Despite the predictions of chaos and bureaucratic breakdowns on Election Day, which occasionally robbed Damon Circosta of a good night’s sleep, the chair of the North Carolina Board of Elections can finally rest easy. The state’s election went smoothly, with “remarkably few” difficulties — ”and that’s saying something,” he said.
“Every election has a number of these Election Day challenges that you have to work through,” he said. “It is notable that in the midst of a pandemic, where we had to make considerable adaptations, how few hiccups there were in the process.”
From the six polling places of 2,660 statewide that opened late,to the thousands of mail-in ballots that voters requested but never returned (as of Wednesday morning, around 92,300 absentee ballots remain outstanding), the election wasn’t without its share of problems. Yet county and state officials say they have tackled those challenges with ease, extending vote times at the precincts that saw delays and allowing mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day to be counted if they arrive by 5 p.m. Thursday.
Phil Lehman, chair of the Durham Board of Elections, says the board “didn’t have any real glitches” on Election Day. The county prepared for possible instances of voter intimidation by putting unarmed security guards at every precinct, but he says no harassment occurred.
“In fact, one of the complaints we got was from an observer who complained about someone in uniform in a patrol car, which was part of the security service. I thought, man, if this is what passes for voter intimidation in Durham, we’re doing very well,” he laughed.
Both Lehman and Gerry Cohen, a member of the Wake County Board of Elections, agreed that mail-in voting provided the greatest challenge, largely due to changing requirements for witness information.
“It really didn’t get worked out until two weeks until the election, so we had to hold onto a number of ballots until then,” Cohen said. Still, because North Carolina law enabled counties to process absentee ballots weeks before they were counted on Nov. 3, the state reported 97% of its votes on election night.
Counties are now in the midst of the canvass, the final tally of votes that ends on Friday. During the canvass period, county election boards will meet to count any remaining absentee ballots postmarked by Election Day and review provisional ballots for voter eligibility.
Durham has 1,277 provisional ballots yet to be reviewed, and 2,800 absentee ballots remain outstanding. The county is unlikely to receive all 2,800, however, because some voters who requested absentee ballots may have voted on Election Day or chosen not to vote at all. The county board of elections will meet Thursday and Friday to certify the remaining ballots.
After the state board reviews county results for final certification on Nov. 24, there could be a recount in the race for chief justice of the state Supreme Court. A 10,000-vote margin is required for the losing candidate to request a recount; as of Wednesday morning, Republican Paul Newby’s lead over Democrat Cheri Beasley had shrunk to just under 1,000 votes.
While Cohen anticipates the recount, he doubts North Carolina will see any further legal challenges.
“The margins are large in the national races, and there’s no evidence of any kind of fraud,” he said.
Until the counties send their results to the state board of elections, Circosta is standing back to “supervise and support.”
“My job right now, after having built this funnel for democracy, is to let the funnel do its work over the next week,” he said.
Above, a voter fills out her ballot at the polling place at the Ruritan Club in Bahama. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal
Every Election Day, Derek Bowens wakes up and plays the most motivational song he can think of: CNN’s Election Night theme.
The song provides an early-morning jolt that gets the Durham County elections director ready for the busy day ahead. The booming drums, violin swells and electric guitar riffs follow Bowens as he springs out of bed, brushes his teeth, and heads to the office just before 5 a.m. If there’s one thing that riles him up, it’s the rhythm of democracy.
“It’s so great,” he said of the song. “It gets me moving.”
Not that Bowens needs a news theme to get going. Fourteen hours a day, seven days a week, he manages precinct officials and elections administrators, oversees voter registrations and absentee ballot mailings, supervises 14 early voting sites across the county, and prepares for the most important day of his year. On Nov. 3, how well he handles those details — from ensuring that over 800 poll workers take their places at 57 precincts to resolving potential problems like jammed ballot machines or power outages — could have a small but significant effect on the confidence and maybe even the outcome of the biggest election of his lifetime.
He loves his work because it matters.
“I see it as the bedrock of our democracy,” he said. “That importance should be met with a level of intensity.”
“A multi-ring circus”
Bowens sweats the small details. He knows election law inside and out, so much so that his employees joke about how easily he catches the errors they’ve missed.
