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Posts published in “Election 2020”

In Durham, political lawn signs showcase expression and solidarity

Yard signs are as ubiquitous in Durham as front porches and neighborly waves. Here they live year round atop green grass, proclaiming progressive mantras in bold font: “Black Lives Matter,” “Love Is Love,” “Immigrants Are Welcome Here.” 

When campaign seasons roll around, signs supporting political candidates sprout too.

This close to Election Day, Erin Gallagher displays an official sign for Democratic Senate challenger Cal Cunningham alongside homemade messages on her front lawn. Gallagher, her husband, Jason, and their two sons, 3 and 6, painted plywood with bright acrylic paint to show support for blue candidates and causes. 

“It’s kind of cathartic as we’re doing other things that are hopefully going to turn the tide,” Gallagher, 40, said from her front porch. “Hopefully, these are catching some eyes at least, or reminding people that it’s happening.”

A lawn sign supporting Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. Photo by Hannah Miao

Walking around the Watts Hospital-Hillandale neighborhood, it doesn’t seem like people need the reminder. Neighbors sport signage for Democratic candidates up and down the ballot. The occasional splash of red breaks from President Donald Trump. “I may be a Republican but I’m no fool / Biden 2020,” one sign read. 

It’s no secret Durham is one of the bluest regions in North Carolina. In the last four presidential elections, Durham County saw the highest proportion of Democratic votes out of any county in the state. In 2016, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton won Durham County with 77.66% of the vote but lost North Carolina with 46.17% overall.

Traditionally, lawn signs have been thought to increase name recognition and measure a candidate’s viability. In a place like Durham, where most residents already agree, what purpose do they serve anyway?

“Lots of signs along the roadways suggest a groundswell of public support (real or not),” Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, wrote in an email exchange. “We are herd animals to some degree, and we want to be on the winning side.”

A 2016 study tested the lawn-sign effect with randomized field experiments in upstate New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania. Researchers found that the presence of lawn signs may increase a candidate’s voter share by a margin of 1.7%. That modest boost could make a difference in elections decided by a percentage point or two — not a rare occurrence in a closely divided swing state like North Carolina.

Still, the researchers say yard signs alone are not enough to score at the polls.

“It’s a tool in the arsenal of a candidate to be able to get their name out, but it is not the silver bullet to win a campaign,” Brandon Lenoir, a co-author of the study and political science professor at High Point University, said in an interview.

Lenoir and colleagues found that campaign signs don’t seem to increase voter turnout. For a place like Durham, which heavily aligns with one party, turnout is the primary issue because it determines how much influence residents have in statewide elections.

Local campaigns seem to understand the limits of lawn signs. “We actually made the decision not to do yard signs months ago,” said Sarah Ansbrow, campaign manager for Jenna Wadsworth, the Democrat running for state agriculture commissioner. “Given fundraising constraints because of COVID, we opted to use money raised on forms of direct voter contact instead.”

Campaigns often use online ads to more specifically target voters. Phone-banking, canvassing, direct mail, billboards and television ads are other tactics still used to reach constituents.

Durham Republicans have additional concerns with yard signs. They don’t stay where they are placed, they say. “Routinely, Republican signs are stolen or defaced in many areas of the county. Private citizens have their campaign signs stolen out of their front yard,” Immanuel Jarvis, the county Republican chairman, wrote in an email.

Beverly Tucker’s home on Englewood Avenue. Photo by Hannah Miao

That can be a blue problem too. Beverly Tucker, 66, answered her door in a black T-shirt with the words “Make Racism Wrong Again” printed in block letters. She flies the American flag next to her door upside down to signify her belief that the country is in a state of distress. In 2017, a sign in her lawn opposing Trump was burned to the ground, she said. 

“You may not like the fact that I’ve got these yard signs … But that’s my right,” Tucker said. “We can have a civilized conversation about it. But don’t harm me, my property, or anybody else’s.”

When a sign is stolen or destroyed, Tucker said she swiftly replaces it with another that expresses her beliefs.

Yard signs are not only a medium for personal expression, but also a way to connect with neighbors. Lenoir, the researcher, describes this as a “solidarity” effect. “It’s a way for the neighbors to say, ‘Hey, I’m like you, I have the same sign.’”

The 2020 election has many people on edge. The coronavirus pandemic has created concerns about the safety of voting in person and not everyone is confident their mail-in ballots will get counted. Recently, both the president and incumbent Republican North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis tested positive for COVID-19. Meanwhile, Cunningham is facing a hiccup in his race after admitting to sending extramarital texts

In such a chaotic and anxious election cycle, perhaps lawn signs are less about influencing the election, and more about expression and community, said one local politician.

“Often, in Durham, these signs are a way of proclaiming solidarity with the righteous movements for justice in our society,” Durham Mayor Steve Schewel said. “They encourage, stand proud, signify support for the welcoming, justice-seeking community that Durham seeks to be.”

Hannah Miao can be reached at hannah.miao@duke.edu

At top: Erin Gallagher’s home in Durham’s Watts Hospital-Hillandale neighborhood. Photo by Hannah Miao

Aware of potential disruptions at polling places, Durham officials quietly made plans to keep the peace

Thousands of Durham residents flooded voting sites starting last week in a tense election countdown that has state and local officials quietly preparing for disruptions. Among the precautions: positioning unarmed security at polling places. 

The first few days of early voting in the county found eager Durhamites waiting in lines by the hundreds, sometimes as long as three hours, masked and socially distant.

“I really think the election in Durham is going to go well,” said Mayor Steve Schewel. “I want to encourage everybody to understand that early in-person voting is safe. It’s safer than going to the supermarket.”

But it isn’t just COVID-19 that has brought worry about voting in person. Around the country, concerns about what may happen at the polls — at early-vote sites and on Election Day — have arisen because of comments from President Donald Trump.

Trump has urged his supporters to go to polling places to expose alleged voter fraud, despite ample studies that show fraud is rare. His campaign has an “Army for Trump” website with videos encouraging loyalists to sign up to join the president’s “Election Day Operations.”

