventure began Sept. 22 with a seemingly easy change of address. But when I didn’t show up in the database with the new address, I called the Durham County Board of Elections. After waiting on hold for about 30 minutes, the friendly lady who answered the phone told me she couldn’t see my new address in the system and that I should just submit another registration form. 

This time, though, I should send it to Durham, where it would end up anyway, she said. Mailing it to the state board prolonged the process and invited opportunity for error. 

* * *

She also suggested I email or drop it off in person rather than mail it. She said my form was less likely to get lost that way, an assurance that wasn’t the most reassuring since my goal was voting by mail. 

Besides Trump’s comments, which fact-checkers have consistently said are false or unfounded, the controversy of mail-in voting was heightened in the summer when Trump’s Postmaster General Louis DeJoy implemented a series of cost-cutting measures, including eliminating overtime for mail delivery, reducing post office hours and removing mailboxes. 

The changes have not only been faulted for delaying mail delivery and potentially results for the upcoming election, but also threatening to disenfranchise voters whose mail-in ballots do not arrive on time. 

As a result, surveys show reduced confidence in mail-in voting, particularly by Republicans. Still, a record number of voters will rely on mail-in voting this year. Nearly 40% of the state electorate will vote absentee in North Carolina, said Damon Circosta, chair of the State Board of Elections. But with all this fuss about the ballots and the Postal Service, many of us worry if our ballots would make it by the Nov. 12 deadline. 

* * *

I took the advice of the friendly lady at the Durham County office and decided to scan and email my second voter registration form to the county, along with my absentee ballot application.

 I did have to ask my professor to print the form for me, however, because not only do I not have a printer at home, but I ran out of my allotted printing money from Duke this month. I wondered if lack of printer access is a barrier for some voters who may want to vote by mail. 

Three days later, I looked myself up once again and saw that I was correctly registered under my current address. Yay! (I was only listed once, though I sent in my registration form twice. I guess they either disregarded the other form or never received it.) 

Now I was ready to vote. I went on BallotTrax, an online tool to track the status of an absentee ballot. I was pretty excited to be able to know the whereabouts of my ballot, rather than simply mailing it off to the Ethosphere. 

But alas, Ballottrax could not find my information in their system. Weird, I sent my absentee ballot request in the same email as my voter registration.

I called the state (wait time: about an hour) and finally was told I should call my local elections board. 

When I called Durham (wait time: 30 minutes), the representative told me that my absentee request was denied because the last four digits of my Social Security number on my request form did not match their records. 

However, I verified my Social Security number with her and what I wrote on my form was indeed correct. We never figured out why it didn’t match. 

The representative then told me to take a photo of my Social Security card, blur out the numbers except the last four digits (I thought about voters who may not know how to do this) and email it to the county board, which I completed on Oct. 7. 

I wasn’t terribly worried. I still had almost three weeks until the ballot request deadline. Still, given that I mailed my first voter registration form 16 days earlier, I thought I would have my ballot by now. 

I called the county board again two days later to check on my request. They said that my ballot was mailed out two days earlier. Finally! 

* * *

I set up BallotTrax to send me text and email notifications. I would know when my ballot was on the move and when it got accepted. 

On Oct. 10, I got a blank absentee ballot request form and a letter from the county about the Social Security snafu. But I decided it didn’t reflect my current status, so I tossed it into recycling and took my dog to do her business. 

Three days later, after a long day of classes and Zoom meetings, I opened my mailbox and was thrilled when I saw a big envelope stuffed inside.

I hurried upstairs and tore it open. Inside were the ballot, a return envelope, two sheets of instructions and the distinctive Durham sticker of a bull and the slogan No Bull I Voted. I geeked out about the sticker and wanted to show it off on social media, but I felt that it wouldn’t be right until I had actually voted. 

The next day, I enlisted my friend (and 9th Street colleague) Rebecca Torrence to be my witness (every absentee ballot must have one). Rebecca sat next to me while I danced in my chair, filled in the ovals for my candidates and squeaked, “I’m voting, I’m voting!” 

Rebecca then wrote her name, address and signature. Between then and the next morning when I mailed out my vote, I checked the ballot at least three times to make sure that I filled it out correctly. 

