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Posts published by “Michaela Towfighi”

Analysis: Wake’s congressional seat was decided months ago, by a new map

Months before there were candidates and fundraisers and the omnipresent yard signs, the North Carolina General Assembly decided the outcome of the 2nd Congressional District race. A Democrat would win.

To comply with a court ruling, the Republican leaders of the legislature agreed that the 2nd Congressional District would be their surrendered soldier. 

Incumbent Republican George Holding knew this when he announced he would not seek reelection. Democrat Deborah Ross knew it when she launched her campaign for the seat in December 2019. And Alan Swain surely knew it when he agreed to take a bullet for the GOP, running as the party nominee in a race that was inevitably doomed. 

No matter how many “Swain for Congress” signs were planted in yards and medians around the district, he could not defeat his greatest enemy: the newly redrawn map. 

Holding’s announcement certainly shed light on the realization that running in this district would be an uphill battle,” Swain said in an email to The 9th Street Journal. 

The (almost final) tally: 311,834 for Ross to 172,518 for Swain.

The map got more friendly for Ross because it was reconfigured to solely encompass Wake County, with lots of Democratic voters in Raleigh and Cary. 

That’s politics in the age of gerrymandering. Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, a nonpartisan group that promotes transparency in government and opposes gerrymandering, says lawmakers can’t resist the temptation to help themselves.

Those who are in power, currently the GOP in North Carolina’s legislature, want to ensure they maintain that power, he said. 

The Republicans’ strategy for the maps is to concentrate Democrats into as few seats as possible, according to Phillips.  

“The doctrine is lose big and win small when you have the power to draw the maps. And so you’ll pack as many Democratic voters into as few districts as you can,” Phillips said. 

This played to Ross’s advantage. In 2018 Wake County elected U.S. Rep. David Price with over 70% of the vote. Ross won by similar margins this election, claiming victory with about 63% of the vote. 

For Swain, the new map signaled defeat. For Ross, it meant opportunity. 

After a failed U.S. Senate run in 2016, Ross still wanted to represent North Carolina in Washington. But she needed an opening. 

“I wasn’t going to run against David Price,” she told The 9th Street Journal in an interview this week. “But when they redrew the maps, I was in a different congressional district.”

As a resident of Raleigh, the redrawn maps moved her out of Price’s district. 

“The biggest factor was, new seat, no Democrat,” she said. 

Map makers will also make or break Ross’s chances for reelection. With 2020 Census data, the maps will be reconfigured yet again with population growth likely adding a 14th seat for North Carolina. And with that comes the temptation for more gerrymandering.

Above, Swain had lots of signs. But they couldn’t overcome the map. Photo from Swain for Congress campaign.

Cast, but not always counted: What are provisional ballots?

By Michaela Towfighi and Kalley Huang

When one of Gunther Peck’s students told him that she had cast a provisional ballot in the 2016 election, he immediately worried. 

“I was like, ‘uh oh,’ and then I checked it out afterwards,” said the Duke history professor and voting rights activist. His search confirmed his fears. “She voted, and she had no voting history.”

Her provisional ballot was never accepted.  

Like Peck’s student, 1,084 Durhamites cast ballots that did not count in 2016, according to the Durham County Board of Elections. Some may still be under the impression that they participated in the election four years ago. 

“The worst thing is, a lot of people don’t even realize their vote didn’t count,” Peck said. “The pernicious part of it is that you’d have to check your voter history after the fact to see that your vote didn’t count.”

Provisional ballots are cast when a poll worker is unable to verify a voter’s eligibility when they check in at a polling place. It’s like an entrance to a party where it’s unclear whether or not you are on the guest list. Except in this case, the party is an election and getting in doesn’t mean your vote counts. Provisional ballots are held aside until county election officials investigate to determine whether or not the people who cast them are eligible to vote. 

Provisionals are more likely to be cast on Election Day, according to Patrick Gannon, a North Carolina State Board of Elections spokesperson. In the early in-person voting period, voters are able to register and cast a ballot on the same day. This process is called one-stop voting.  

However, on Election Day, if a voter is not registered with their name in the county poll book, a directory that tracks registered voters, they are presented with a provisional ballot. 

At the North Carolina Central University polling site, only 26 of the 91 provisional ballots cast in 2016 were counted in whole or in part — overall, less than 30%. 

Statewide, over 90% of provisional ballots cast in 2016 were counted in whole or in part.

“It’s absurd,” Peck said. “People waited hours to cast those provisional ballots. The wait time in 2016 was four and a half hours because everybody was casting provisional ballots. The line was melting.”

He attributed the “horrific” throw rate to a “perfect storm” — a partisan fight over counting students’ provisionals, lower voter enthusiasm leading to last-minute decisions to vote, poll workers not informing voters to vote at their assigned precinct, and students being confused about how to register and where to vote. 

N.C. Central has an early vote site that also serves as an Election Day precinct. All students can vote early there, but only on-campus residents may vote there on Election Day — a complex distinction that may have driven up the rate at which provisional ballots were cast and thrown out.

Reasons for Provisional Voting 

The North Carolina State Board of Elections gives a provisional ballot when a voter has no record of registration. Voters may also receive a provisional ballot if they do not have an acceptable form of ID, don’t have a recognized address, are at the incorrect voting precinct, or have already voted according to records. 

If a voter’s registration is removed from the county poll book, they are also presented with a provisional ballot. A voter’s registration can be canceled if they moved within the state, were convicted of a felony or were accidentally removed when lists were updated, among other reasons. 

Additionally, if the voting hours for a precinct are extended by the state board on Election Day, then all voters who cast a ballot during the extended hours must vote provisionally. This happened at eight Durham precincts in 2016, after technological issues delayed the voting process. 

Provisional ballots disproportionately affect younger and poorer voters, Peck said, because they are more likely to move in between elections. 

“If your parents have lived at the same address for 40 years, they’re never going to be asked to vote provisionally, because they’re fixed,” he said.

Although the throwing problem is particularly acute at N.C. Central, it is not isolated to the university. Young voters in general are more likely to cast provisional ballots, which exposes their vote to risk of rejection.

“Most people have never even heard of provisional ballots, so they don’t know the hazard or the danger in casting one,” Peck said.

Reviewing Provisional Ballots

When a voter casts their provisional votes, their ballot is separated from others and marked for later review. This review process happens after the election, when the county board meets to accept or reject all provisional ballots cast.  

