Press "Enter" to skip to content

Posts published in “Election 2020”

Analysis: Forest ran too far to the right for pandemic voters

North Carolina voters largely supported Republican candidates in the 2020 elections, from President Trump to Senator Thom Tillis. But Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, the Republican challenger in the gubernatorial race, was a notable exception. He lost to Gov. Roy Cooper 51.5% to 47%.

In a purple state made up of a relatively moderate electorate, Forest proved to be too conservative and strident for many voters. And he was facing an uphill battle: Forest lacked the power of the incumbency, and Cooper had been prominently in the public’s eye since March due to the pandemic.

Ultimately, Forest lost because of the issues he chose to emphasize. He often took an inflammatory stance on North Carolina’s coronavirus response, a central topic in the race, by questioning the efficacy of safety measures like face masks and social distancing. While claiming “unity” as one of his platform’s pillars, Forest was a divisive candidate who fired up his base but lacked broad appeal. 

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest won rural counties (shaded in red), but Gov. Roy Cooper prevailed in the most populous counties, including the urban centers.

“Forest just wasn’t the right kind of Republican for this race,” said Rob Christensen, an author and political reporter who studied North Carolina politics for 45 years. “His position was in line with the most conservative wing of his party, and that was not a very popular position to take.” 

Forest aligned himself closely with Trump, and even shared a stage with the president at a rally in Gastonia. But Trump won in North Carolina and Forest did not.

North Carolina has a long history of electing Democratic governors, Christensen said, while simultaneously choosing Republican presidents and senators. This is because gubernatorial elections often deal with a different set of issues than do races for a federal office.

“North Carolina governor races tend to be less ideological and more focused on things like running the schools and building roads,” Christensen said. “When North Carolina does elect a Republican governor, and it does from time to time, they tend to be moderately conservative.”

Those who did support Forest were primarily Republicans looking for a change in leadership or tired of Cooper’s cautious, measured reopening of the state. Forest offered a more libertarian approach, promising to lift the face mask mandate and reopen schools.

Cooper’s win showed that many voters remain concerned about the pandemic and prioritize public health over individual freedoms. Forest often cast doubt on guidance from public health experts, and undermined their advice by holding in person campaign events without masks or social distancing.   

The election “ended up being a referendum on science and medical expertise,” said Nathan Boucher, a professor of public policy at Duke University.

Still, it was far from a landslide. 

“Forest had a message that resonated with a lot of folks, which was ‘they’re not going to tell us what to do and we’re going to protect our freedoms,’” Boucher said, “and you have these huge, loud factions of the state that detest Cooper.” 

Yet relying on the polarization of North Carolina voters wasn’t a successful strategy for Forest.

“The United States and our state require a moderate leader,” Boucher said. “It needs someone who can walk down the middle.”

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct Nathan Boucher’s title. He is a professor of public policy at Duke, not political science.

Analysis: Controversies had little effect on Cawthorn’s campaign

Never mind his glowing words about Hitler’s home, the allegations by women of aggressive behavior, or several other controversies. Madison Cawthorn, the 25-year-old Republican, comfortably beat Democratic opponent Moe Davis 54.5% to 42.3%.

Cawthorn, who became the youngest member of Congress in modern history, won because the 11th Congressional District was, despite some new Asheville Democrats added to the redrawn map, still overwhelmingly filled with white, rural Republicans. 

“I can’t imagine a campaign littered with as many mistakes and accusations as Cawthorn’s,” said Chris Cooper, professor of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University. “The fact that he was able to pull out not just a victory, but a sizable victory, tells me that the demographics were destiny, and that the partisan patterns of this district ultimately were what carried the day.”

Davis’s campaign strategy was to rely on the newly included county of Buncombe, home of Asheville and many Democrats, and attract unaffiliated voters elsewhere in Western North Carolina. He succeeded in Buncombe but came up far short in the other counties.

The hippies smoking weed in Pritchard Park in the middle of Asheville are not a good representation of the district. If you took a drive around the other counties, you saw a lot of “Keep America Great” flags waving from pickup trucks.