Whew! It took more than three weeks for me to register and cast my mail-in ballot. I’m grateful that mail-in voting is a viable option for voters who cannot go to polls because of COVID-19 or other reasons. But after going through the hassles, I would have preferred to vote early in person, which not only would have been faster, but also would have saved me from finding a printer, spending hours on the phone and generally worrying that my mail could get lost in transit. 

BallotTrax was helpful in giving me some peace of mind, though I did not get notifications for two stages of the mail-in voting process that I was promised (inbound to the county board and when it was received). 

But I got the one that mattered. On Oct. 17, two days after dropping my ballot into the blue box in front of Brueggar’s Bagels on 9th Street, I received a text through BallotTrax that my ballot had been accepted.

I carefully stuck my No Bull I Voted sticker onto my coffee tumbler, proud of myself for voting in my second presidential election, ever.

9th Street Journal reporter Rose Wong with her “I voted” sticker.

Photos by Rose Wong | The 9th Street Journal

North Carolina voters can fix most deficient ballots, unless judge intervenes

Editor’s Note: A federal judge on Saturday blocked changes to North Carolina’s absentee voting process, placing a temporary restraining order on the Sept. 22 State Board of Elections settlement that allowed voters to cure ballots with missing witness information by signing an affidavit. The announcement affects the following story in that instead of mailing cure certifications to voters whose ballots had missing witness information, county boards of elections will now hold those ballots while courts determine the next step. We’ll update this story with future developments. 

As much as 40% of the state electorate will vote by mail this year. But don’t screw up if you want your vote counted. 

Historically, three in ten absentee ballots have been thrown out because they do not meet necessary guidelines, said Gunther Peck, Duke history professor and voting rights activist. Now, more voters who make mistakes on their ballots will get a second chance to make it count. 

A joint motion filed last Tuesday in Wake County Superior Court revised the statewide ballot curing process so voters can simply sign an affidavit to fix the most common mistake in absentee ballots — incomplete witness information. Previous guidelines required voters to cast a new ballot. 

In North Carolina, a witness must certify that a specific voter completed the ballot by providing their name, birthday, address and signature on it. The North Carolina Alliance for Retired Americans filed a lawsuit on Aug. 10 demanding various changes to the absentee voting process, including suspending the witness requirement for single-adult households. The organization and the North Carolina State Board of Elections agreed in the Sept. 22 settlement that the witness requirement will remain, but ballots without complete witness information can be cured through a cure certification, or affidavit.

When a voter slips up, the county board sends them a cure certification form. The form explains that the voter missed information in their ballot and asks that they provide a signature to remedy the deficiency. 

State guidelines require that county boards physically mail and email the cure certification to the voter, who should only return one form. If the county board does not have the voter’s email address on file, election officials are obligated to give the voter a call. 

The following deficiencies qualify for a cure certification, according to the state board of elections

  • Voter did not sign Voter Certification
  • Voter signed in the wrong place
  • Witness or assistant signed in the wrong place
  • Witness or assistant did not print address
  • Witness or assistant did not sign
  • Witness or assistant signed on the wrong line
Voters will use cure certification forms, like this sample form from Durham County, to address deficiencies in their absentee ballots, now including deficiencies in witness information.

The certification can be returned to the county board by mail, fax, email, or commercial carrier. Voters can also drop off the form in person at their county board’s office, an option that should be taken into consideration given U.S. Postal Service delays and the number of days until Nov. 3.

Mailed certifications and ballots that arrive in the county board office after Nov. 3 should be postmarked by Election Day. Certifications will only be counted if they are received by Nov. 12.

In the case of less common mistakes, such as ballots arriving in open envelopes, county boards would issue the voter a new ballot. 

WRAL reported that federal judge William Osteen warned that the changes the state board made to witness requirements for absentee ballots do not have his approval. Rumblings from the Republican-appointed judge against simplifying the absentee voting process have yet to turn into action, and county board offices are still mailing and emailing voters cure certifications. 

As of Sept. 29, hundreds of ballots across the Triangle are deficient. 

In Durham County, 387 of the 16,150 returned absentee ballots are currently deficient, said Derek Bowens, director of the Durham County Board of Elections.

In Orange County, 103 of the 9,784 returned ballots are currently deficient. Since Sept. 4, 27 ballots have been cured, said Rachel Raper, director of the Orange County Board of Elections. 