In the review process, the board does research to validate unknown addresses, verify voters’ identities and find any indication that voters have attempted to register prior to Election Day. As officials search through the records of registration locations, such as the DMV, processing errors that prevented voters from entering the poll book could be unveiled, according to Gannon. Those unsaved by a mistake-proving document are less lucky. 

“If it’s obvious that the person did not make any attempt to register, and then cast a provisional on Election Day, that ballot would not be counted,” he said. 

In 2016, the Durham County Board of Elections approved 518 provisional ballots after their research confirmed that the voters were registered and eligible. 

In some cases though, provisional ballots are partially counted. This happens when a voter’s registration is eligible, but they voted outside of their designated precinct. In those cases, the voter’s ballot is counted for the races they are eligible to participate in, which may only include national and statewide races.  

“If the voter lives in Congressional district 13 and voted in Congressional district 4, the vote for Congress would not count,” the Durham County Board of Elections explained in its provisional ballot press release for the 2016 election 

During the 2016 election, 324 provisional ballots were partially accepted in Durham County. In total, just over half of the provisional ballots cast in Durham were either completely or partially counted.

Peck is more optimistic about this year’s provisional ballots. The state elections board has made an active effort to make sure as many ballots as possible are counted, he said. At N.C. Central, he added, administrators and students have encouraged the campus community to vote early, when voters have time to fix issues that may arise with their registration.

“It’s a combination of administrative problems, lack of knowledge, and also a system where you don’t know until after the fact, which is not deliberate voter suppression, but it is suppressing votes,” Peck said.

My adventures with curbside voting

Elections remind me of ABC’s “The Bachelor.” Each season is billed as the “most dramatic ever.”  

And sure enough, a fiercely contested election in a global pandemic is, of course, the “most dramatic ever.” For me, it’s also my first chance to vote for a president. I knew it would be memorable, but it took on more urgency when I was quarantined three weeks before Election Day.  

That foiled my voting plans.  Until Oct. 31, the last day of early voting, I would not be allowed to enter the polls. If I contracted the coronavirus myself, my quarantine could extend through Nov. 3, Election Day.

An occasional series on the 2020 election in North Carolina.

I did not want to take a risk with a mail-in ballot arriving in time. The solution: vote early, but do it curbside.  According to the North Carolina State Board of Elections, voters are eligible to vote from their car due to age or disability. You also qualify if you have symptoms of COVID-19 or are at risk of getting it. 

So last Wednesday afternoon, my roommate drove us to the Karsh Alumni & Visitors Center at Duke, one of 14 early voting locations in Durham County.  

We pulled up to the  “curbside voting here” sign and were greeted by Kate, a poll worker who wore a fluorescent yellow jacket and a blue cloth mask.  

I sat in the passenger seat as Kate asked why we would like to vote curbside and explained that we would have to sign an affidavit asserting that we could not go inside.  

“I do solemnly swear or affirm that I am a registered voter in precinct 3…that because of age or physical disability I am unable to enter the voting place to vote in person without physical assistance…” it began.   

We verbally agreed. Kate then took our names and went inside to print a document that certified our name and address, and bring out our ballots.  

She returned moments later with both documents in a purple plastic sleeve.  

She then explained the application and ballot – sign here and here, read through all contests and fill in the bubbles, flip the ballot over and do the same on the other side.  

We each checked our name and address again, and signed the affidavit.  

And so I sat in the passenger seat of my roommate’s car with my mask on and voted in my first presidential election.   

Kate stood off to the side of the car while we filled out the ballots.  When we finished, we waved to her to collect them. Unlike typical in-person voting, we could not feed our ballots into the tabulator machine ourselves. We’d have to trust that Kate would take care of that.  

Our reward was the same as other early voters: a metallic retractable Board of Elections “I voted in the 2020 election! ”pen) and the delightfully Durham “No Bull, I Voted” sticker.  The whole process took 32 minutes. 

It wasn’t the most dramatic election ever, but it was very much on brand with the surprises of 2020.

Reporter Michaela Towfighi talks with an elections worker at the early voting site at the Karsh Alumni & Visitors Center at Duke. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal 

The count: behind the scenes in Durham’s vote tally

Story by Michaela Towfighi; illustrations by Sofia Zymnis

Uncertainty has been a common thread in our lives since March. But if there is one thing certain about holding an election in these strange and confusing times, it is that there are over 7 million registered voters in North Carolina and the state has a plan to count their ballots. 

Regardless whether votes are cast by mail, at early voting sites or at the polls on Nov. 3, counting ballots is no simple feat. It is a complex process with many steps of verification.

The first three pieces fit together to make up the unofficial count of ballots in Durham County. This tally can not be released until 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 3, but, as ballots trickle in, the machines know the count well ahead of the deadlines.

An occasional series on the 2020 election in North Carolina

Still, it’s all somewhat tentative until Nov. 24. That’s when the North Carolina State Board of Elections convenes to finish their audit and verify ballots – a multiday process known as canvassing which starts the day after the election – before releasing the final tally. 

Mail-In Voting — The count is underway (but no one knows who’s ahead)

To handle the thousands of absentee votes received ahead of Nov. 3, the Durham County Board of Elections has met since Sept. 29 to review the ballots. All meeting dates and times are pre-approved and published on the county board website. Once mail-in ballots are approved, they are fed into an electronic tabulator machine, where the votes are counted but the results are not released. Simply put, the machine knows the vote count but officials do not until polls close on Nov. 3. 

At each meeting, the board has two tasks: approve ballots and begin the count. Once the ballot is approved, meaning it has all components filled out including the required witness signature, then the board can remove it from its envelope and place it in the tabulation machine. The machine counts the vote, and stores the result on a memory card in the machine. 

Once polls close on Nov. 3 at 7:30 p.m., the board can remove the memory cards from the tabulators and print the results. Then these results can be released to the public. 

Mail-In Ballot Deadlines: 

Oct. 27 – Voters must request a mail-in ballot by 5 p.m.. 

Oct. 15 to Oct. 31 – Voters can drop off their mail-in ballots at any early voting site in Durham County. 