“The 11th Congressional District is a lot more than Buncombe County,” said Cooper. 

For Davis to win, voters would have had to defy partisanship. And in a polarized age and a highly partisan election, that turned out to be an unrealistic hope for Davis.

The controversies

The headlines didn’t look good for Cawthorn. In July, Cawthorn endorsed debunked claims about human trafficking, a theory tied to right-wing conspiracy group QAnon. 

In August, a 2017 Instagram post resurfaced of Cawthorn smiling for a picture at Adolf Hitler’s vacation home, a trip on Cawthorn’s “bucket list.” In the caption he referred to Hitler as the “Fuhrer,” a German term of reverence. 

That same month, allegations surfaced of aggressive sexual behavior. Three women, two by name and one anonymous, came forward and accused Cawthorn of unwanted sexual advances. 

In October, an open letter signed by over 150 of Cawthorn’s former classmates at Patrick Henry College went viral for alleging that he engaged in “predatory behavior,” vandalism, and lying.  

Most recently, his campaign published a racist statement attacking Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Tom Fiedler, of leaving his job in academica “to work for non-white males, like Cory Booker, who aims to ruin white males running for office.”

But after all that, the controversies probably only cost Cawthorn 1 percentage point at most, Cooper said.

Davis had his own difficulties. His attempt to portray himself as the experienced, mature candidate was tarnished when vulgar tweets he’d written resurfaced. In his role as political commentator, Davis employed graphic and violent language, urging Democrats to stomp on the “scrawny pasty necks” of some Republicans and “twist slowly side to side for good measure.” 

Cooper said Davis “certainly wasn’t accused of sexual harassment or being a Nazi. But he was accused of contributing to polarized and increasingly divisive politics.” 

The bigger factors were simply the math of the district and the scarcity of split-ticket voting. 

“Republicans are gonna vote for Republicans and Democrats are gonna vote for Democrats,” said Cooper.

Above, Cawthorn posed with supporters at a campaign event. Photo by Bella Caracta | The 9th Street Journal

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis: Contrary to predictions of gloom and doom, election went smoothly

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

Analysis: Kathy Manning should thank mapmakers for her Greensboro win

In the race for North Carolina’s 6th Congressional District, the question was not whether Kathy Manning would win, but by how much. 

Manning had money. By the final Federal Election Commission filing on Oct. 14, she had raised about $1.9 million, over 30 times more than her opponent Lee Haywood, who had raised about $60,000.

Manning had name recognition. A local philanthropist with ties to big community projects, she was known from her unsuccessful campaign against Rep. Ted Budd in 2018 for the 13th Congressional District. Haywood had neither held public office nor even run before.

Manning had the boost of a presidential election. President-elect Joe Biden improved on Hillary Clinton’s already wide margins from 2016, winning Guilford County by over 20 points and Forsyth County by almost 15 points, according to the state election board’s unofficial results.

But most of all, Manning had a favorable map.

Manning’s most significant campaign asset was court-mandated redistricting. When district borders shifted from eight counties to Guilford County and southeastern Forsyth County, her victory was preordained — so much that Rep. Mark Walker, the Republican incumbent, declined to run for reelection.

The new district includes the Democratic stronghold known as the Triad — Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and High Point — so it comes as little surprise that Manning won by almost 25 points last week.

But maps are fickle. What the mapmakers and courts give, they can take away.

“Manning can definitely breathe a little easier now that she’s won, but we don’t know what the new map is going to look like,” said J. Miles Coleman, associate editor at Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan election prediction website.

Kathy Manning, who won the precincts in blue, benefited from the new 6th Congressional District, which includes Guilford and Forsyth counties. Map from North Carolina State Board of Elections.

A likely additional congressional seat due to the 2020 census would redraw North Carolina’s map again. Republicans control the General Assembly and are predicted to add a new Republican district, shifting the congressional delegation to a 9-5 split in their favor. Alternatively, they could make a bid for a 10-4 split by removing a Democratic seat, inviting litigation and risking more court-mandated redistricting.

