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Posts published by “Rebecca Torrence”

Early voting starts with long lines, passionate voters

This story will be updated throughout the day.

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.

Voting tips

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

Donald Trump Jr. wants YOU for his “army” against voter fraud

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.”

What are poll watchers, and why does Trump want more of them?

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.”

What the state elections chair worries about in the middle of the night

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.

Damon Circosta | State Board of Elections

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 of mail-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.”