Nov. 3 – The last day voters can drop off their mail-in ballots at the Durham County Board of Elections office by 5 p.m.. Voters who are returning their ballots by mail must have them postmarked by Nov. 3. As long as ballots are sent by then, they can be accepted through Nov. 12 (although the date is still subject to change as a result of ongoing litigation). 

Early Voting — The count begins for in-person voting 

You don’t have to wait until Nov. 3 to catch glimpses of Durham voters sporting their “No bull, I voted” stickers. Since Oct. 15, people have been able to visit 14 early voting locations in the county. They’ll be open until Oct. 31. 

Like mail-in voting, this is a form of absentee voting and the ballots are processed as they come in. These ballots are also put through an electronic ballot scanner, with results stored in the tabulator’s memory card. At the end of each day, the physical ballots are organized by a color coded bagging system. As with mail-in ballots, only the machines know the vote count. 

Keeping tabs: When the polls close at the end of each early voting day, the ballots are tallied on-site by the tabulation machine and then a one-stop daily reconciliation form must be filled out. This reconciliation form is essentially a daily audit that makes sure every ballot is accounted for. 

The reconciliation form includes:  

  • Total number of unused ballots the site had on hand at the beginning of the day
  • The daily start count of ballots on the tabulator machine (which must match the end number from the previous day) 
  • The daily ending count
  • The daily number of ballots cast
  • Daily “one-stop” applications
    • Every voter completes a one-stop application when they vote at an early in-person site. The application means that the voter verified their name and address and provided a signature to assure this information. 
  • Laptop numbers and number of voters processed on each laptop from the site
    • Laptops are used at each early voting site to look up voters registration and print the one-stop applications. 
  • Write in ballots
  • Spoiled ballots
  • Machine-rejected ballots
  • Absentee ballots dropped off on site that day
  • Provisional ballots
  • Total number of registration updates received that day
  • Same day registrations processed and reviewed for the day
  • Ending unused ballot count

Color coding to separate the ballots

Next comes a color coding system to deliver the ballots to the county elections office. There are five colored poly bags used – white, blue, yellow, black and red. 

The colored bags, along with other forms, are dropped off at the county board of elections office at the end of each day. 

  • White bags: Accepted ballots 
  • Yellow bags: Machine-rejected ballots 
  • Black bags: Provisional ballots 
  • Red bags: Spoiled ballots 
  • Blue bags: Absentee vote by mail ballots that were dropped off at the early voting site 

Election Day Voting — Completing the count 

On Nov. 3, tens of thousands of voters will visit 57 precincts in Durham, casting their ballot, leaving with the pen they used to cast their ballot (a new safety precaution) and a voting sticker. When polls close at 7:30 pm, the tabulation memory card from each machine will be delivered to the county office. Now the counting gets real.

Once polls close, precinct officials can remove the memory card from each tabulation machine. Next, they drive the cards back to the Durham elections office, where each card is inserted into a computer and the votes are read. 

At this time, the memory cards from absentee voting – both mail-in and the in-person early voting sites –  are read and released as well. The early absentee count will likely be the first results announced on Election Day, according to Patrick Gannon, the public information officer for the North Carolina State Board of Elections. 

Results will be publicized, but these tallies are unofficial. 

Provisional ballots

When a voter attempts to cast a ballot but the precinct worker is unable to verify their registration, that voter is allowed to vote with a provisional ballot. This ballot means that the vote will not count until further research is done to verify the individuals registration. After polls close on Nov. 3, precinct officials are also tasked with another job – reporting the number of provisional ballots cast that day in their location. 

By 12 p.m. on Nov. 5, the Durham County Board of Elections must publish the total number of provisional ballots cast in Durham and begin reviewing the cases. During the county canvass, the board of elections conducts research to verify a voter’s registration and determines whether or not the ballot should count. 

The Canvass – Making the final count

Part 1 – The County Board Canvass 

The tallies – and the winners – are unofficial until the Durham County Board of Elections meets on Nov. 13 to finalize results. In this “canvassing” process, board members verify that votes have been counted and tabulated correctly over the course of 10 days, before authenticating the official election results. 

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The canvass is the official, and presumably final, count. One caveat in a chaotic year: the meeting could be delayed depending on lawsuits or contests about election results. But at the canvass meeting, regardless of its date, the board signs off on their certification of the election results in Durham. 

In the 10 days between Nov. 3 and the Nov. 13 meeting there are a few things the Durham County Board of Elections must do before the count is official:

  1. The board reviews the number of provisional ballots cast and determines whether or not each registration was legitimate so the vote can count. 
  2. The board continues to accept and process absentee mail-in ballots, as long as they were postmarked by Nov. 3. The board can accept and count all ballots received through Nov. 12.
  3. The board conducts a series of audits to ensure that there are no missing ballots and that tabulation machines were not tampered with. 
    • One audit involves a recount of two precincts, selected at random by the state board. The county board must run the ballots from the selected precincts through the tabulator again to ensure that the count is the same.  
    • There are several other audits the county can choose to conduct. Two examples are: 
      • Ensuring that the number of people who check in at the polls roughly matches the number of ballots cast. There is a margin of error here, as there are situations where a voter checks in but does not cast a ballot. This means the numbers do not always match but should be close.  
      • Selecting a portion of ballots to count by hand. This hand-eye count is then compared to the machine tabulated total.

Once these processes are complete, the board meets at 11 a.m. on Nov. 13. 

At this meeting the board fills out an abstract sheet which summarizes the official vote count. Three copies of this abstract are made – one for the county board to keep, one is delivered to the Superior Court clerk of the county and the last is sent to the North Carolina State Board of Elections. 

Part 2 – The State Board of Elections Canvass 

Three weeks after Election Day, it is the role of the state board of elections to provide a final count of all counties and certify votes for the state. This happens in a meeting on Nov. 24 when the board completes its own canvass. The board is also able to complete its own audit if members want to further authenticate the results. 

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At this meeting, the board summarizes all official results for each elected office on the ballot in a document known as an abstract.

This official state abstract is then duplicated. The state board keeps one, while the other is sent to the Secretary of State, who is responsible for announcing the results to the public. 

Sources: 

  • Patrick Gannon, public information office for the North Carolina State Board of Elections 
  • Durham County Board of Elections 

One month before Election Day, poll worker needs are largely filled

Damon Circosta may be able to sleep better now. The chair of the North Carolina State Board of Elections said a month ago that his biggest worry in the middle of the night was whether counties would be able to recruit enough poll workers. But it appears most counties have met or are on track to fill their needs, according to a spreadsheet posted on the state elections website.  