Elections are governed by strict state laws on allowed activities in and outside of the schools, libraries and community buildings where Americans vote, and some worry problems may occur if “Army for Trump” volunteers show up. Except for authorized observers, people are required to stay at least 50 feet away from polling places, for instance.

Last month, Trump supporters in Virginia stood outside an early voting site in Fairfax County, waving campaign flags and chanting “four more years.” Even though the group stood the required distance from the polling place, the demonstration intimidated some voters and election officials opened up part of the government building so people waiting to vote felt safer. 

On just the second day of early voting in North Carolina, an incident in Wake County brought national headlines. A Republican poll observer, former State Rep. Gary Pendleton, was charged with misdemeanor assault when he allegedly pushed an election worker at an early-vote site.  Pendleton was trying to get into a Wake Forest polling site earlier than the opening time, and the worker denied him access. “We are looking for fraudulent activity that might be occurring in polls around Wake County,” Pendleton said.

In downtown Durham last week, a voter made his way to the front of the line, said he wanted to skip everyone, and then verbally assaulted poll workers until he was escorted off the premises, said Clinton Goldston, a security officer stationed outside of the Karsh Alumni Center at Duke University on Monday. The man “presented [their] cane as a weapon,” said Goldston, who wore a neon green vest with the word SECURITY stamped on the back.

State and local elections officials are trying to balance the need for security at the polls with concerns that a visible police presence could, by itself, intimidate voters. Last week, Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the State Board of Elections, issued a memo telling local elections officials not to have uniformed police or sheriff’s deputies at polling places.

“In the event a county board must utilize law enforcement for parking and traffic issues at a voting site,” she wrote, “officers must be in plain clothes.”

“Law enforcement may periodically drive by a voting site in the event heightened security is needed,” she added.

Bell’s memo drew criticism from some Republican officials. “The State Board of Elections has no jurisdiction over police matters,” said Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, the Republican candidate for governor. “They do not have the authority to mandate when, where or how uniformed police officers do their jobs. This memo is insulting to the men and women in uniform.”

But Schewel agreed with the state board’s approach. “We don’t want to have officers stationed at the polls because we want to make sure that everyone feels comfortable,” he said.

Clinton Goldston of Night Hawk Security & Consulting stands outside of the Karsh Alumni Center at Duke University, an early voting site in Durham. Photo by Henry Haggart

Derek Bowen, director of the Durham Board of Elections, said he has coordinated with local law enforcement to prepare for any incidents at polling stations. “Some of Durham County’s plans are to have unarmed security at polling places, to help mitigate and diffuse anything that may present itself,” he said.

The board has hired a Raleigh firm, Night Hawk Security & Consulting, to provide unarmed security workers outside the polls to help with traffic, enforce social distancing and prevent interference with voting.

“We are in discussions with the [Durham Police Department] with regards to responding to an incident that may require them, but we will not have any officers on site,” Bowen said.

Why Durham matters

The past year has been a challenging one for law enforcement around the nation due to protests and violence around police shootings and the emergence of right-wing groups. Now police are confronted by a polarizing election. Trump’s claims about voting fraud risks and his hints that he may not give up power if he loses have raised fears of disorder. Concerns extend beyond Election Day on Nov. 3.  The massive number of mail-in absentee votes may delay results for days.  


Voters fill out ballots in voting booths distanced six feet apart in the Duke Karsh Alumni Center. Photo by Henry Haggart

Durham County could play a significant role in the outcome of a close U.S. Senate and presidential race in North Carolina. Hillary Clinton’s  narrow loss of North Carolina, a key battleground state, helped Trump win the presidency in the Electoral College. Yet she won Durham County with more than 77 percent of the vote. 

North Carolina this year, with 15 electoral votes, is again one of a handful of swing states that will decide the presidency. Most scenarios for a Trump re-election require him to win North Carolina again. And continued Republican control of the U.S. Senate could hinge on whether Senator Thom Tillis beats Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham.

Ready if needed

Durham law enforcement agencies say they are ready if needed during early voting, on Nov. 3, and in the days after the election.  

“I understand this election is critically important,” Durham County Sheriff Clarence F. Birkhead said in an email. “My office has been in contact with our state and federal law enforcement partners, and we have not been informed of a specific threat against any of our polling locations.”

“I support the needs of the Durham County Board of Elections and the State Board of Elections as they ensure a safe environment for all citizens to exercise their constitutional right to vote,” Birkhead added.

Durham Police Lt. J.E. Werner said her agency has been communicating about the election with the elections board and the sheriff’s office about “best practices and procedures,” as well as state public safety officials. 

Although she declined to discuss plans or tactics, she said the department, with 550 sworn officers, has “the personnel and resources to respond effectively” to any disturbances.  

Wanda Page has been Durham’s interim city manager since the retirement of Tom Bonfield last month. When asked about possible election-related problems, she said: “We talk about a lot of things in the city, and yes, we have had these conversations in some of our meetings. But I’m not really sure if there’s, you know, additional detail I can provide about that.”

At the state level, the Department of Public Safety typically focuses on providing assistance when bad weather threatens to disrupt elections, and works with other state and federal agencies to protect elections from cyber attacks.  But DPS also houses the State Highway Patrol and other law enforcement agencies that are available to help local law enforcement deal with major disturbances. 

“We must always be ready to stand in support of our communities if any issues arise,” said DPS spokesman Sgt. Christopher Knox. 

Despite all this readiness, Schewel expressed optimism that the election will be free of disruption.

“I don’t have any major concerns about it in general,” he said. “I certainly think it’s possible.  But I think it’s unlikely that would happen in Durham. And I think it’s especially unlikely to happen in a significant way.”

9th Street Journal photographer Henry Haggart contributed reporting to this article. 9th Street Journal reporter Cameron Oglesby can be reached at cameron.oglesby@duke.edu. 