Raper said that incomplete witness information accounts for nearly 90% of ballot deficiencies in Orange County. 

In Wake County, 386 of the 35,175 returned ballots are currently deficient, said Gary Sims, director of the Wake County Board of Elections. 

Disparity in deficiency

Ballot deficiencies disparately affect Black voters, whose ballots were twice as likely to be rejected than those submitted by the state’s white voters in 2018. So far in 2020, the absentee ballot rejection rate of Black voters is nearly three times as high as that of white voters, according to a joint analysis of state board of elections absentee ballot data by ProPublica and WRAL News. 

Irving Joyner, voting rights advocate and professor at the North Carolina Central University School of Law, told ProPublica and WRAL News that unfamiliarity and lack of voter education may be a root of the disparity. Many Black voters are casting their ballots for the first time, the analysis said. 

Black voters in Durham County account for 17% of returned absentee ballots, but 44% of ballots that are pending cure. Meanwhile, the county’s white voters make up 67% of returned ballots and 37% of deficient ballots, Bowens wrote. 

In Orange County, inequality lies in both the number of deficient ballots and the mail-in voter turnout. White voters represent nearly 72% of returned ballots, while Black voters make up less than 6%. Even though white voters account for substantially more returned ballots, the percentages of deficient ballots are starkly close — 61% from white voters and 24% from Black voters, Raper wrote. 

Wake county does track not race-related information among absentee voters, Sims said.

Republicans need senior voters, but Trump is pushing them away

House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy has good reason to worry about senior voters in North Carolina. 

McCarthy told Axios that he spent hours telling President Trump his unfounded attacks on mail-in voting could not only doom the president’s re-election, but also imperil Republicans running for Congress. 

The House Minority Leader said that he’s particularly concerned about losing the senior vote, which historically leans right. “I tried to show [Trump] … you know who is most afraid of COVID? Seniors. And if they’re not going to go vote, period, we’re screwed,” McCarthy said. 

A new 9th Street Journal tally of absentee ballot requests from the North Carolina Board of Elections shows why McCarthy is so concerned. Democratic voters older than 65 have requested nearly twice as many ballots (13,319) as their Republican counterparts (7,007), according to the data available on Sept. 14. 

The numbers also show that Republicans account for 36% of the state’s voters who are older than 65, but only 23% of the absentee ballot requests for that age group. Meanwhile, Democrats represent 40% of the state’s senior voters and 44% of voters older than 65 who have requested ballots. 

Unaffiliated senior voters, who account for 24% of all senior voters, have requested 32% of the ballots.

As McCarthy feared, Trump’s repeated attacks on mail-in voting seem to be having an impact — particularly with Republicans. A WRAL poll last week found a third of likely North Carolina voters have little to no confidence that votes cast by mail will be counted correctly. The sentiment varied by party: While 42% of Republicans and and 39% of Independents said that they had little to no confidence in the mail-in voting process, only 28% of Democrats felt the same way. 

Republicans usually depend on senior voters, who voted 55% to 42% for Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016.

People over the age of 65 make up 23% of the statewide electorate. In the 2016 and 2018 elections, they had the highest voter turnout compared with other age groups. 

But COVID-19 has re-written the expectations for 2020: Adults ages 65 years old and above are the most vulnerable to the virus, representing eight out of every 10 coronavirus-related deaths in the U.S. People in this age group may decide it’s in their best interest to stay home and mail in their ballots. But Trump’s repeated attacks on absentee balloting might discourage his older supporters from voting at all. 

Republicans can still overcome the disparity in mail-in balloting by getting people to vote in person. Early voting starts Oct. 15 and Election Day is Nov. 3. 

Terri Benforado, a 57-year-old Durham resident who plans to vote for Trump, said that she and her husband, who is over 65 years of age and also supports Trump, will vote early in person. 

Benforado said that she has always casted her ballot at an early voting site, and this year will be no different. She also volunteers as a poll worker on Election Day. She’s not concerned about potential health risks due to the coronavirus, which she said are exaggerated by Democrats and the left-leaning media. 

“I think there’s a risk, but there’s not a risk to my husband and I,” Benforado said.