“One district is worth a lot, especially given the Republicans’ success in holding onto state legislature across the country in the 2020 election. You gain a seat in North Carolina, you gain a couple of seats here and there,” said David Holian, a political scientist at UNC Greensboro. “And all of a sudden, the Democratic majority is in peril just from the natural forces of redistricting.”

Coleman and Holian do not expect major changes to the map and believe that Republican legislators will maintain a Democratic district centered around Guilford County. When gerrymandering, Coleman said, it is in both parties’ interests to have minimally competitive districts; consolidating voters means securing seats.

Either way, the future is uncertain for Manning. 

The potential for a tougher map and reelection campaign led Manning to run a cookie-cutter campaign, where she took stances in lockstep with the Democratic Party. She is likely to play her first term safe as well, hoping to discourage serious challengers in the primary and general elections.

“When redistricting comes around, the number one goal of a politician is always self-preservation,” Coleman said. “If I were Manning, for these next eight months or so, I would just wait and then I would proceed based on what those maps are.”

Analysis: Timmons-Goodson couldn’t overcome partisan pull in Fayetteville District

Fayetteville Democrat Pat Timmons-Goodson seemed to have a shot at unseating U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson. 

She raised more money than the four-term Republican incumbent two quarters in a row. She caught the attention of the Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican group, which became so concerned it ran attack ads against her and poured more than $2 million into Hudson’s campaign in late October. Politico even changed the race rating to “toss-up” on election eve. 

But on Election Day, that momentum wasn’t enough to overcome the gravitational pull that kept the 8th Congressional District, which stretches from Charlotte’s eastern suburbs through Cumberland County, in Republican hands — even in a redrawn district that gave a Democrat the best chance in years.

Hudson defeated Timmons-Goodson 53.3% to 46.6%, according to the state Board of Elections

A big factor in this race and many around the state: polarization in a presidential year. 

“The age of the ticket-splitters is over,” said Republican pollster Neil Newhouse of Public Opinion Strategies. Of the voters his group surveyed on election night, 91% said they voted a straight party-line ticket — an “extraordinary number” that “reinforces how polarized we are,” Newhouse said.

Most of the 8th District went red in the 2020 election. Source: North Carolina Board of Elections

This all-or-nothing style of partisan voting means down-ballot races generally follow the trend at the top of the ticket. For a candidate like Joe Biden, who underperformed in North Carolina, this left short coattails for Democrats at all levels, from local races to congressional contests. Although the state race has not been called by the Associated Press, the News & Observer has projected that President Donald Trump will still lead Biden after the remaining ballots are counted. 

Biden fared better than many down-ballot Democrats, keeping his opponent’s lead to less than 2%.

“The big story of the night was Biden ended up running ahead of a lot of the Democratic candidates for Congress,” said J. Miles Coleman, associate editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a political newsletter that predicts U.S. election outcomes. 

To win, Timmons-Goodson needed at least 60% of the Cumberland County vote, Coleman predicted back in October. She also needed to keep Hudson within 10 percentage points in Cabarrus County — his home turf.

She failed to hit those thresholds even though she outperformed Biden in Cumberland. 

What happened?

In the final week before Election Day, it looked like Timons-Goodson could defeat Hudson. The newly drawn district reunited Cumberland County, magnifying the power of its heavily Democratic electorate, and gave Hudson a substantial chunk of new turf where he had to introduce himself.

Combined with a strong hometown candidate in Timmons-Goodson, the new map fostered the most competitive race of Hudson’s career. The 8th District battle also was widely considered the state’s most competitive congressional contest. An October poll from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee even showed Timmons-Goodson ahead of Hudson by 3 points.

But ousting an incumbent is always a challenge. In late October, Hudson flooded the airwaves with a misleading ad attacking Timmons-Goodson’s judicial record and branding her “soft on crime.” The attacks went largely unanswered. The Democrat did not respond with a rebuttal ad — a move that might have blunted some of the impact.

While the influx of money and negative ads might have boosted Hudson’s winning margin by a few points, Coleman said they weren’t the main reason for Timmons-Goodson’s loss. Her race was an uphill climb from the start, he said, and the outcome reflected the statewide struggle of most Democrats.