At top: Poll volunteer Emma DeRose wipes down a voting booth after a voter leaves. Photo by Henry Haggart.

In Western N.C. race, events show how Cawthorn and Davis are a world apart

In Bakersville on Oct. 3, about 50 of Madison Cawthorn’s supporters crowded into a wooden pavilion, nearly all without masks, many sporting Trump attire, a few in cowboy boots, and one with a “Women for Trump” button featuring the First Lady. As people crammed in awaiting the arrival of the Republican nominee for Congress in the Western North Carolina district, a golf cart rolled up with a Confederate flag waving in the wind.

A day later, about 35 supporters of Moe Davis gathered for a concert at One World Brewing in Asheville. Parties were spaced more than six feet apart as they sipped on beer and enjoyed a mix of jazz and country music. Though some wore Davis buttons, they preferred casual attire to the louder political styles of the Cawthorn supporters. Nearly everyone wore a mask.

“We stand for the flag”

Cawthorn’s event, promoted on Facebook as the “Mitchell County Meet & Greet!” was held in a covered shelter at the Bakersville Pavilion. 

As more people crowded under the shelter, they sat on the wooden benches, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder to make space. Those who couldn’t get a coveted seat or didn’t arrive early stood around the perimeter. Soon there were about 50 people.

Cawthorn was welcomed with cheers as he rolled his wheelchair through the dewy grass to the front of the pavilion.

“We, as patriotic Americans, say in this country we only kneel to Jesus Christ and our God. And we stand for the flag,” he told the crowd.

Cheers erupted. 

Many of Cawthorn’s supporters also showed their support for President Trump. Photo by Bella Caracta | The 9th Street Journal

The crowd became denser. People on the outside moved closer so they could hear him and get video and pictures with their phones.

It was a pro-Trump group. One of the few men who wore a mask had one that said “Trump” and a T-shirt that said, “Make America Great Again.” A teenage girl had “TRUMP” painted on her forehead in red and blue.

The fact that the president recently contracted the virus didn’t change Cawthorn’s view on masks. 

“I trust all of my supporters, people who come to my events, to make their own personal assessment,” he said during an interview with The 9th Street Journal after the event.

Many supporters looped through the meet-and-greet line more than once. Some wanted another picture, others just wanted to chat more. A few supporters brought him gifts. One woman handed Cawthorn a white envelope and someone else gave him a book. He signed posters with his face on it, posed cheek-to-cheek for photos, and shared laughs. 

Although he didn’t wear a mask during the event or while posing for photos, he offered to do so during an interview with The 9th Street Journal.

“If someone feels uncomfortable with me not being in a mask near them, then I want to take that precaution. Like when I see my grandparents, I always put a mask on,” he said.

However, about midway through the conversation, his blue mask began slipping down his face. It soon slipped below his nose, only covering his mouth. And he made no move to fix it. 

Plenty of hand sanitizer

At the event for Davis, the Democratic nominee, the merchandise table included hand sanitizer bottles with the campaign logo. The table was located on a balcony overlooking the stage and, like everything else at the event, was safely distanced from other tables and chairs.

Moe Davis hand sanitizer was available at his event. Photo by Bella Caracta | The 9th Street Journal

“We’re taking this virus seriously and want to do everything right,” said Davis. 

The event, located in the spacious outdoor seating area at One World Brewing, where they sell hemp ale and an IPA called Citra Bomb, drew about 35 people. They kept socially distant and waited to fill up plastic cups with beer from a brightly colored celestially-printed van. Two supporters opted for hard apple cider as they listened to folk singer Jane Kramer.

Davis, in a black mask, sat with his wife at a table, listened to the music and drank his beer.

On the high wooden fence beside Davis was a sign in the shape of a black heart that said “Black Lives Matter” and another that reminded customers to stay six feet apart. The establishment also had its own hand sanitizer at nearly every table. 

Davis’s supporters followed the sign’s directions. During the event, an attendee came up to him in an N-95 mask and kneeled on the ground, carefully keeping his distance.

Supporters at the Moe Davis event kept a safe distance from each other. Photo by Bella Caracta | The 9th Street Journal

At the end of the event, he thanked the campaign’s volunteers and contributors. When he said he pledged not to accept any corporate funding, the crowd cheered. 

“I want to make it clear that I wanna go to Washington and represent the people here in Western North Carolina,” Davis said.

In photo at top, a family poses for a picture with Madison Cawthorn. Photo by Bella Caracta | The 9th Street Journal

 

Biden visits Durham, pushes voter turnout at drive-in rally

The Biden campaign passed through Durham on wheels.

Spinning down Rose of Sharon Road Sunday afternoon, the Democratic presidential candidate’s motorcade glided by expectant Durhamites, many of whom had learned about the Joe Biden-fronted drive-in rally through social media and local news. Unable to enter the actual rally, they had parked bumper-to-bumper and half on the grass outside Riverside High School, hoping to catch a glimpse of the former vice president. 

“I’m hoping we can hear something, but we definitely at least want to see him go in,” Celeste Sloop said from the road outside of the rally. She awaited Biden’s arrival out of sight from the stage where he would speak. “You wouldn’t particularly know that things are going on.”

Her best view was a sharp left turn up the road, but even with her disappointment, the limitations of the event were evidence for Sloop, who has not voted yet, of how serious a Biden presidency would be about the coronavirus pandemic, which she said would be a motivating issue at the polls this year.

As Biden rolled into Durham, he sought to build the momentum of record-breaking voter turnout in the battleground state, all while guarding against coronavirus. Invited guests, including Reps. G. K. Butterfield (NC-1) and David Price (NC-4), attended the drive-in rally, while an estimated 200 people who could not enter the event listened from the parking lot — a sharp contrast against Donald Trump’s campaign rallies, which remain in-person and inundated even after his coronavirus diagnosis. 

The campaign stopped by on the fourth day of early voting in North Carolina, with just over two weeks until Election Day.