“I had one staff say, ‘I don’t want to call Derek over to solve this, because the minute he comes over, he’ll find the problem instantly,’” Bowens laughed.
He’s relatively new to Durham, having arrived from New Hanover County in 2016, and his colleagues say the office is more efficient now under his leadership. According to Philip Lehman, chairman of the Durham board of elections, there were 792 mistakes of various degrees in the 2016 primary election, which took place before Bowens arrived. In this year’s primary, there were eight.
“Derek is running a multi-ring circus,” Lehman said. “But he’s always ahead of the game.”
In the tight-knit world of election administrators, reputations are earned on the little stuff. As director of elections in New Hanover, home to Wilmington, Bowens became known for his well-organized warehouses, where necessities from ballot machines to “I Voted” stickers are kept.
But don’t look for signs of organization on his desk. Papers are scattered across the cherry wood — calendars, time sheets, fliers, and reusable paper towels (he wanted to see if they could be used to sanitize polling places).
“They say organized people have the messiest desks,” he deadpanned.
Colleagues say he never loses his cool. When a problem arises, he goes into solutions mode, turning his eyes to the sky. His employees know that when he lowers his eyes, he’ll have a plan.
“There was never a moment where he seemed panicked or overwhelmed,” said Samuel Gedman, former deputy director of elections. “He simply lays out what needs to be done. In this business, that’s huge.”
“We feel confident that things are under control”
In a conversation with Lehman, Bowens once gave his top three priorities in life:
Faith, family, and elections.
Elections appear to be a newer passion. Growing up in Wilmington, he lived in an apartment in the projects with his single mother, sister, and two brothers.
His mother, who worked at a preschool, tried to expose her children to positive experiences while shielding them from the drugs and violence of the inner city. Eventually, she married Bowens’ stepfather, the owner of a local painting company who built the family a house in the suburbs when Bowens was 12 years old.
But the years of poverty had made their mark. Bowens wanted to keep climbing up.
“I had a decision to make, to be better than my circumstances,” he said.
He was a good student in high school, a self-described nerd. He was president of the debate team and won a “principal’s choice” award, accomplishments that helped him earn grants to subsidize his college, which he split between UNC Charlotte, community college, and UNC Wilmington. He was determined to graduate with honors.
He wanted to give back to his mother.
“My mom is very important to me,” he said, his voice softening. “I want to be in a position where I can do everything for her, so she doesn’t have to worry about a thing.”
The 2008 presidential election was a turning point in his self-realization, when he saw a Black man on the ballot for the first time.
In a necessarily nonpartisan job, Bowens doesn’t talk politics. He says he doesn’t have a stake in who wins the elections he oversees, “or care, for that matter.” Still, Barack Obama’s candidacy and subsequent presidency rocked Bowens to his core.
“It was something that I could never fathom,” he said. “It was the first time I felt like I could do something in this country.”
After graduating college in 2011, he got a job as a New Hanover County elections specialist in Wilmington and quickly ascended the ranks. By February 2015, he was the county’s director of elections — at age 27.
Bowens is now 32, significantly younger than many of his employees. But Deputy Director Brenda Baker says he has an old soul.
“He could be any age,” she said. “He’s very mature, a methodical thinker, and a great problem solver. It’s impressive.”
Lehman said Bowen is “the kind of guy that, when he talks, you listen. With his leadership, we feel confident that things are under control.”
Finding belonging in Durham
Bowens says any worries about a chaotic election are unfounded.
“I have every confidence in our ability to execute a great election here in Durham,” he said.
More worrisome to him is the threat of voter suppression, which has historically disproportionately affected Black and Latino voters. In September, President Trump encouraged North Carolina citizens to “watch all the thieving and stealing and robbing” at the polls, pushing misinformation about the prevalence of voter fraud while seeming to encourage voter intimidation. Later that month, his son Donald Trump Jr. released a video calling for supporters to “enlist” in an “army for Trump.”
At the mention of voter intimidation, Bowens’ jaw clenched.
“We’re doing everything we can to create a safe voting environment in Durham,” he said. “The issue of voter intimidation is very important, and it certainly won’t be tolerated.”