On Election Day, Timmons-Goodson and Democrats statewide suffered from unexpectedly massive Republican turnout and a propensity for straight-ticket voting.

Coleman predicted the next few election cycles won’t be any easier for Democrats. The Republican-controlled legislature will lead the redistricting process, and gerrymandering is especially likely given the 2019 Supreme Court ruling that kicked gerrymandering cases back to the state courts. 

“I would say congressional elections are going to be probably an uphill climb for Democrats, at least probably for much of this decade,” he said. “That’s just a reality.”

 

Analysis: In Senate race, text messages made the difference

Update: This story has been updated to note that Cunningham conceded on Nov. 10.

The texts were far from salacious — they sounded like messages from a nerdy college kid — but they probably cost Cal Cunningham a Senate seat. 

Heading into Tuesday, most polls showed him with a single-digit edge over Republican incumbent Thom Tillis, just like they had for the entire campaign. Even Republican strategists thought Cunningham would win, said Jessica Taylor, the Senate and governors editor for The Cook Political Report. 

But the messages and their ripple effect shifted the dynamic in the most expensive congressional race in U.S. history. According to the North Carolina State Board of Elections tally on Nov. 9, Tillis won 2,641,979 votes to 2,546,241 for Cunningham. The Democrat conceded on Nov. 10.

There surely were other factors that contributed to Cunningham’s defeat, including high turnout among Republicans and a boost for Tillis by Trump. And the polls that consistently showed a Cunningham lead may have been wrong all along. 

Still, the biggest factor was the late-breaking scandal that zapped the Democrat’s momentum and shattered his carefully curated image. 

After the conservative site NationalFile.com broke the news on Oct. 2 and The Associated Press confirmed Cunningham had an affair, his campaign went dark. The candidate cancelled events and avoided exposure to the media, leaving a vacuum quickly filled by Republican attack ads and calls from Tillis for Cunningham to come clean. 

“Cunningham turned down the volume on his campaign, whereas Tillis kept it at a very high volume,” said Chris Cooper, professor of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University. “He didn’t close very strong.” 

The slow-motion strategy continued to Election Day: Cunningham dodged reporters and held limited events while Tillis crisscrossed the state.

Case in point: Cunningham visited Jackson County, and didn’t publicize his visit or alert the media, Cooper said. 

“This is the middle of damn nowhere,” he said. “Cal Cunningham was across the street, and I didn’t even know it.” 

The scandal also undermined the Democrat’s image as a clean-cut Army veteran who would tackle corruption in Washington. Ads about his honorable character and Bronze Star Medal felt hollow after the Army Reserve began investigating his affair.   

This likely turned off some swing voters, particularly white suburban women, said Carter Wrenn, a North Carolina political consultant and columnist. 

Exit polls showed Tillis fared better than expected with white college-educated women, a sign that the scandal may have hurt Cunningham with a key voting bloc. 

“What was up at the end? There were swing voters, and I expect the scandal itself hurt him in the fact that it made him look phony,” Wrenn said.

“He ran as a Boy Scout, and it turned out he wasn’t one.” 

Durham votes: scenes from Election Day

Applause at the end of the night

8:37 p.m. — The Election Day vote count started when Sheila Robinson pulled into a dark parking lot.

She was the long-anticipated first precinct judge to arrive at the Durham Board of Elections warehouse on South Alston Avenue. Election staffers unloaded cardboard boxes of ballots from her car and moved them onto wooden pallets, shrink-wrapping them for security. Robinson, who was in charge of Precinct 53-1 in south Durham, then wheeled her blue plastic suitcase into the warehouse. 

She was welcomed with a round of applause, raising her arms and waving them side to side to celebrate an end to a long day.

Sheila Robinson goes through the audit process with a Board of Elections staffer. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal

Her first stop was a “quick fire” audit, where she handed off result tapes and a USB stick in a pink sandwich bag. Once she passed the initial audit, she approached a second, more comprehensive audit, following the yellow shoe print stickers and green duct tape that told her where to wait.