Over 1.5 million ballots have already been cast early in North Carolina, as of Sunday night — 905,245 in person and 608,381 by mail. In Durham, over 40,000 ballots — representing 16.6% of the city’s registered voters — have been cast via in-person early voting .

Some of those voters spectated from the overflow parking lot, even without an event for them in particular. There, they stood socially distanced, small neon orange cones marking how far they could go, all wearing masks — one with “vote” scrawled in black marker over top, another with Durham’s “No bull, I voted” sticker fixed on and flapping in the breeze.

“We were voting against what we see as far as the police and the division related to racism, versus for what we think would be at least more open-minded and more willing to bring us together than divide us,” said Kathy Greene, who voted early with her family. “We were voting against something even more so than we are for Joe Biden.”

Kathy Greene, who stood outside Riverside High School to catch a glimpse of Biden, said she has already voted for the Democratic candidate.

Unable to hear Biden from the overflow parking lot, some watched a livestream of the event, sharing earbuds, peering over shoulders, his remarks echoing as they played from phone speakers and rang softly from the actual event. 

“Filling out my ballot, I felt the most proud of this vote as I have in many years,” Thomas Whitmire said. “This goes beyond policy, deeply into the tone of our leadership, and that’s really the main issue at this point. If he’s in, I’m sure I’ll be a little more selective with policies.”

Speaking for 19 minutes, Biden touched on healthcare, employment, criminal justice, and how systemic racism seeps into each issue. He encouraged attendees to turn out and support down-ballot Democratic candidates as well.

“It’s time to restore America’s soul,” Biden said. “We got to keep the momentum going.”

When event goers from the drive-in rally honked in support, those in the overflow parking lot responded with applause and whoops, pulling signs from underneath their elbows to wave in the air.

Most spectators remained in the parking lot for the duration of Biden’s remarks, waiting afterwards with the hopes that Biden would exit near them. A procession of cars drove through, Biden-Harris signs hoisted through sunroofs, but the former vice president did not appear among them.

Spectators watch as a Biden campaign bus leaves Riverside High School after a drive-in rally on Sunday.

After the event, Betsy Albright lingered in the parking lot. “It’s good to see people out in support of our democracy,” she said. “I voted for the protection of our democratic institutions, climate change, health, education, all of it.”

After the drive-in rally, the Biden campaign parted ways: the campaign hosted a separate car parade called “Todos con Biden,” driving from Compare Foods, a supermarket in south Durham, to South Regional Library, an early voting site.

Biden, on the other hand, continued onto Cook Out, ordering vanilla and chocolate milkshakes for himself and his granddaughter Finnegan before leaving Durham.

At top: Bearing phones and masks, Durhamites stand along the street outside a drive-in rally for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden on Sunday at Riverside High School. All photos taken by Henry Haggart. 

Who are NC’s presidential electors? How are they chosen? What happens after Election Day?

Almost four years ago, North Carolina’s 15 presidential electors convened in Raleigh. Gathered with dozens of state officials, local honorees, and other attendees, the electors cast their ballots for Donald Trump.

“Our ceremonies today reflect the snapshot in time that is North Carolina, 2016,” Secretary of State Elaine Marshall said at the start of the meeting.

This slice of pre-pandemic life seems foreign — friendly handshakes, microphones passed around, electors standing shoulder-to-shoulder as they shared pens and signed to certify their votes.

In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic, coupled with the looming threat of legal chaos, has brought into focus the once peripheral mechanics of electing a president, including the Electoral College. North Carolina’s electoral votes promise to play a deciding role in electing the next president. But with a Democratic governor, Republican control in both state General Assembly chambers, a massive rise in by-mail voting, and thin polling margins all in play, normalcy in the process of designating those electoral votes is no longer a safe bet.

How the Electoral College usually works

In North Carolina, the secretary of state — still Marshall, a Democrat — supervises the Electoral College process, as outlined in North Carolina General Statute 163, but they do not appoint the electors. Instead, each recognized political party selects its own slate of electors, one for each of the state’s 13 congressional districts and two at-large electors.

Recent rule changes made by the Democratic and Republican parties have empowered their state leadership to approve each elector, ensuring electors vote for the party’s nominee and guarding against faithless electors. This year, both parties also used electronic forms to identify interested electors, who then campaigned for the position at precinct, district, and state conventions before their selection. 

“There’s a vetting process that there wasn’t even four years ago,” said Gerry Cohen, former General Assembly special counsel. “For someone who isn’t a pretty strong party loyalist, it would be really impossible for them to get chosen.”

The North Carolina Democratic Party’s State Executive Committee is responsible for selecting electors. It does so with the intention of reflecting the people of color, young people, LGBTQ people, and veterans that make up the state’s population.

“What they were looking for was to make sure that all of the electors in North Carolina actually represented what the demographics of North Carolina actually are,” said Rebekah Whilden, a first-time at-large Democratic elector.

Along with Whilden, the Democratic Party’s selected electors are Lori Oxendine, Linda Gunter, Christopher Hardee, Fatimah Hickman, Emily Hogan, Mary Fox, Linda Baker, Thierry Wernaers, Karen Nance, Donna Luckey, Thomas Thomson, Antoinette Mingo, Valeria Levy, and Anthony Foxx.

The North Carolina GOP’s State Executive Committee is also responsible for selecting electors. The party did not respond to a request for comment about its presidential elector selection criteria or process.

The Republican Party’s selected electors are Thomas Hill, Edwin Gavin, David Wickersham, Angie Cutlip, Jonathan Fletcher, Tina Forsberg, Chauncey Lambeth, Susan Mills, Daniel Barry, Danny Overcash, Mark Delk, Melissa Taylor, Blake Williams, Michele Nix, and Michael Whatley.

None of the selected electors’ names show up on ballots. Instead, the names of the presidential and vice presidential candidates appear. But a vote for either major presidential candidate is really a vote for the electors of that candidate’s party. Whichever party garners the most votes sends its slate of electors to the Electoral College.