For years, Durham County has dispatched unarmed security guards to polling places to protect voters from instances of intimidation. Two weeks ago, the North Carolina State Board of Elections told elections officials that law enforcement could not be assigned to a polling site. But Bowens appealed the decision and got Durham’s policy reapproved.
In addition to the unarmed security guards, if a precinct in Durham does see an instance of voter intimidation, “I’ll be the first one out there, I can tell you that,” Bowens said.
Durham’s approach to voter suppression is largely an expression of its racial and ethnic diversity. The county’s “cultural melting pot” allows Bowens to feel at home here, which he said wasn’t always the case in Wilmington.
“There were some difficulties there, in terms of feeling like I belonged,” he said. “In Durham, I see other people that look like me. I feel like I belong.”
Durham elections officials welcomed his arrival in 2016, after years of turnover in an office “flying by the seat of its pants,” according to Lehman. Before Bowens, they had no written manual of office procedures. Within months, he wrote a manual.
During Baker’s interview for the position of deputy director, her first impression of Bowens was of a “pretty serious and very precise person.” At first, she worried he would be a tough boss.
But after 5 p.m., when the phones finally stop ringing and the office closes for the night, his employees see him at his most comfortable.
He takes off his shoes and wanders the office in his socks. He whistles to himself and blasts Michael Jackson’s greatest hits from his phone. When Gedman worked in the office, they’d turn on the Dirty Dancing soundtrack.
Bowens says unwinding together at the end of a long day helps the office build comradery.
“We spend more time together than we do with our own families,” he said.
He doesn’t see his own family much these days. He says his wife, Andrea, doesn’t always agree with his commitment to the job, “but she understands the importance of it,” he said.
He misses his 3-year-old daughter, Harper, most of all. When trying to describe her, Bowens shook his head in awe.
“No words,” he said. “I just love being a papa.” He wishes he could spend more time with her.
“But this is our democracy,” he said. “It requires sacrifice.”
Thousands of Durham residents mobilized for the first day of early voting on Thursday, eager to cast their ballots in what some said is the most important election in their lifetime.
They began lining up long before the polls opened at 8 a.m., warmed in the morning chill by adrenaline and their face masks. By noon, four of the 14 Durham polls reported wait times of at least two hours. But things lightened up in the afternoon and the average wait time at nine of the county sites was 30 minutes or less.
More than 80 voters lined up by 8 a.m. at the Karsh Alumni and Visitor’s Center at Duke, many wearing Biden-Harris hats. Some were just eager to feel the satisfaction of voting. Others said this day felt like it couldn’t come fast enough.
“We’ve been waiting to vote for four years,” said Priscilla Wald, a Duke English professor who arrived at the university’s early voting site at 7 a.m. She and former Duke professor Julie Tetel Andresen went to the polling place at the Durham County Main Library first, but by 6:45 a.m., the site had already amassed a crowd of more than 30 voters.
“We want to make sure our vote counts and we get this guy out of office,” Wald said. “There is no question that this is the most important election of my life.”
When the doors opened at 8 a.m., the line erupted in cheers.
As a swing state, North Carolina plays an outsized role in the election. Andresen hopes the predicted increase in turnout among young voters will help elect Joe Biden, who she thinks will bring fresh leadership.
“I’m so tired of these old farts in Washington running things,” she said. “I’m ready for the next generation.”
Several voters said they considered voting absentee by mail, but wanted the gratification of casting their ballot in person.
“I feel like I’m satisfying my civic responsibility by being here,” said Ron Stubbs, a retired Duke employee. In big black letters, his mask read, “SCIENCE.”
This is the first year that Duke has held its early voting site at the new Karsh alumni center. The building, with tall ceilings and plenty of parking, is an ideal polling place during a pandemic, said Erin Kramer, Duke executive director of media and public affairs.
“We want to encourage as many people to come and to get them through as quickly as possible, but we also need to make sure it’s a safe experience for everyone,” she said.
Outside each polling place, the ground is marked with tape to direct voters to stand six feet apart. All poll workers are required to wear masks, and can provide masks to voters who don’t bring their own. Hand sanitizer stations and frequent wipe-downs of the ballot booths will ensure each site is clean and safe for a high volume of voters.