Four staffers in neon yellow vests gathered around her, watching over the shoulder of a fellow staffer as they rattled through a checklist from behind a plexiglass divider. One by one, she returned everything — her cell phone, charger, keys, and ballots in color-coded totes.

Robinson passed the second audit and continued to a third table to be checked out. Behind her, staffers moved with rehearsed smoothness — one dropping the totes in their respective tubs, another bringing the bag with the results into the board’s “unity room,” and another starting a stack of precinct suitcases at the wall behind the check out table.

Robinson was in and out in eight minutes, ending her evening with a sandwich donated by a local catering company.

“Have a good night,” she called out as she left. “Hope it’s a short one.”

– KALLEY HUANG

Trump supporters hopeful in rural Durham

5:15 p.m. – Linda Murray, 54, voted for the first time when Donald Trump ran for office in 2016. Tuesday afternoon, she was back to vote for him a second time.

“If Biden gets in, this world is going straight to hell in a handbasket,” Linda said, clutching a black mask emblazoned with “Trump 2020’ and “Keep America Great.”  

With a large Trump/Pence sign greeting voters as they drove in, the polling site at Bahama Ruritan Club catered to a different kind of voter than most sites in Durham County. Among the many Trump and Tillis signs lining the road, there was only one for Biden. 

Michael Edwards, 33, stood outside the building next to a green camp chair and a pile of door hangers that listed “anti-socialist, pro-police” candidates. 

He’s employed by the North Carolina Republican party and had been outside since 6:30 a.m, he said. He wasn’t wearing a mask. 

Edwards said that when he recently moved from Greensboro to Durham County, he was worried, knowing that this county mostly supports Democrats. But he soon discovered that this part of Durham was different. 

“When I pulled up I seen a Trump Pence sign on the back of a Ford truck. I’m like, well, I don’t have to cover up what I’m wearing today,” he said. Underneath his gray jacket, he was wearing a crimson dress shirt and a striped black, red and white tie. 

“The [other Republican workers] were telling me, they’re like, ‘brother, we’re probably dropping you off in Trump Nation,’” he said, chuckling. 

Edwards said that, given the pandemic, Trump has done a good job running the country (except for failing to build the border wall). And he was optimistic about tonight’s results.  

“I think Trump’s going to get it, I really do,” he said. “Last election, they were saying he wasn’t, and he was behind in the polls, and it was close. … He’s got a very, very loyal and very, very deep-seated band of constituents.” 

After voting, Linda Murray and her husband Thomas, 57, stood next to their Ford Ranger pickup. Since 2017, kidney cancer and an injured back has kept Thomas in bed, and he swayed slightly as he stood. 

Linda said nothing could keep Thomas from voting to re-elect the president. He’s a big fan.  

“I believe he’d be on his deathbed and he’d get up and go meet [Trump].”

Trump supporters Linda and Thomas Murray stand outside the polling site at the Bahama Ruritan Club.

Trump has “done everything he said he was going to do,” she said. 

“And more,” Thomas added. He had a camo Trump hat on and wore a Hank Williams shirt (he’s a big country music fan). 

And if Biden wins?

“I’m gonna load my guns,” Linda said. “I’m telling you, he ain’t taking our guns.”

Linda said she thinks Biden has dementia, claiming that he couldn’t remember what 9/11 was about. She also said she appreciated how Trump stood up for people like her and Thomas. 

“He was just like one of us,” she said. 

Thomas recalled seeing Trump at a rally on TV where he started dancing. 

“He got down to the people’s level. … He got rocking like this here,” said Thomas, who started shuffling his body and pumping his fist. “I never heard a president doing that.”

– CHRIS KUO

The count begins

3 p.m. – Derek Bowens, Durham’s director of elections, sat stoically in the center of the conference room in a plush leather chair, watching board of elections members leave through an opening in the white chain barrier separating the board and the public. Breaking his orderly character, he strode across the room and stepped over the chain, his eyes fixed on the polling machines in the adjacent room. It was time to start the count.

The board began the Election Day meeting 15 minutes earlier, at 2:45, and was poised to print out the results from early voting. The tallies from those tapes would be combined with counts from mail-in ballots later Tuesday evening.

