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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.”


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.”


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.


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.


“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.


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


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


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.


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