North Carolina election law sets the certification of election results for Nov. 24, three weeks after Election Day. That day, the state elections board meets at 11 a.m. and completes its canvass of the ballots, verifying that each ballot has been counted correctly. Afterwards, the board notifies the secretary of state, who notifies the governor, who issues a proclamation of the names of the electors and instructs electors to be present for the Electoral College.

“Uncharted territory

Normally, the Electoral College process moves forward without a hitch. But there are fault lines in state and federal election law in danger of exposure.

“You can come up with all kinds of scenarios, and every contingency is not covered,” said Theodore Shaw, a professor at the UNC School of Law and a member of the National Task Force on Election Crises.

One fault line is a provision in the general statute that “the General Assembly and the Governor shall designate Electors in accord with their best judgment of the will of the electorate.”

According to the general statute, if Gov. Roy Cooper does not proclaim the names of the electors by Dec. 8 — due to legal challenges delaying election certification, for example — the General Assembly may appoint electors. If electors are not appointed by Dec. 13, Cooper appoints them.

Should Joe Biden win in North Carolina and his victory is contested long enough, the Republican-controlled General Assembly could appoint electors in subversion of the popular vote if, say, legislators take baseless accusations of wide-scale voter fraud made by the president to heart and use “their best judgment” to decide that “the will of the electorate” is not actually for Joe Biden.

Shaw says that such a scenario is improbable — not necessarily because of the clarity of election law or strength of the electoral system, but because of the inevitable political fallout.

“Can I tell you that there’s no chance that somebody might try to proceed in that manner in this extraordinary year? I can’t tell you that, but it’s unlikely,” Shaw said. “It would be a political mistake for the state legislature to do that because of the probable reaction. What you’re doing is invalidating the role of voters in choosing the president of the United States.”

However electors are selected, they will meet on Dec. 14 at noon at the old Hall of the House of Representatives in the State Capitol — like every state’s electors, but also unlike any other meeting of the Electoral College.

“Normally, there’s a lot of pomp and circumstance, and the room is full of people,” said Tim Crowley, a spokesperson for Marshall, whose office plans the logistics of the convening. “We’re planning to practice more safety protocols related to COVID. There’s a lot that could change between now or December, one way or another. We’re trying to be flexible and plan accordingly.”

In addition to the pandemic, the secretary of state’s office is planning in anticipation of a post-election climate so fraught that armed militia appear in Raleigh in December. The office is consulting with the State Capitol Police on security measures. 

The prospect of violence lingers in the minds of some electors, though.

“Now that I am elected, I feel a lot of pressure,” Whilden said. “When [Trump] told the Proud Boys to be on standby, I was just like, ‘oh gosh.’”

As abound with vagaries as this election is, the U.S. Constitution is clear about one thing: when Congress meets in a joint session to count electoral votes on Jan. 6, the country must have election results. Until then, uncertainty awaits.

“It’s likely to get even more abnormal,” Shaw said. “This election, with everything that’s been going on, we could end up in some kind of uncharted territory.”

At top: the Electoral College presidential teller and secretary count votes for president at the convening of the Electoral College in 2016. Photo from UNC TV.

Analysis: NC Senate race offers window into world of oppo research

They’re sleuths, professional scandal-hunters. They target senators, presidents, politicians of all stripes, unearthing past gaffes and present improprieties. If there’s dirt, they’ll find it. 

They are opposition researchers, people who assemble negative information, or “oppo,” about political candidates for their clients. If the oppo is spicy enough, it can dominate headlines and define a campaign. 

And lately, they appear to be all over the North Carolina Senate race, where everyone seems to be dumping oppo.

On Oct. 7, the website American Ledger released a story with divorce filings showing that the ex-wife of Republican incumbent Thom Tillis alleged “cruel and inhuman treatment” by Tillis and that living with him would be “unsafe and improper.” American Ledger is paid for by American Bridge 21st Century, a Democratic super PAC often involved in oppo research. 

The oppo dump was likely an attempt to steer the race’s narrative away from Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham’s recently uncovered extra-marital affair. 

On Oct. 2, the conservative media outlet NationalFile.com posted screenshots of flirtatious text messages exchanged between Cunningham and Arlene Guzman Todd, a public relations consultant in California. 

Later that night, Cunningham admitted to sending the texts. The Associated Press eventually confirmed that Cunningham had an in-person sexual encounter with Todd in July. 

Was this a juicy find by Republican oppo researchers? Patrick Howley, the reporter who broke the story, insists it wasn’t.

“I obtained these screenshots from a concerned citizen, NOT through opposition research,” Howley wrote in an email. 

But a veteran Washington journalist who wrote a novel about oppo says the episode has the hallmarks of dirt dug up by a shrewd investigator.

“You’ll never have proof because they’re not going to name their sources necessarily, but it certainly has all the classic footprints of oppo research,” said Tom Rosenstiel, author of “Oppo.” 

“If it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck,” he said. “An oppo duck.”

Making the sausage

For all its notoriety, oppo research begins with the mundane: combing through mounds of information to assemble a profile of a candidate.  

The oppo “checklist” includes tax records, voting histories, business ventures, personal details, divorce proceedings, lawsuits — anything that could be incriminating, said Alan Huffman, an investigative journalist turned oppo researcher who has delved into the lives of over 100 candidates. 

“Even though you’re a hired gun as an opposition researcher, your methods, if you’re doing it properly, are exactly the same as they would be if you were an investigative reporter,” Huffman said. 

In addition to targeting opposing candidates, Huffman also digs up dirt on his own clients, allowing them to anticipate attacks. 

“You look at them with basically the same sort of unjaundiced eye. [It] doesn’t really win you a lot of friends within your own campaign,” he chuckled. 

With the oppo assembled, the client — which could be a campaign, a PAC, a political party or any other independent group — decides the what, when and how of the release.  

Gary Pearce, who served as a senior advisor to former Gov. Jim Hunt, said that he would rely on four categories of information when consulting: the 10 best things about his client, the 10 worst things about his client, the 10 best things about the opposing candidate and the 10 worst things about that candidate. 