Voting machines from early voting shortly after they had spit out their counts. Photo by Rebecca Torrence | The 9th Street Journal

Fourteen voting machines lined the walls of the small white room, one for each of Durham’s early voting sites. Spread out across the room, board members approached the large black boxes and pressed a button to “close” the polls.

The machines began spitting out tapes that unfurled slowly from the sides, listing individual vote totals for each candidate on the ballot. The machines each printed two tapes to be verified and signed by all of the board members. USB drives inserted into the machines collected results to be tabulated electronically.

The process was remarkably dull. But if you feared a chaotic election, this would give you a sigh of relief. Democracy, when done right, is boring.

Chatter filled the room as Bowens bounced between machines to assist the board members. When someone at the back of the room raised his phone to take a picture, Bowens stopped to scold him. Taking a picture of the results tapes is illegal, he said.

“You can do your reporting, but please, no pictures,” he told the group, turning back to the tapes.

Board member Michael Gray stepped aside to chat with the public. He recalled the 2016 election, when malfunctioning computers forced the county to use paper pollbooks, prompting long lines in some precincts and a slower ballot-counting process.

This year, he said, Durham’s election is much more organized. He gestured to Bowens, hunched over a machine. 

“We’ll do whatever we can to hold onto Derek,” he said.

– REBECCA TORRENCE

First results delayed until 8:15 p.m.

2:40 p.m. — Don’t hold your breath when 7:30 p.m. rolls around. 

North Carolina’s election results have been delayed until at least 8:15 p.m. after the State Board of Elections voted this afternoon to extend voting at four precincts. This delays the release of mail-in and early voting results, as counties cannot begin any reporting until all polling locations have closed across the state.

The polls that received extensions include one in Guilford County, one in Cabarrus County and two in Sampson County. The extensions range from 17 minutes in Cabarrus to 45 minutes in Sampson. 

The state board emphasized that these extensions are not out of the ordinary and said it meets “routinely” to discuss them. 

“With 2,660 polling sites, it is not unusual for minor issues to occur at polling sites that result in a brief disruption of voting,” the board said in a news release.

– MAYA MILLER 

“Slow as molasses” — no lines at polls across Durham County

1:00 p.m. — Durham County has 57 polling locations — and none of them had lines. 

Around 12:40 p.m, the Durham County Board of Elections’ website showed only one precinct with a wait time: one minute at Precinct 53’s polling place, located at Triangle Grace Church. 

But outside the church 20 minutes later.,  there wasn’t a single voter in sight.

On Tuesday afternoon, there was no wait to vote at Triangle Grace Church. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal

Tami Stukey, a poll worker at Precinct 53, said there hasn’t been a line to vote at any point during the day. There were five or six people waiting for the poll to open this morning, she said, but there’s been no hint of a line since then. “We’d love to see more,” Stukey said, but the church had seen only about 150 voters total. 

Triangle Grace Church wasn’t an outlier in Durham County. The board’s polling location map showed zero minute wait times across the county throughout the day. 

“We’ve got a couple of friends working at other polls,” Stukey said, “and everybody has said that it’s just been slow as molasses.” 

There was a similar scene at South Regional Library, Precinct 54’s polling place just 10 minutes down the road from Triangle Grace Church. With no line outside, voters were able to park, cast their ballot, and drive away in a matter of minutes.

Poll workers at South Regional Library said they weren’t particularly surprised at the lack of crowds, because so many people voted early. “I thought it would be busier,” said poll worker Robert Byars. “But I also knew, because I worked early voting, that we had tons of voters then.”

On the first day of early voting, the line outside the library stretched down the road to the end of the sidewalk, Byars said. It was around a three hour wait. But on Election Day, wait times hadn’t reached over 20 minutes. 

Early voting has surged across the state, which may be resulting in a relatively low turnout on Election Day. Statewide, turnout reached 62.1% before Nov. 3. In Durham County, 67.2% of voters cast their ballot early. A total of 117,859 Durhamites voted prior to Election Day. 

“I think that’s the future of voting,” Byars said.