Elections officials were concerned because many people in the prime demographic group for poll workers – 65-70 year-old retirees – are expected to stay at home this year because of risks from the coronavirus. 

But state and local recruiting efforts for “Democracy Heroes” seem to have worked.

 “There’s been no one in any county really contacting us saying they’re in dire trouble,” said Noah Grant, the elections communication specialist for the board of elections. 

 Among the counties with full staffing: Durham – so much that the county is now rejecting poll worker applications. 

“We have had overwhelming interest from the community and expect all voting sites to be fully staffed,” the Durham County Board of Elections wrote in an email to interested applicants on Sep. 29. 

It takes between 25,000 to 30,000 workers across the state to run the election, according to Grant. To meet this need, officials began recruitment in May and June, with an increased push in July. Facebook helped North Carolina and other states through targeted ads and News Feed messages with links to the poll worker application. 

Grant said he didn’t know the demographics of registered poll workers in each county but that many previous volunteers are still helping again this year. 

“A lot of the people that are poll workers are very dedicated to the process of serving and have done it for years, he said. “This wasn’t going to stop them.” 

He said there will be safety precautions at all at polling locations. Poll workers will have personal protective equipment, including masks and gloves, and locations will be frequently sanitized. There also will be dividers to minimize contact with voters.

When The 9th Street Journal asked about details in the spreadsheet on Friday, Grant said it was last updated on Sep. 21 and was outdated and incomplete due to a lack of response from county board of election departments. But many counties, including Wake are marked on it as fully covered. 

The effort also got a boost from the North Carolina Office of State Human Resources, which is offering employees three days of community service leave to work in the election. 

Although most needs are met, the state is continuing to target counties to build a reserve of volunteers through Facebook advertisements and OSHR emails. These counties include: Anson, Ashe, Avery, Beaufort, Caswell, Chowan, Cumberland, Dare, Duplin, Graham, Hoke, Johnston, Lenoir, Montgomery, Northampton, Rutherford, Stanly, Wilkes and Watauga. 

Yet one month to election day, Grant’s biggest fear is one that is out of his control: an outbreak of the virus.

It’s not a fear that we’re not going to have enough workers because of an outbreak,” he said. “We just don’t want to see anybody get hurt on the job or go through this because you’re volunteering in the election.”

What is Swing NC? And why did it give $53,000 to Deborah Ross?

About 10 blocks from the U.S. Capitol is a townhouse office with the kind of generic name you expect to find in Washington: Capitol Compliance Associates. It doesn’t seem like the kind of place that would help North Carolina Democrats funnel tens of thousands of dollars to their campaigns.

Capitol Compliance is involved with a fundraising effort that sounds like a band that performs at weddings, Swing NC. In reality it is a joint fundraiser between four Democrats running for the U.S. House and Senate: Kathy Manning, Patricia Timmons-Goodson, Cal Cunningham and Deborah Ross.

I stumbled across Swing NC, and then Capitol Compliance, when I was going through Ross’s campaign finance records for The 9th Street Journal. (She is running for the 2nd Congressional District, which is in Wake County.) It took days for me to unpack what this group entails and their money and I’m still not completely sure about the details. (I’ll update this story as needed!)

But I’m sure about this: our campaign finance system is a messy tangle of groups and bundlers and it’s difficult for anyone to make sense of it. The laws that govern the system are supposed to bring transparency to political contributions. But in practice it is hard to know the source of money and where it goes.

* * *  

I first became curious when I noticed in Ross’s receipts that as of June 30, Swing NC contributed $53,337.92 to her campaign. These donations were listed in four contributions.

This was the largest sum of money, out of 2,876 contributions, made to her campaign other than the $57,783 leftover from her 2016 Senate race. 

This was the first mystery for me. According to the Federal Election Commission contribution limits, the largest donation to an individual candidate committee is $5,000 per election from multicandidate PACs, local party committees or national party committees. Individual donations are capped at $2,800. 

Yet Swing NC contributed $43,795 and $6,539.17 on May 27 and $2,935 and $68.75 on June 30.

In the spirit of transparency, all candidates must report their contributions and disbursements in filings leading up to Election Day. 

I wondered why Swing NC was able to give beyond the allowed amount and, to add to the mystery, I found virtually no information about them. 

If you do a Google search for Swing NC, the first result will tell you to “find your swing” — at a 45-acre paddle and racquet sport campus that is coming to Raleigh in 2022. 

Ross could be a racquet sport enthusiast for all I know, but I ruled out the Swing NC sports complex as the source of her substantial campaign donation. 

At this point in my search, with nearly 25 tabs open and my computer fan hissing at me, I found the original FEC filings from Swing NC. The group’s filing statement of organization would solve the mystery, I hoped. 

It provided some answers, but also raised new questions. 

It turns out that Swing NC is a joint fundraising committee between Ross, Cunningham, Manning and Timmons-Goodson. The organizers filed to be a committee on March 3 and have raised $192,615 and spent $10,543.39, as of June 30. 

It is a collaboration between the four candidates to raise money, but it doesn’t have a website, team or much communication about the effort.

The report listed a Washington D.C. address, and it clarified that the group is a joint fundraiser. It also mentioned Judy Zamore, who was listed as the custodian of records and treasurer.

Those were important clues.

* * *  

So what is a joint fundraising committee and why would these four candidates opt into it?

To answer this question, I sought out Andrew Mayersohn, a researcher at the Center of Responsive Politics, a non-partisan group that tracks money in U.S. politics. He pointed me to their glossary of terms, which explains that the joint committees are a convenient way to raise money together. A committee can include two or more candidates, political parties (or both). 

Think of it like a co-hosted fundraising party (or parties). The group hosts events together, splits the costs and, ultimately splits the gifts that the guests bring (the donations). 

When I called Mayersohn, he told me this is a common practice in campaign finance. 

A joint fundraising committee is not a loophole to accept larger campaign donations, he said. Individuals can still give no more than $2,800 per candidate in the committee, regardless if they are donating directly to the candidate or through the team. With four candidates joined together in Swing NC the maximum individual donation is $11,200 to the team. 

But it’s easier for campaign contributors this way. Rather than receiving four separate calls or emails from Ross, Manning, Timmons-Goodson and Cunningham, the contributors just get one. This is all about efficiency. 