“And then I want to take those 40 things, and I want to test them all in some polls. And I want to find out what works,” he said. “And that’s what we’re gonna focus on in the campaign.” 

But after the release, the oppo doesn’t always work as intended.   

“You never know how it’s going to play … sometimes we’ll find something that seems like a total deal-breaker and nobody cares,” Huffman said. “And then sometimes something seems almost inconsequential, and then it gets a life of its own and develops this whole ecosystem and dominates the race.” 

In an era of heightened polarization and changing sexual mores, sexual scandals may not carry as much umph as before. The latest polls still show Cunningham with a slim lead over Tillis. 

And North Carolina voters may be less squeamish than most. 

“North Carolina voters are probably the world’s greatest experts in negative advertising,” Pearce said. “They have seen it for like 40 years. … It is really hard to penetrate their defenses. They have really got up bullshit shields.” 

The Wild West

Detecting oppo can be difficult, since media organizations will rarely admit that it was their source. Still, there are clues.

When a fringe news organization publishes information that would have required a high level of expertise to extract, that’s a sign, Rosenstiel said.

Other clues can be found in the way the information is released. Campaigns will often delay the release of oppo until a moment in the campaign cycle when it could have the most impact — a salacious October surprise. 

Campaigns also rarely publish oppo on their own sites, preferring to leak it to a sympathetic media organization. Think American Ledger, or NationalFile.com.  

“The goal of opposition research is to ultimately change the narrative of the race by distracting your opponent and making them have to respond to your opposition research,” Rosenstiel said. “And the best way to do that is to leak it to a friendly news operation that publishes it.” 

This process has accelerated with the partisan splintering of the media world and the proliferation of online outlets. As “quasi extensions of the party,” these media sites are perfect places to dump oppo, Rosenstiel said.  

“Our media ecosystem has become the Wild West. It’s filled with news organizations that are not really news organizations. It’s filled with partisan websites. It’s filled with places that are financed by political operatives.”

The Internet has changed oppo work in other ways, too. In a matter of minutes, false information about candidates can flit across Twitter and Facebook, feeding off likes, shares and retweets — “viral before it’s even vetted,” Huffman said.  

This complicates the work of oppo researchers. After all, who needs to hunt for evidence when a doctored video can suffice?

“I feel like that has, in some ways, made opposition research obsolete, because it’s a total work around,” Huffman said. “You don’t have to have the facts in order to undertake character assassination.”

At top, screenshots show flirtatious text messages exchanged between Democratic Senate candidate Cal Cunningham and Arlene Guzman Todd, shared by NationalFile.com. 

Fayetteville House race heats up, Democrat outraises incumbent by $600,000

With less than three weeks until Election Day, it’s game on for candidates in North Carolina’s most competitive congressional district. 

For the second time this year, Democratic challenger Pat Timmons-Goodson raised significantly more money than her opponent, according to the latest Federal Election Commission filings. She raked in nearly $1.8 million in contributions between July 1 and Sept. 30 with the vast majority — nearly $1.7 million — coming from individual donors. 

Republican incumbent Rep. Richard Hudson brought in just over $1.1 million, with more than $660,000 from party committees and PACs. Timmons-Goodson had previously outraised him during the second quarter filing period by about $517,000. 

The Democrat shelled out more money than she raised, spending upwards of $1.8 million  in the third quarter. She’s left with $612,000 in cash on hand.

Hudson spent almost $1.4 million this quarter. But in contrast to his opponent, he still has more than $1.5 million in cash on hand heading into the race’s final stretch.

Timmons-Goodson confirmed her financial haul on Twitter over a week before the FEC released official numbers. Hudson’s campaign did not release numbers before the Oct. 15 deadline, which perhaps foreshadowed his surprisingly low numbers.

“People who give money to campaigns invest smartly,” said Chris Cooper, a professor of political science at Western Carolina University. “So the fact that she can put up those kinds of numbers says that there’s, at least, kind of a proof of concept—an idea that’s possible.” Now, for Timmons-Goodson, it’s a matter of turning those dollars into votes, he added.

The gap in fundraising isn’t the only reason to think things are tightening up in the 8th Congressional District, which stretches from Charlotte’s eastern suburbs through Fayetteville and Cumberland County. Here’s why this race could still be up for grabs:

Advertising is heating up — and voters are noticing

Yard signs and mailers and ads, oh my! 

“It’s getting aggressive with the advertising here,” said George Breece, an Army veteran and former state representative who lives in Fayetteville. He said he gets three to four mailers a week (some that are “as big as a damn car”), receives political phone calls and gets inundated with ads on radio and TV.

Both candidates spent more than $1.1 million on digital, radio and TV advertising, according to the most recent FEC filings. Factoring in mailers would bump the total even higher.

It’s typical for campaigns to advertise more as the election draws closer, Cooper said. But when there’s exponential growth in the amount of ad spending, that’s a sign of a competitive race.

“It has been and remains the most competitive district in the state,” he said of the 8th District.

‘Judge Softie’: Hudson releases first attack ad against Timmons-Goodson

Hudson’s latest ad brands Timmons-Goodson as “soft on crime” and assigns her the pejorative moniker “Judge Softie.” 

After opening on a photograph of the Democrat in judicial robes behind a court bench, the ad’s female narrator alleges Timmons-Goodson “let a man walk free who stole half a million dollars from his church” and “opposed putting tracking bracelets on sex offenders because it would ‘add to their shame.’” 

“Timmons-Goodson — too soft on crime, too liberal for Congress,” coos the narrator near the end of the video. 

Hudson’s campaign manager Robert Andrews told The 9th Street Journal in August that the campaign would focus its energy on Hudson’s accomplishments rather than attacking his Democratic opponent. 

“People always want to see going on the attack, or that sort of thing,” Andrews said in that August interview. “That’s not the deal right now. We just want to make sure that folks know who Richard Hudson is, especially in those new parts of the district.”