Karsh wasn’t the only early voting site with a long line when the polls opened at 8 a.m. The line at the Durham County Main Library wrapped through the parking lot, boasting well over 100 voters. Just a few blocks away, nearly 70 voters waited outside the Criminal Justice Resource Center.
The North Carolina State Board of Elections created an early voting site locator with live wait times so voters can anticipate the lines at polling places across the county. Durham has 14 early voting sites, and voters may visit any one of the sites to cast their ballot.
For voters experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, as well as disabled voters, each polling site also offers curbside service so voters may fill out their ballots from the safety of their vehicle.
Early voting in North Carolina runs Oct. 15-31. Find the hours of operation for each polling site here.
At top, voters lined up Thursday outside the Durham Main Library. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal
In a recent video for the Trump campaign, Donald Trump Jr. becomes a modern-day Uncle Sam, urging Americans to sign up for a new kind of war.
“We need every able-bodied man and woman to join Army For Trump’s election security operation,” he says.
The younger Trump’s video, posted on the Team Trump Facebook and Twitter pages on Sept. 21, follows the Trump campaign’s strategy to rile up Republican voters against the perceived threat of voter fraud. The president’s son claims that the “radical left” plans to cast “millions of fraudulent ballots that can cancel your vote and overturn the election.”
The solution: assemble the troops.
To “enlist today,” he tells supporters to visit defendyourballot.com, which links to a section of the Army For Trump website that encourages voters to join Trump’s Election Day team. The site says volunteers will primarily focus on get-out-the-vote efforts “to ensure any voters who did not vote early vote on Election Day,” and does not mention poll watching or voter fraud.
Experts say voter fraud is rare, including fraud in voting by mail. Both Facebook and Twitter have added disclaimers below the video from the president’s son that state voting by mail is secure, but neither site has removed the video under their misinformation policies.
No U.S. presidential candidate has ever mounted these types of attacks on the electoral process nor called for supporters to “enlist” against the opposing party, said Judith Kelley, dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy and an expert in global democracy. But, she said, “dictators do it all the time.”
“The use of terms like ‘army’ is by no means coincidental,” Kelley said. “Once you start using language that hints at the use of force, you are stoking the embers.”
Every party has the right to contest an election on the grounds of potential voter fraud, she said, but those objections should happen after the election, and be accompanied by documentation alleging specific instances of fraud.
Trump’s accusations of mass voter fraud, lodged before the election and without documentation, are “a blatant attempt to undermine the credibility of the process and erode confidence in it,” she said.
David Dixon, chair of the Durham Democratic Party, called the president’s campaign strategy “the most blatant form of voter suppression or voter intimidation possible.”
“You’ll have regular people taking the law into their own hands at polls across the country, scaring voters,” he said. “I think that’s really going to affect turnout.”
The Durham Republican Party did not respond to a request for comment.
Fifty-four percent of Durham voters are registered Democrats, compared with 11% of registered Republicans. As a blue county and a “monolith,” Dixon doubts Durham will see an instance of violent voter intimidation. But as the president and his campaign continue to use militaristic rhetoric, Dixon worries that Trump supporters in North Carolina’s more conservative counties will arrive at the polls armed.
“Forty-five minutes north in Franklin or Vance County, there’s a possibility that folks may show up at the election site with guns or other weapons, thinking they’re doing exactly what the president told them to do,” he said.
On Sept. 19, a group of Trump supporters gathered outside of a polling site in Fairfax, Virginia, to wave “Make America Great Again” signs and chant “four more years.” The group did not directly harass voters but did form a line that voters had to walk around to enter the polling place. Several voters reported feeling intimidated.
Dixon noted that the Trump campaign has chosen its words carefully, which provides deniability if there is any violence.
“It gives them wiggle room in case something does happen,” Dixon said.
Kelley and Dixon said Trump’s strategy to stir up fear and anger among Republican voters may signal his intentions to refuse to concede the election, an intention that the president himself has alluded to.
“His tactic is to create a situation that is so chaotic that he’ll be able to say, ‘We can’t accept the results of the election, because look at this mess,’” Kelley said.
The uncertainty of a pandemic election has given Trump plenty of opportunities to instill doubt in the electoral process, said Dixon, but voters will have to wait until November to see what sticks.