* * *  

Alan Swain, Ross’s Republican challenger, probably wishes he had his own Swing NC. He is alone in his fundraising efforts and is struggling. For every dollar Ross has raised, Swain has less than a nickel. He has raised a total of $53,867.13, compared with her $1.3 million. 

Put another way: The Swing NC collaboration alone has raised about the same amount as Swain has raised from all sources.

The address listed for Swing NC is Capitol Compliance’s townhouse. Zamore, who signed the FEC documents, happens to be the principal and founder of the firm as well. 

Her bio indicates she is a skilled political fundraiser with more than 14 years of experience. This election cycle, Zamore served as chief financial officer in Sen. Cory Booker’s presidential campaign. Under her direction, Booker raised a record $1.35 million in just 36 hours towards the end of his campaign in Iowa. 

Throughout the 2020 election cycle Capitol Compliance is tracking $3.2 million to 130 campaigns, funds and PACs helping candidates up and down ballots. Other clients include Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood of Illinois, who are both running for reelection. 

Mayersohn clarified that Capitol Compliance is not raising funds on the candidates’ behalf, but instead is just filing FEC reports for the Swing NC team. 

“There’s a lot of ins and outs to filing FEC reports and these are the people who are very familiar with them,” Mayersohn said. 

Hiring an outside firm to manage these regulations is a common practice, he said. 

“It is the same reason that you would use an accounting firm or anything for any other purpose,” he said. “It’s their specialized expertise on how to handle loans and things like that.”

* * *

The list of donors to Swing NC ranges from ecologists in San Francisco, to people who are unemployed. Donations started at $100 and were capped at the maximum individual donation of $11,200. There are 181 donations listed on the FEC itemized receipts filing. 

In Ross’s FEC filings, the Swing NC contributions are listed under lump payments. If you want to look into individual donors, you have to go to the joint committee’s filing, which is where I found more details on who was contributing to this four-way team. 

But that  means if you’re a citizen of the 2nd Congressional District and you want to find out who gave to Ross through Swing NC, you need to do the detective work I did. 

I am still unsure if candidates solicit these donations, or if these committees are well known or if individuals know their funds will be split four ways when donating to Swing NC. 

When I called Capitol Compliance to ask, they were not particularly eager to help me untangle this. Neither was the Ross campaign. 

I called Capitol Compliance and was told I would receive a follow up from “compliance” (a department there?) with more information. 

At Ross’s campaign, my question about the formation and existence of Swing NC was met with silence. 

Eight days later, I have yet to receive a call back from either of them.

Staff writer Michaela Towfighi can be reached at michaela.towfighi@duke.edu

Wake County congressional seat looking promising for Democrats

Even as a Republican running for a GOP held seat, Alan Swain has to level with himself. Things don’t look good for his campaign in the redrawn 2nd Congressional District.

“I’m a realist. It’s a tough, uphill battle,” Swain said. 

Once deep red, the 2nd is now projected to flip blue. The Cook Political Report rates the race “likely Democratic.”

Swain’s opponent, Deborah Ross, is a fixture in the state’s Democratic party. She challenged Republican Sen. Richard Burr in the 2016 Senate race, losing by a narrow margin of 51.1% to 45.3%.

Ross is on the ballot after winning the Democratic primary in March alongside Swain and Libertarian Jeff Matemu, who both ran uncontested.

To the right, NC-2 Republican candidate Alan Swain, wearing a blazer with a US Army pin, stands outside. To the right, NC-2 Democratic candidate Deborah Ross, wearing a white blouse, stands in front of an American flag.
Republican Alan Swain (left) and Democrat Deborah Ross (right) are running for the North Carolina 2nd Congressional District seat. (Credit: Alan Swain; Deborah Ross)

The path to a new Democratic House seat emerged after a panel of judges ruled the old map was unconstitutional due to gerrymandering. In the newly redrawn boundaries, eight districts are expected to lean Republican and five Democrat, compared to the previous 10 to three divide. 

The 2nd District was formerly composed of Franklin, Harnett and Nash counties, and pieces of Johnston, Wake and Wilson counties were mixed in too. In 2016, Franklin, Harnett, Nash and Johnston voted for both President Donald Trump and Burr. 

Now the district is contained solely in Wake County, with the additions of urban Raleigh and Cary providing a Democratic shift to the district’s limits. Meredith College political scientist David McLennan called that an advantage for Ross. 

“Now [the district] encompasses a lot of Wake County, which is very favorable to Democrats,” he said. 

Ross won Wake County 55.33% to 41.51% in her 2016 Senate race.

The new boundaries pushed current Congressman George Holding, a Republican, to not seek reelection.  

“What I have learned about our government, and elections, and public life could fill a book,” Holding said in a public statement announcing his retirement in December. “I should add, candidly, that, yes, the newly redrawn Congressional Districts were part of the reason I have decided not to seek reelection.”

The candidates

Ross’s fundraising adds another advantage. She has raised over $1.3 million through June 30. She had a generous headstart with $57,783 left over from her Senate campaign against Swain, who has yet to hit $100,000. He is running a largely self-funded race and has donated almost $25,000 to his effort. 

Still, the Republican candidate’s resume makes him formidable. As a retired Army colonel, a former executive officer to the White House drug czar for two administrations and a small business entrepreneur, Swain has diverse work experience. His next goal is to support his community with a seat in Washington. 

“I served my country, and now I’m being asked to serve a second time. I was a citizen soldier. And now I’m being asked to be a citizen statesman,” he said.  

Neither candidate was born in North Carolina, but both have woven themselves into their adopted communities. 

Ross arrived in North Carolina over 25 years ago to attend law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She and her husband now live in Raleigh with their dog, Wylie. 

After practicing as a civil rights lawyer, Ross made her political debut running for the North Carolina House of Representatives, where she served for more than 10 years. While in office, she acted as both majority and minority whip, as well as the chair of the Judiciary, Ethics and Election Laws committees. 

Ross said her time as a state legislator allowed her to push her policy agenda while collaborating with other politicians across the aisle.

I brought people together to find solutions, even people I did not always agree with, whether it was government ethics reform, expanding voting rights, increasing pay for educators, or issues of racial justice,” Ross wrote in an email statement. 