– CAROLINE PETROW-COHEN

Free hot dogs and a lookout for voter suppression

12:50 p.m. — “Now you gotta buy one.” 

The sentence is spray-painted across the top of Robin Williamson’s hot dog cart. But today, you don’t have to buy one. They’re free. 

The Durham chapter of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, an African-American labor group, hired Williamson to give hot dogs for voters outside the Southern High School precinct. The hot dog cart features blue, green and red spray-painted words of encouragement such as “greatness” and “don’t let them tell you who to be.”

Robin Williamson prepares a hotdog lunch for a voter. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal

 

Twenty feet to the right of the steaming sausages (meat and vegan) is a long table of donuts, candy and hot coffee set up by the group’s volunteers. They are here to protect the precinct from voter intimidation, said James Lawson, president of the Durham chapter of the institute. 

“This is largely an African-American area, and we want to make sure they have as much access to voting as possible,” Lawson said. 

So far, they haven’t had any problems. There’s no sign of anyone trying to intimidate voters, nor soldiers from the “Army for Trump,” the highly publicized poll-watching effort by the Trump campaign that some critics have said could be an effort to discourage Democratic voters

– ROSE WONG

Scoot to the polls

9:30 a.m. — Need a ride to the polls? Hop on a board with two wheels and scoot off. 

Spin Scooters is offering a $10 coupon to anyone who would like to take an Election Day ride to their precinct. The coupon expires at the end of the day, but riders would likely have enough ride credits remaining to take a trip to the grocery store, Duke University senior Rahul Ramesh said. 

Today, Ramesh is sitting outside the 300 Swift apartment building, behind a row of a dozen orange scooters and a table of free merchandise: “SPIN” beverage sleeves, “SPIN” hand sanitizer bottles and t-shirts that read “Spin to Vote.”

Volunteer Rahul Ramesh works a table offering free SPIN scooter rides and merchandise to encourage voting.

His public policy professor told students that they do not have to attend class today, but should dedicate part of Election Day to some form of civic engagement. Ramesh said he looked at a list of volunteer opportunities for today and thought, “hey, I can man a table for a couple hours.” 

As Durham started to thaw this morning, Ramesh looked cold. Despite his black ear muffs and thin, lime green coat, he held his arms tightly around his chest. The temperature dropped almost 20 degrees in the past week, as though even the weather was welcoming Nov. 3 with a dramatic entrance. 

“No one has come by yet, but we’re here all day,” Ramesh said. 

When Ramesh is done manning the table , other student volunteers will be offering t-shirts and scooters on Swift Ave until at least 4 p.m. 

Riders can activate their free ride by downloading the Spin app and enter the promotional code “spintovote.” 

In addition to Duke, Spin is also working with students from Purdue University, University of Akron and Texas State University, a blog post from the company said

– ROSE WONG

The first election day voters wait in the cold outside the Durham Main Library to cast their ballots before polls open. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal

The early birds

6:15 a.m. – The sun was just beginning to pierce through the dark blue sky when Doris Reed and her husband, John Cash became the first in line in front of the Durham County Main Library. 

They weren’t discouraged by the chilly 35-degree weather.  

“I’ve always voted on Election Day,” said Reed. “It just seems more permanent.”

Hoping to “beat the line,” the two woke up at 5:30 am, skipped Reed’s usual homemade breakfast and drove to the library. 

Reed’s confidence in her chosen candidate, Vice President Joseph Biden, did not waver despite the sparse line behind her.

“I’ve prayed. I really think it’s gonna happen. I think he’s gonna win. I have no doubt.” she said. 

Voting – even with 65 names on the ballot – took only 17 minutes. Reed and Cash walked out of the same door they entered in.

Doris Reed and her husband John Cash were first in line at the Durham County Main Library to vote on Election Day. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal

“We did it!” Reed said. 

Cash said it was business as usual, but Reed felt otherwise. 

“It felt a little different this time. Everything’s so different with the pandemic,” she said.

– BELLA CARACTA

In photo at top, a masked poll worker at the side of the South Durham Regional Library’s vote tabulator. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal

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.