Andrews did not return phone calls seeking clarification on the change in tactics, but the shift likely means Hudson’s campaign views the race as more competitive than originally thought. 

“Hudson running attack ads is a sign that it’s possible that he could lose, and that he thinks that,” Cooper said. “There’s no need to get in the ditch if you don’t have to.”

Toss-up territory? ‘Lean Republican’ rating subject to change, national analysts say

As soon as the legislature released new congressional maps in 2019, Sabato’s Crystal Ball changed Hudson’s rating from “safe Republican” to “likely Republican.” The new maps, which axed Republican-heavy Rowan County and added the rest of Cumberland County, made the 8th District competitive for the first time since Hudson unseated Democrat Larry Kissel in 2012. 

Now ranked as “lean Republican,” the 8th District is the only seat in North Carolina from either party that’s ranked as anything other than “safe” or “likely.”

“Back in ‘08, the only seat that flipped in North Carolina — it was a Republican to Democrat flip — was in the 8th District when Larry Kissel beat Robin Hayes,” said Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball. “It could well be the only seat that flips again.”

Coleman said he agreed with Cooper that the 8th District is the most competitive congressional race in the state. In order to move it to “toss-up,” he and his colleagues Kyle Kondik and Larry Sabato would want to see public polling that shows Timmons-Goodson ahead, or statewide polling that shows Biden ahead, which could hint at a wave election. Both have emerged in recent weeks.

“On election night, when I’m watching the results come in, the first district I’m going to look at in North Carolina is going to be district eight,” he said. 

At top, incumbent Richard Hudson and Pat Timmons-Goodson are vying for the 8th Congressional District. Photos from their campaigns.

Early voting starts with long lines, passionate voters

This story will be updated throughout the day.

Thousands of Durham residents mobilized for the first day of early voting on Thursday, eager to cast their ballots in what some said is the most important election in their lifetime. 

They began lining up long before the polls opened at 8 a.m., warmed in the morning chill by adrenaline and their face masks. By noon, four of the 14 Durham polls reported wait times of at least two hours. But things lightened up in the afternoon and the average wait time at nine of the county sites was 30 minutes or less.

More than 80 voters lined up by 8 a.m. at the Karsh Alumni and Visitor’s Center at Duke, many wearing Biden-Harris hats. Some were just eager to feel the satisfaction of voting. Others said this day felt like it couldn’t come fast enough. 

“We’ve been waiting to vote for four years,” said Priscilla Wald, a Duke English professor who arrived at the university’s early voting site at 7 a.m. She and former Duke professor Julie Tetel Andresen went to the polling place at the Durham County Main Library first, but by 6:45 a.m., the site had already amassed a crowd of more than 30 voters.

“We want to make sure our vote counts and we get this guy out of office,” Wald said. “There is no question that this is the most important election of my life.”

When the doors opened at 8 a.m., the line erupted in cheers.

As a swing state, North Carolina plays an outsized role in the election. Andresen hopes the predicted increase in turnout among young voters will help elect Joe Biden, who she thinks will bring fresh leadership.

“I’m so tired of these old farts in Washington running things,” she said. “I’m ready for the next generation.”

Several voters said they considered voting absentee by mail, but wanted the gratification of casting their ballot in person.

“I feel like I’m satisfying my civic responsibility by being here,” said Ron Stubbs, a retired Duke employee. In big black letters, his mask read, “SCIENCE.”

This is the first year that Duke has held its early voting site at the new Karsh alumni center. The building, with tall ceilings and plenty of parking, is an ideal polling place during a pandemic, said Erin Kramer, Duke executive director of media and public affairs.

“We want to encourage as many people to come and to get them through as quickly as possible, but we also need to make sure it’s a safe experience for everyone,” she said.

Outside each polling place, the ground is marked with tape to direct voters to stand six feet apart. All poll workers are required to wear masks, and can provide masks to voters who don’t bring their own. Hand sanitizer stations and frequent wipe-downs of the ballot booths will ensure each site is clean and safe for a high volume of voters.

Karsh wasn’t the only early voting site with a long line when the polls opened at 8 a.m. The line at the Durham County Main Library wrapped through the parking lot, boasting well over 100 voters. Just a few blocks away, nearly 70 voters waited outside the Criminal Justice Resource Center.

Voting tips

The North Carolina State Board of Elections created an early voting site locator with live wait times so voters can anticipate the lines at polling places across the county. Durham has 14 early voting sites, and voters may visit any one of the sites to cast their ballot.

For voters experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, as well as disabled voters, each polling site also offers curbside service so voters may fill out their ballots from the safety of their vehicle.

Early voting in North Carolina runs Oct. 15-31. Find the hours of operation for each polling site here.

At top, voters lined up Thursday outside the Durham Main Library. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal

In first (and only) debate, gubernatorial candidates clash on schools, economy and masks

On the eve of North Carolina’s first day of early voting, Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican challenger Lt. Gov. Dan Forest debated issues from health care to taxes to hurricanes. But much of the debate centered on their most contentious disagreement: how to handle the coronavirus. 

Although Cooper is leading in the polls, he attacked Forest from the outset. The majority of polls show Cooper leading by at least 10 points, and a WRAL survey released Wednesday had him up by 13 points. 

Face to face for the first time, they debated face masks and schools. Cooper defended his mask mandate against Forest’s claims that they are not proven to be effective. Forest argued that children should return to classrooms, and Cooper defended his phased reopening. 

During the hour-long debate, which was sponsored by the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters, they also clashed on how fast Cooper was reopening the state’s economy.

“Talking about masks is a great cover for what he really doesn’t want to talk about, the over million and a half people that he has left unemployed,” Forest said. 

“You’re not just ignoring science, you’re ignoring common sense,” Cooper replied. “You cannot wish the pandemic away.” 

Forest acknowledged the threat of COVID-19 for older people and those with underlying health conditions. He emphasized the danger the pandemic poses to people in nursing homes and the state’s most vulnerable residents. “That’s where we should be spending all of our time and attention,” he said. “We should allow healthy people to get back [to] life.” 