She also served as the state director of the American Civil Liberties Union, a point Burr’s campaign used in the Senate race to paint her as too liberal to lead the state

Ross’s involvement in state politics makes her a familiar name on the ballot. She’ll use that popularity  to her advantage, McLennan said. 

“She’s well-known,” he said. “If you look at her time when she was in the Legislature, she spent as much time if not more than any person I’ve ever seen, not just being in her office but going up into her district.”

Swain, who moved to Raleigh in 2017 to spend more time with his three daughters and grandchildren, began volunteering with the North Carolina Republican Party following the 2018 midterm election. 

“Next thing I knew after several interviews they asked me, ‘we want you to run for office,’ and here I am running for Congress,” he said. 

The coronavirus pandemic has allowed Swain to serve his community in a new way. As president of the North Carolina Asian American Coalition, Swain, who is half Japanese, has partnered with 19 other Asian organizations to purchase personal protective equipment for healthcare workers. Together, they have contributed over 50,000 items to more than 60 hospitals in North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and India, according to Swain’s campaign website. He said he has also provided disposable masks to local small businesses out of his own pocket. 

Swain said these acts highlight his commitment to Wake County. That commitment is at the core of his politics, he added. Although he lists priorities such as increasing funding for law enforcement, advocating for school choice and protecting the Second Amendment, he said his focus is on what benefits the 2nd District. 

“I may have conservative views, but I want to do what’s best for Wake County in North Carolina and the city of Raleigh,” he said. “If it doesn’t help Wake County, if it doesn’t help the state of North Carolina, I’m not going to vote in favor.”

The “D.C. gridlock,” motivated him to seek office. Frustrated by a lack of bipartisan collaboration in Washington, Swain said he hopes to draft and support House bills that will have a chance to pass in the Senate. 

He said he’ll follow former President Harry Truman’s advice on navigating D.C.: “if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”

“I’m not a career politician. I’m not seeking any higher office,” he said. “I don’t need this job. I want to make a difference.”

On her campaign website, Ross outlines nine priorities from access to affordable health care to providing a path to citizenship that keeps families together. Some of her agenda items include creating a public option for health insurance, increasing the maximum Pell Grant award to increase college affordability and protecting access to abortion. 

“I will work to pass paid sick leave, increase the minimum wage, protect and strengthen Social Security, and fight to end inequities in health care and education,” she wrote. 

The path forward

For now, though, Ross and her team are focused on voter registration. 

“My team is working with a coordinated field effort to turn out voters in our district to help elect Democrats up and down the ticket,” she wrote. 

For a Swain victory, there would need to be an increase of Republicans voters in November, according to McLennan. 

“It would take a massive turnout by Republicans and a lower than expected turnout among Democrats for Deborah Ross to lose,” he said. 

The 2nd District boundary contains almost 80% of Wake County. Swain knows in Wake there are 282,534 registered Democrats compared to 184,791 Republicans as of Sept. 5

“There are more Democrats registered in my county or my district than there are Republicans. The whole fight for me has to be in the center,” Swain said. “But that doesn’t change my desire to represent this county.”

Heading into the final two months ahead of election day, Ross has over 25 times the cash on hand at $473,072 compared to Swain’s $18,221. 

Ross has spent over $25,000 so far on Facebook advertisements, mainly used to ask for donations to her campaign and introduce herself to voters. Swain, on the other hand, has spent just over $1,600 on the platform. 

In addition to leading the field in campaign donations, Ross outweighs her opponent with over 25 endorsements ranging from PACs like Emily’s List to unions such as the American Federation of Government Employees. 

Swain has no endorsements listed on his campaign website. 

Despite the imbalance, Swain is not discouraged. For hope, he turns to the campaign logo embroidered on his jacket: an outline of the state filled by the American flag, with a heart over Wake County at the center.  

“We’re the heartbeat of North Carolina,” he said. “If you want the state to stay red, you better focus on Wake County. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”

With help, Durham schools prepare to start the school year online

While working as a technology specialist in Durham Public Schools, Laura Fogle learned about a student whose phone screen was so cracked, glass shards cut her fingers when she typed. Yet she tried to compose an essay on it. Unlike other classmates, she did not have a computer at home.

With the school year set to start online on Monday, the local school district has been working for months to collapse such digital divides among students. 

A high-profile step was the purchase of over 20,000 Chromebooks for grades kindergarten through 12. Students lacking internet access are getting hotspot devices too, to ensure they can connect. 

And even with this process, there have been bumps. At some schools, like Parkwood Elementary, Chromebook shipments have been delayed. 

Achieving an equitable experience for almost 33,000 students is a far greater job than merely giving each a device and internet access, however. Teachers have to redesign courses, students need to master their devices, and when the technology fails or things break, money must be available for repairs and replacements. 

The library at Riverside High School was converted into a staging area for for digital-equipment hand outs this week. Staff wrapped devices for students. Photo by Henry Haggart

With the support of community members and Durham Public Schools Foundation, schools like Lakewood Elementary are hustling to figure out what an effective online school and school community looks like.

Without the school bus picking students up each morning and the energy of students at recess vibrating through the neighborhood, Principal James Hopkins has to find a new way to connect his Lakewood community. 

To do so, he is breaking down school-opening preparations into action items. His first task: calling all Lakewood families.  

Families received a call by Tuesday from Lakewood to check in about the upcoming year, understand any concerns or extraneous needs they have, and inform them of their time slot to pick up Chromebooks from the school.  

Open house did not feature the typical classroom tours or teacher meet and greet. Instead families used their student’s device to log onto Zoom. 

The next action steps are the most complicated – navigating online teaching. 

Lakewood teachers have had to adapt to Canvas, the learning management platform DPS is using across all schools, Hopkins said. Canvas will serve as a home base, where teachers can create lesson plans, grade books, online quizzes and other materials for their students to access. 

Next, Hopkins says teachers must mentally prepare themselves to connect from afar. 

Rather than pulling students aside to sound out tricky words, teachers will now have to improvise. Maybe they call students one-on-one, or maybe they slow the lesson plan down from the beginning.  

“It’s something we were never trained to do, something that in our wildest dreams, we may not have believed that we would be doing. And so, that’s much easier said than done,” he said. 

To help district schools, the Durham Public Schools Foundation has launched a $1.5 million fundraising campaign called “Accelerating Digital Equity.” 