Staff writer Rose Wong can be reached at

Assistance with data analysis was provided by Joel Luther of the Duke Reporters’ Lab; graphic by Henry Haggart of The 9th Street Journal

Your questions about mail-in voting, answered

After four years of relentless partisan drama, when wearing a mask or buying a can of black beans has become a political statement, the 2020 election was destined to be contentious. A worldwide pandemic of respiratory illness just made it weird. 

Between now and Election Day on Nov. 3, a record number of people will vote by mail to avoid interacting with others and potentially contracting the novel coronavirus. Typically 4% of the state electorate vote by mail, said Damon Circosta, board chair of the North Carolina State Board of Elections. This year, the number will be between 30 and 40%. 

If you, too, are considering mail-in voting, The 9th Street Journal is here to cut through the chatter and answer your questions about the process. 

What is all the fuss about mail-in voting? 

Mail-in voting has been part of American democracy since Civil War soldiers re-elected Abraham Lincoln in the 1864 election. The elderly and voters with disabilities or chronic illness have found postal voting a safe and convenient way to pick their political representatives, said Mac McCorkle, director of POLIS, the center for politics in Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy. 

Voting by mail gained fame in recent months when it was attacked by President Trump, who claimed, without evidence, that it would invite fraud and lead to “the greatest rigged election in history.” Meanwhile, the president and his wife both requested absentee ballots on Aug. 12. 

Cost-cutting measures by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Greensboro resident and longtime donor to the president, heightened the controversy after he took over the U.S. Postal Service on June 15. 

The brouhaha isn’t over. DeJoy temporarily suspended the measures, but the announcement and comments from the president left many people unsure how mail-in voting will play out in this year’s election. 

What is absentee voting? Is it different from mail-in voting?

President Trump repeatedly made false distinctions between absentee voting and mail-in voting, confusing many voters. Mail-in voting is actually just one type of absentee voting. 

You can vote in one of three ways: Show up at a local precinct on election day, or vote absentee, which includes casting your ballot at an early-voting precinct or mailing in an absentee ballot.

“Absentee is anything with the exception for voting in person on election day,” Circosta said. 

Any registered voter in North Carolina may request an absentee ballot, no reason or special circumstance required

Are Durham election officials ready for the volume of mail-in ballots they are likely to  receive? 

They say they are.

Durham County has already had a 350% increase in absentee ballot requests compared with 2016, according to Derek Bowens, director of the Durham County Board of Elections. 

Through last Friday, when the first batch of absentee ballots requests were mailed out, 40 people in the elections office were working 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. putting together absentee ballot packages, which include return envelopes, “I Voted” stickers and instructions for how to complete the ballot, Bowens said. 

Starting this week, only 10 people will be needed to put together and send out ballot packages every day, Bowens said. 

In addition to the staffers processing requests and stuff envelopes, more than a dozen will authenticate ballots and call voters if their ballot is deficient and cannot be accepted. 

Bowens said that he is not concerned about a shortage of workers because the county can enlist a temporary employment agency. 

The mail-in voting process will cost the county at least $100,000, Bowens said, but that can be covered through an existing county election budget, potential CARES Act dollars and budget amendments requested from the Board of County Commissioners. 

Is the Postal Service ready for the volume of mail-in ballots that Durham will receive? 

Well, let’s just say that if you are voting by mail, do it early. 

Postal Service spokesperson Philip Bogenberger did not answer The 9th Street Journal’s questions regarding mail-in voting in Durham, but postal officials have warned that they could have difficulty because some states have late deadlines for requesting ballots.

Thomas J. Marshall, the general counsel for the Postal Service, sent a letter in July to all 50 states and the District of Columbia, warning that “certain deadlines for requesting and casting mail-in ballots are incongruous with the Postal Service’s standards.” 

Marshall told officials with tight schedules to require that residents request ballots at least 15 days before an election, and that ballots requested too close to the deadline may not “be returned by mail in time to be counted,” according to the New York Times. A separate analysis by the Times confirmed this could be a problem in 19 states. (The Times said the deadlines in North Carolina might provide sufficient time.) 

Another possible problem: Changes to the Postal Service that DeJoy had already implemented prior to reversing the announcement. 

At least seven mail sorting machines were removed from a post office facility near the Charlotte Airport, which DeJoy said that he will not replace while testifying in front of the House Oversight Committee on Aug. 24. 