He said children are 17 times more likely to be impacted by the flu than coronavirus, a claim PolitiFact has rated mostly false.

Cooper countered that protecting the most vulnerable people requires cooperation from everyone. “The problem is, Dan, you treat nursing homes like an island,” he said. 

“When you have people out there discouraging masks, when you have people out there trying to prove that there’s not a pandemic, then you end up having more people who are infected. It could be a nursing home staff member [or] a visitor,” he said. 

Above: Plexiglas wasn’t the only thing that separated Roy Cooper from Dan Forest in the gubernatorial debate. (Screenshot from WRAL broadcast.)

Analysis: Cawthorn employs a national ad strategy while Davis stays local

The poetry of American politics is now written in emojis and hashtags. In North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District, the emojis are wavy American flags and the hashtags are Western North Carolina towns. 

The animated star-spangled banners belong to Madison Cawthorn, the Republican candidate, who uses the icons in subtle national calls for financial support to galvanize potential donors who don’t even live in his district. That red, white, and blue might work particularly well among the GOP donor pool. A 2007 Pew Research Center  report showed that 73% of Republicans say they display the flag at home, in their office, or on their car, while only 55% of Democrats do. 

In contrast, the Facebook ads Democrat Moe Davis directs to voters within his district come complete with hashtags denoting local cities and photo backdrops of Western North Carolina’s rolling blue mountains. 

Although one might expect the 37-year age gap between the congressional candidates to be reflected in their ad campaigns on Facebook, each candidate employs their own savvy strategy to target their intended audience — one national, one local. 

The two candidates primarily focus their advertising on Facebook, investing much more money on the platform than Google and Youtube. Davis is also running ads on WLOS-TV. At the time of publishing, Cawthorn had spent $163,756 on Facebook, and Davis had spent $36,816. 

Cawthorn: A National Approach

The moment President Donald Trump phoned Cawthorn from Air Force One to call his primary win “beautiful” was the moment Cawthorn launched his pro-Trump brand as a valiant warrior against “radical leftists.” 

“Pro-Trump, Pro-Life, Pro-Gun, Pro-Law Enforcement,” read the caption of one ad posted in August.

Cawthorn’s appeal to Republicans on a broader, national level is evident in his villainization of high-profile Democrats like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Pelosi and Ocasio-Cortez make more appearances in Cawthorn’s Facebook ads than Davis does. One ad pictures Pelosi and Ocasio-Cortez with Rep. Ilhan Omar, all covered in a monochromatic blood-red hue while posing adjacent to a photo of Mount Rushmore. “Add your name to fight back against the mob!” the caption reads. 

An ad posted by Madison Cawthorn’s campaign shows House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Ilhan Omar covered in a red hue while posing adjacent to a photo of Mount Rushmore. “Add your name to fight back against the mob!” the caption reads. (Courtesy of the Facebook Ad Library)

“Your support will help me combat Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and AOC,” reads the caption of another ad. 

Cawthorn’s Facebook ads didn’t mention his opponent by name until September. However, he recently launched a website and Facebook community (currently four followers strong) called Moe Taxes, dedicated solely to attacking Davis. 

Cawthorn’s strategy to garner support on a national level is underscored by Facebook ads utilizing buzzwords and phrases like “radical leftists,” “left-wing mob,” and “the socialist Left.” This language further polarizes voters, signals his alignment with the Republican agenda, and makes his ads generalizable to a broad audience beyond Western North Carolina. 

What’s the point of focusing on voters that won’t even have Cawthorn’s name on their ballot? Money. Like a signature at the end of a document, nearly all of Cawthorn’s ads on Facebook have a bold box in either red, white, or blue that says “DONATE NOW.” 

That strategy seems to be working. Compared with Davis, a greater proportion of Cawthorn’s individual contributions come from out-of-state, according to financial records from the Federal Election Commission analyzed by Open Secrets.

These advertising tactics and fundraising successes are in conflict with how Cawthorn has said congressional elections should run.

“I believe I should only be able to fundraise inside of District 11. That would mean that I owe my successes only to the people that I represent,” he said at a Sept. 9 debate.

Davis: A Local Approach

Davis is keeping it local, often addressing Western North Carolina voters directly in ad videos or captions. 

Unlike the all-encompassing American flag that Cawthorn garnishes his ads with, Davis applies hashtags, used to increase engagement and draw in audiences of interest, for specific counties in District 11.

#asheville #brevardnc #hendersonvillenc #wnc #nc #waynesvillenc #sylvanc #cullowhee #franklinnc,” were among some hashtags Davis used in ads where he talked about legalizing marijana and making Western North Carolina the “epicenter for alternative energy.” 

The tagged locales paint a clear picture of Davis’s targeted region. He’s focused on the “#blueridgemountains” area.

Those hallmark mountains also appear as Davis’s background for ads, further signaling his focus on Western North Carolina.

In a Facebook ad that ran regularly from August through September, Davis flaunted a poll conducted by his campaign that put the two in a “DEAD HEAT!”

A Facebook ad posted by Moe Davis’s campaign declared the District 11 race a “DEAD HEAT!”

The graphic shows Davis and his campaign logo, which features mountains, with 40% of the vote and Cawthorn, his name in plain black text, with 42% of the vote. 

In the caption, Davis distilled the choice down to “a 25-year veteran,” or a “25-year old QAnon believer.” 

On Oct. 8, Davis’s active Facebook ads were almost exclusively shown in North Carolina. Many of Cawthorn’s active ad campaigns were primarily viewed in California, Texas, and Florida, while several were primarily viewed in North Carolina, according to the Facebook Ad Library.

The local focus that anchors the content and targeting of Davis’s Facebook ads extends through his campaign. At the Sept. 9 debate, he made it clear he’s staying in the district. 

“Since the first of the year, I’ve left the district for one night. My opponent’s been jetting around the country with the Trump kids and up in Washington,” said Davis.