The campaign has four main focuses. They include training teachers, raising money for ongoing technology needs, supporting students, especially those with additional needs such as bilingual technology support in a district where over 5,000 students enrolled as English language learners in 2018-2019.

Providing community spaces for students to learn from if they are unable to do so at home is the last goal. The learning centers, announced this week, will be a supervised, socially-distant environment for students who need it. 

These four components are needed to build a learning ecosystem, the setting in which students are able to learn successfully, said Katie Wright, the foundation’s development and communications specialist. 

“If you have the device but you don’t have these other supports in place, it’s not going to be quality, remote learning experience, and that’s what students need to not fall behind,” she said. 

In 2018, the US Census Bureau estimated over 12,000 people in Durham county had no internet access, and over 11,000 people relied on their smartphone as their only device. This alone diminishes all ability to learn virtually from home. 

“In Durham because of our geography and the concentration of population that we have, the issue is much more about affordability for people connecting to the internet — whether or not it’s available, is much less of an issue,” said Fogle, who now works with Digital Durham, which promotes digital inclusion. 

To spread word of the campaign to keep students online, the foundation has identified  “accelerators,” volunteers who are willing to spread word of the effort with friends, family and community groups. 

Getting Chromebooks into the hands of students and families needing them is only one step to delivering meaningful online instruction. Photo by Henry Haggart

The foundation also created the Durham HOPE Network, a database of free community resources available now to DPS schools and families. This includes anything from free tutoring sessions to information on event spaces available for small, socially distant gatherings.

To put all the puzzle pieces together, teachers will need to lean on each other, said Hopkins. Each year he shares a theme with the Lakewood community. This year it is one word: Together.

“It’s like going down a road that no one’s ever traveled down. There are going to be six boulders, all sorts of things in our path that we must be able to move and create together,” he said.

All this effort in the midst of a pandemic may bring lasting improvements to Durham even when this coronavirus outbreak is a memory. 

“We have an opportunity to create an equitable situation where all of our students are getting digital literacy and their families are able to have careers that require that,” Wright said.

9th Street reporter Michaela Towfighi can be reached at michaela.towfighi@duke.edu

At top: Riverside High School Principal Tonya Williams Leathers helped hand out Chromebooks to students this week. Photo by Henry Haggart

Much more needed to make classrooms safe for everyone, Durham teachers say

Rather than creating lesson plans and classroom decorations this summer, Durham teacher Millie Rosen drafted her will.

On Jul. 14 when Gov. Roy Cooper recommended schools return for modified in-person learning, she prepared to enter a battle with no armor. 

Durham Public Schools has since announced the first nine weeks of the school year, which starts Aug. 17, will be online. 

Although online learning will spare trips to school for now, that is a temporary solution. And teachers across the country are voicing concerns about safety. Educators demonstrated outside Boston City Hall against schools reopening in person this week. 

Many Durham public school teachers say deciding whether to return to classrooms during the pandemic is now a choice between keeping their jobs or protecting their health. They worry it would be only a matter of time before they or their students contract the virus.

Rosen has one main criterion for returning in person, whether that be in October or next year: strong evidence that she, her colleagues and her students will be kept safe.  

“It would be about the chances of me, my co-workers and my kids dying,” said Rosen, who teaches seventh-grade math at Durham School of the Arts.  

Hesitation to return 

Nearly 47% of Durham’s public school teachers who responded to a survey conducted through June said that they would prefer online teaching, according to the Durham Association of Educators, an affiliate of the North Carolina Association of Educators.  

Prior to the district’s announcement of its school reopening plan, the DAE held a Zoom town hall on July 15 with the DPS administration, asking district staff to answer over 400 questions from employees. 

“My conversations with our teachers and hearing their concerns tipped the scale,” Superintendent Pascal Mubenga wrote about the decision to start the school year online. “They assured me that they were up to the challenge of remote instruction, and I know they will deliver.”

Many teachers are concerned that come October, when the district is expected to reevaluate, they still won’t have nearly enough funding and resources to safely teach in classrooms.  

Durham public schools have seen a continuous decline in state funding for years, district officials say. The district has received $19 million less from the state each year than they did in 2009 when dollar amounts are adjusted for inflation, according to the proposed school budget for 2020-2021

Due to COVID-19 budget cuts, the county gave DPS just over $5 million for the 2020-2021 fiscal year.

As a result, they rely heavily on local fundraising, such as money raised by the DPS Foundation, which was founded in 2018.

At Riverside High School, 2019 DPS Teacher of the Year Mika Twietmeyer draws the line when a lack of resources could cost herself or her students their lives.

“Teachers are always asked to do more with less, and we will because we understand that we have to,” said Twietmeyer, who teaches science. “But when there’s risks that people are going to die… it’s really highlighting some of these concerns and highlighting how unfunded the public schools are.”

Teaching from afar 

In addition to their concerns about whether classroom teaching will be safe, teachers say executing online learning will not be an easy feat. Especially with students’ unequal access to reliable internet or adequate space at home. 

Twietmeyer is now faced with the challenge of converting her science classroom to an online format. Students learn by doing in her classroom, she said, with labs an integral part of her lesson plan. This semester they will have to watch these experiments on Chromebook screens. 

“We’ve talked about filming ourselves doing the activities and creating modules,” Twietmeyer said. “But all of those take time and training that we really haven’t had or have available to us.” 

Twietmeyer wonders how her partner, a photography teacher at Riverside, will teach lessons normally given in a darkroom, online. Together, they will navigate both teaching online under the same roof. 

Durham public school teachers have little experience teaching online. When the district closed schools in March, all required instruction ended.

For middle school, Rosen said integrating social skills and other learning beyond her curriculum will be a challenge from a distance. 

“With kids because there’s so much there’s so much learning that you do in middle school in terms of learning more subtle things about being in relation to other people,” she said. 

Teachers will still be required to follow the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction state standards for the learning students must complete during a course, despite the unprecedented circumstances. 

Twietmeyer said she wants to wait before rushing into her lesson plans. Instead she wants to make sure her students are comfortable navigating online learning and build relationships  before she starts with her content. 

“The really challenging part, of course, starting virtually is building those relationships through a screen,” she said. “It takes away from the craft and the art of the teaching profession, which we all love.”