Bogenberger did not answer The 9th Street’s Journal’s question about whether any mail sorting machines in Durham county were removed. 

Will Trump’s attacks on the Postal Service hurt his own party? 

House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy is worried about that, according to Axios. McCarthy is privately encouraging voting by mail and warned Trump recently that their party could be “screwed” by his bluster against mail-in voting.

“We could lose based on that,” McCarthy (R-Calif.) told Alayna Treene, an Axios White House reporter.

McCarthy said the party can’t afford for Republicans to sit home, afraid of getting COVID-19, while Democrats flood the field with mail-in ballots.

“I tried to show him…you know who is most afraid of COVID? Seniors. And if they’re not going to go vote, period, we’re screwed,” McCarthy said.

Indeed, as Trump rails against the Postal Service, his campaign and other Republican candidates are quietly encouraging supporters to vote by mail. 

WRAL reported that the North Carolina Republican Party sent out ballot request forms to selected voters in July, along with an edited tweet by President Trump. 

The original tweet said, “…Absentee ballots are fine because you have to go through a precise process to get your vote privilege. Not so with Mail-Ins. Rigged Election!!! 20% Fraudulent Ballots?” 

The party highlighted the first half of the president’s tweet that praised absentee ballots in yellow, and blurred the last three sentences that disparaged mail-in ballots. 

While the Republican Party mops up after Trump, Democrats have been pushing their base loud and clear to vote by mail. And the results are paying off. 

State Board of Elections data shows that 53% of absentee ballot requests so far this year came from registered Democrats, compared with 15% from Republicans, according to WRAL

It’s hard to predict the impact of the mixed messages about mail-in voting. 

McCorkle said that misinformation and Trump’s comments surrounding mail-in voting may fire up some to vote, but the less politically engaged may shy away. 

“In between COVID-19 and what President Trump is saying, some people might not vote,” he said.  

Trump’s comments could indeed hurt his own party. FiveThirtyEight reported there is no historical evidence that mail-in voting gives one party an advantage, although this year could be different. 

What are the pros and cons of voting by mail? 

Pros: You don’t have to leave your home and worry about any interaction with someone who might have the coronavirus. No standing in lines, either. 

Cons: Voters make mistakes. Thirty percent of mail-in ballots in Durham County have historically not been counted because they don’t meet necessary guidelines, said Gunther Peck, Duke history professor and voting rights activist. 

“There have been problems with mail-in ballots because if people don’t cross every T then the ballots get thrown out,” Peck said. 

Peck said that recent changes to the state mail-in voting process, promoted by the advocacy group Democracy North Carolina, may reduce the rate of rejected ballots. 

Voters will be contacted if their mail-in ballots do not meet the criteria and then asked to resubmit their votes. The county office will call, email or send a letter to the voter, depending on the number of days until Election Day on Nov. 3. 

Another change is that local boards of elections have begun processing absentee ballots five weeks ahead of Election Day, Peck said, allowing ample time for voters to fix ballot mistakes. 

The best advice: Send in your ballot as soon as possible.

I received an official-looking mailing from the Center for Voter Information with an application for an absentee ballot. What is that about? 

The Center for Voter Information is a Washington D.C.-based organization that aims to increase voter turnout. It is a partner organization to the Voter Participation Center, which is particularly dedicated to increasing voter registration among young people, people of color and unmarried women. 

Page Gardner, founder of Center of Voter Information, told ABC-11 that the organization has mailed 1.8 million absentee voter request forms this year in North Carolina alone. 

Garder said many people want to vote by mail but don’t know how, and that’s where her organization steps in. 

“We’re doing a very robust voter registration in North Carolina,” Garder said. “We’re exceeding our original goals and we’re seeing an enormous response to our vote by mail application.” 

However, Circosta said that the third-party mailings are confusing some voters, who don’t know why they received the forms and where they came from. 

The state board of elections, concerned that the mailings can confuse voters, has told groups it will review them to ensure they comply with state and federal laws and don’t do more harm than good.  

“These efforts typically are legal, but they can be confusing or frustrating for voters and erode confidence in elections, especially when they are unsolicited,” states an Aug. 6 press release by the State Board of Elections. 

At top, photo of Durham elections office by Henry Haggert | The 9th Street Journal