“He’s planting so many different seeds,” he said. “Once we get to November fourth, we’ll see what has been sown.”
As he continued to sow distrust in the electoral process at a Sept. 8 rally in Winston-Salem, Donald Trump encouraged his supporters to take on alleged voter fraud themselves.
“Watch it,” he said. “Be poll watchers when you go there. Watch all the thieving and stealing and robbing they do.”
Trump previously stated he had plans to send law enforcement officials to monitor the polls, which is prohibited by federal and state law. Poll watchers, on the other hand, are legal, so long as they don’t interfere with the voting process. But officials say their job isn’t quite as action-packed as the president would make it seem.
The role of poll watchers
Poll watchers have long been deployed by political parties to observe election proceedings and ensure each party gets a fair shot, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. They are prohibited from directly communicating with voters, but they can watch for potential offenses and track turnout to help estimate how a party’s candidate is doing.
If they witness a potential instance of voter fraud, they can bring it to the attention of precinct officials or contact the county board of elections, “as long as it’s done in a nonobstructive manner,” according to Derek Bowens, Durham County’s director of elections. But such disputes are rare, he said.
“Election Day challenges are pretty nonexistent here,” Bowens said. “When we do get them, a lot of times it’s a misunderstanding of process on the observer’s part.”
Not just anyone can be a poll watcher. In North Carolina, the county chair of each political party can nominate two poll watchers per polling place. The nominees have to be approved by the county board of elections. Poll watchers must be registered voters of the county, cannot be candidates on the ballot, and must possess “good moral character,” according to state statute.
“It’s probably more subjective than it could be,” Bowens said. “But the threshold is pretty high for the board to reject someone. I’ve never seen that happen.”
Each county party may also nominate up to 10 at-large observers that can monitor any precinct, and state parties can nominate up to 100, but a maximum of three poll watchers from each party may observe a precinct at a time.
While the president can’t mobilize law enforcement to oversee the polls, North Carolina statute does not prohibit law enforcement officials from independently serving as poll watchers. However, they must follow the same rules as all other poll watchers and cannot communicate with or intimidate voters.
The prevalence of voter fraud
What about the “thieving, stealing, and robbing” Trump mentioned? “I have no clue what he’s talking about,” Bowens said.
Voter fraud is rare, but Republicans have latched onto a few recent cases. On Sept. 8, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger revealed investigations into 1,000 cases of double voting in the state’s June primary election and August runoff. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement also announced on Sept. 3 that 19 foreign nationals would face charges for illegally voting in the 2016 federal election in North Carolina.
However, neither case of voter fraud altered the outcome of any race, state officials from Georgia and North Carolina confirmed. Trump has similarly claimed fraudulent ballots caused him to lose the popular vote in the 2016 presidential election, despite losing by almost 3 million votes. Now, he’s urging supporters to try out the same fraudulent techniques he denounces.
At a Sept. 2 briefing with reporters in Wilmington, Trump encouraged Republicans planning to vote by mail to visit their local polling place and attempt to vote again in person.
“Let them send it in and let them go vote, and if their system’s as good as they say it is, then obviously they won’t be able to vote,” he said. “If it isn’t tabulated, they’ll be able to vote.”
Intentionally voting more than once is a felony in North Carolina. Karen Brinson Bell, the executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, issued a statement the next day reminding voters of the state’s protections against double voting. The board also launched an online service called BallotTrax last Friday to allow voters to track the status of their absentee ballots.
“If someone has voted, and we’ve logged their vote at the board of elections, when they present to vote in person, they won’t be able to cast their ballot,” Bowens said.
Damon Circosta, chair of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, said voter fraud is “so exceedingly rare that it’s almost laughable.”
“Any time you get a conspiracy big enough that it could impact the outcome of an election, too many people know that you’re trying to do something fraudulent,” he said. He referenced one such case in the 2018 election for North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, where a Republican operative was accused of tampering with absentee ballots. That operative was indicted last year.
Some worry that Trump’s fear-mongering tactics will embolden his supporters to intimidate voters. But Circosta said such attempts at voter suppression won’t be tolerated — they’ll be met with “the full weight of the law,” he said.