Organizing for a safe return 

There’s no way to know what the COVID-19 rates will look like nine weeks after the school year begins. However cases continue to rise in Durham with 5,514 cases as of Sunday, according to Durham County Department of Public Health.  

Regardless of the case count, Michelle Burton, the president of DAE and a library media specialist at Spring Valley Elementary, is looking to state legislators to ensure that schools have adequate funding to follow the 31 Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations for a safe re-opening.

The first step for her is ensuring state legislators expand COVID-19 relief funding for schools. 

“We need to put pressure on [state legislators] to put something forward to give us the funding that we need during COVID and keep people safe,” she said. “The resources that they have allocated or voted on is not enough.”

In 2019, North Carolina was one of the two states with the lowest union membership rates, according to the US Department of Labor. And public school teachers in North Carolina are not allowed to have a collective bargaining agreement to negotiate employment contracts.

The NCAE does advocate for teachers here, however. This month members are petitioning the General Assembly, asking members to maintain the same level of funding and staffing from the 2019-2020 school year for the upcoming year. 

NCAE also wants legislators to fund all state Department of Health and Human Services requirements for reopening schools. These include creating six-foot markings on floors for social distancing  and frequently disinfecting all surfaces, on busses too.

They also want decision makers to meet with public school employees to allow for their input in reopening discussions.

The petition, which NCAE is still circulating for signatures, has over 16,000 so far. 

Some needs are non-negotiable items for Burton, she said. They include a nurse in every school building, funding for plexiglass for high contact areas, like reception desks, masks, and cleaning supplies. 

But funding for more nurses is beyond Durham Public School’s budget for next year, Mubenga said during the town hall meeting. Nurses will be available via telehealth services for schools without, according to Nakia Hardy, the district’s deputy superintendent of academic services. 

Following state and federal guidelines still may not be enough to reopen schools safely, many school officials fear. In Arizona, three teachers taught summer school online from the same classroom, following all public health recommendations. All three fell ill with COVID-19 and one died. 

Despite their many fears, some educators say ongoing discussions and debates are showing the power their public pressure can have on decision-making.

 “We have to unite and organize to win the schools and communities that we all deserve,” DAE vice president Turquoise LeJeune Parker said during the town hall.

The more voices in this conversation the better, including student voices, said Twietmeyer.

“We hear a lot of the argument of going back to school because it’s for the students behalf. But we want to make sure that if we’re doing things on their behalf, that they’re a part of some of those decisions,” she said.

9th Street reporter Michaela Towfighi can be reached at michaela.towfighi@duke.edu

At top: With school reopening decisions happening across the nation, Jordan High School educators shared a clear message: “Our safety, our say”. Photo courtesy of Carlos Pérez

Durham schools will be online only until October

When Durham Public School students resume school on Aug. 17, there will be no bus rides or hallway chats about summer. Instead, over 32,000 students will open Chromebooks and tune into online learning at home. 

The first nine weeks of the 2020-2021 school year school will be online, Board of Education members voted unanimously on Thursday.

Schools statewide are free to open with a combination of online and in-person learning, Gov. Roy Cooper announced Tuesday. However, after teachers voiced concerns about the safety of returning to school during the pandemic, Durham will wait to bring students and over 5,000 staff to school buildings. 

“My conversations with our teachers and hearing their concerns tipped the scale,” Superintendent Pascal Mubenga wrote in an online statement announcing reopening plans. “They assured me that they were up to the challenge of remote instruction, and I know they will deliver.

Although online instruction is the safest option, the district will face two major hurdles in teaching children at home: ensuring online access for all students and providing food. In the Durham school district, 64% of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. 

To address the digital divide, Board of Education members purchased over 20,000 Chromebooks for students in May. Next, they must find ways to ensure all students and teachers have internet access through the distribution of hotspots.

School reopening plans have been evolving since fears about spreading COVID-19 illness abruptly shut Durham school building doors on March 13. All mandatory studies ended then too. 

Cooper had asked school districts to develop three separate plans for re-entry following varying guidelines. Plan A allowed schools to reopen at regular capacity with minimal social distancing enforced. Plan B called for a limited reopening, where schools could operate at 50% capacity to enforce social distancing. Under Plan C, all instruction is online. 

Durham’s Spark Reopening Task Force, a group of administrators and teachers working on plans to reopen schools, had recommended a very specific Plan B. If selected, it should include in-person instruction for kindergarten through eighth grade students, but online instructions for high school students, members said.

To ensure the space needed for social distancing, high schools would house some K-8 classes because they are bigger than elementary and middle schools. If students did not feel safe coming to school, they would have the option to stay home and enroll in Ignite Online Academy, the district’s new online school platform.

 School board members approved this option unanimously on June 25. 

Teachers were not given the same flexibility as students. Although some teachers would teach online at Ignite, not all could. 

A survey the Durham Association of Educators (DAE) conducted through May and June drew responses from 34% of teachers. Among that group, 46.8% indicated that they would prefer to teach online. 

The DAE, an educators’ advocacy organization, published a statement on July 13 asking for more funding to make in-person instruction safer so that educators would not have to choose between their health and their jobs. 

“So far, the state and federal governments have not provided public schools with the human or capital resources we would need to ensure a safe and equitable return,” the statement says. “We are not prepared to bury our students or colleagues.”

DAE also hosted a virtual town hall discussion with Mubenga on Wednesday. Over 100 educators joined the Zoom meeting, with over 400 questions submitted ahead of time. 

In the meeting, Mubenga’s message was clear. He and his staff were trying their best to meet teachers’ requests for a safe, in-person reopening. However, the district does not have the money it needs to properly do so, he said.

Although the district could provide sanitizer for each room, for example, there is not enough funding to hire additional nurses. Instead, schools would call nurses via a telehealth service if someone in the building needed medical attention.  

During the town hall Arsai Adkins, assistant superintendent for human resources, announced 3,822 students had enrolled for Ignite, the online program. Adkins also reported that 331 teachers submitted accommodations requests, with 232 of those requests relating to personal or family underlying health conditions. 

If schools reopen for in-person learning in October, students will have the ability to continue learning online if they choose. The date that could happen is not yet clear.

9th Street reporter Michaela Towfighi can be reached at michaela.towfighi@duke.edu

At top: Durham public schools teachers, staff and students will remain apart at the start of the school year, just like they did last spring. File photo by Henry Haggart