“I don’t think there’s anything more sad than intimidating your fellow citizens out of the franchise,” he said. “We should pause and think about what we’re trying to do with democracy, and it’s certainly not silence other voices.”
Overseeing a statewide election in a pandemic gives Damon Circosta plenty of things to fret about. But when the chair of the North Carolina Board of Elections lies awake at night, his biggest worry is the poll workers.
The state needs to accommodate over 7 million registered voters so they can cast their ballots for president, U.S. Congress, governor, and other statewide offices on Nov. 3. That takes about 25,000 workers. But finding them may be difficult this year, since poll workers are typically senior citizens who now face the risk of severe illness from COVID-19.
The state needs more poll workers than usual, too. In addition to their normal tasks of greeting voters and handing out ballots, they will be expected to enforce social distancing, wipe down ballot stands, and distribute masks and hand sanitizer.
Circosta, who was appointed to the board a year ago, describes himself as a “true zealot” of accessible elections. Ensuring that counties can staff their polls in November has become his top priority — and his greatest concern.
“Recruiting those people has always been a challenge,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do now.”
Fortunately, state elections officials “didn’t put all our eggs in one basket,” he said. Voters can choose to vote absentee by mail, head to the polls for early voting from Oct. 15-31, or cast their ballot on Election Day at one of 2,700 precincts.
The state board of elections has helped recruit workers for all three methods of voting with its “Democracy Heroes” campaign — they’ve collected about 17,000 interest forms that way, said Circosta. But most of the burden of recruiting poll workers lies with the counties.
Durham is on track for a smooth election, said Director of Elections Derek Bowen. The county has already secured about 600 of the 800 volunteers it needs by Election Day, with over 100 applications pending. Plus, Durham has a program that will send government workers to staff the polls if necessary.
Circosta is optimistic that the rest of North Carolina will round up enough poll workers, too — “but we cannot let off the gas,” he said. He recommends that businesses let employees take a day off and college students be released from classes to work at the polls.
He isn’t concerned about health risks for workers. “Going to your polling place will be safer than going to your local Walgreens,” he said. But he knows some residents might be scared to vote in person.
“I’m worried that talking about the challenges COVID-19 creates will inadvertently tell people that (voting in person) isn’t what they should be doing,” he said. “Absolutely, we can make it safe. I just want people to show up.”
Others predict a high turnout despite the pandemic. Page Gardner, founder of the Voter Participation Center, said the advocacy group has seen “an enormous response” from voters, especially to its vote-by-mail application.
“There is a hunger to participate,” she said. “People want to help, and they want to vote.”
President Trump has stirred up questions about the election with false allegations about the prevalence of voter fraud,most recently targeting the validity ofmail-in voting. Gardner said the president is “doing everything he can to keep people from voting.” He has even claimed there are plans to send law enforcement to monitor the polls, which critics say could be a form of voter intimidation.
But Circosta said state and federal law prohibit the mobilization of law enforcement for poll monitoring. “It’s not going to happen,” he said.
Yet the suggestion may put voters on edge. Durham routinely sends unarmed security officials to monitor polling sites to “help diffuse any situations that may arise,” said Bowen. The protocol was created to protect voters, but he recognizes that the presence of uniformed guards could make some voters feel threatened.
“We don’t want to have any form of voter intimidation,” he said. “So that’s a hard balance.”
Chatham County had an incident of voter intimidation in February, when pro-Confederate demonstrators reportedly hurled slurs and flew Trump and Confederate flags in front of an early voting site. Gardner said it’s up to election officials to prevent similar incidents this year.
“There are people trying to confuse, intimidate, and make the voting process seem chaotic,” she said. Election officials “need to guarantee that this will not be allowed.”
Circosta said he has “no tolerance” for citizens who harass fellow voters, but he anticipates counties will need additional guidance in responding to voter intimidation.
“If people do wish to engage in that behavior, I expect the full weight of the law will be used to thwart it,” he said.
Circosta’s job comes with plenty of anxiety. But he said being the face of the North Carolina election feels “absolutely wonderful.”
He doesn’t know when or how the election will end, but he urges voters to be patient.
“By every account, this is going to be a close election,” he said. “But we’ll get it right.”