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

Story by Michaela Towfighi; illustrations by Sofia Zymnis

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

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

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

An occasional series on the 2020 election in North Carolina

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

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

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

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

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

Mail-In Ballot Deadlines: 

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

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

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

Early Voting — The count begins for in-person voting 

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

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

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

The reconciliation form includes:  

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

Color coding to separate the ballots

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

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

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

Election Day Voting — Completing the count 

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

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

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

Results will be publicized, but these tallies are unofficial. 

Provisional ballots

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

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

The Canvass – Making the final count

Part 1 – The County Board Canvass 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 2 – The State Board of Elections Canvass 

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

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

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

Sources: 

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

‘The first one out there’: How Durham’s elections chief gets ready for the biggest day of the year

Every Election Day, Derek Bowens wakes up and plays the most motivational song he can think of: CNN’s Election Night theme.

The song provides an early-morning jolt that gets the Durham County elections director ready for the busy day ahead. The booming drums, violin swells and electric guitar riffs follow Bowens as he springs out of bed, brushes his teeth, and heads to the office just before 5 a.m. If there’s one thing that riles him up, it’s the rhythm of democracy.

“It’s so great,” he said of the song. “It gets me moving.”

An occasional series on the 2020 election in North Carolina.

Not that Bowens needs a news theme to get going. Fourteen hours a day, seven days a week, he manages precinct officials and elections administrators, oversees voter registrations and absentee ballot mailings, supervises 14 early voting sites across the county, and prepares for the most important day of his year. On Nov. 3, how well he handles those details — from ensuring that over 800 poll workers take their places at 57 precincts to resolving potential problems like jammed ballot machines or power outages — could have a small but significant effect on the confidence and maybe even the outcome of the biggest election of his lifetime.

He loves his work because it matters.

“I see it as the bedrock of our democracy,” he said. “That importance should be met with a level of intensity.”

“A multi-ring circus”

Bowens sweats the small details. He knows election law inside and out, so much so that his employees joke about how easily he catches the errors they’ve missed.

“I had one staff say, ‘I don’t want to call Derek over to solve this, because the minute he comes over, he’ll find the problem instantly,’” Bowens laughed.

Derek Bowens checks the distance between voting stations. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal

He’s relatively new to Durham, having arrived from New Hanover County in 2016, and his colleagues say the office is more efficient now under his leadership. According to Philip Lehman, chairman of the Durham board of elections, there were 792 mistakes of various degrees in the 2016 primary election, which took place before Bowens arrived. In this year’s primary, there were eight.

“Derek is running a multi-ring circus,” Lehman said. “But he’s always ahead of the game.”

In the tight-knit world of election administrators, reputations are earned on the little stuff. As director of elections in New Hanover, home to Wilmington, Bowens became known for his well-organized warehouses, where necessities from ballot machines to “I Voted” stickers are kept. 

But don’t look for signs of organization on his desk. Papers are scattered across the cherry wood — calendars, time sheets, fliers, and reusable paper towels (he wanted to see if they could be used to sanitize polling places). 

“They say organized people have the messiest desks,” he deadpanned.

Colleagues say he never loses his cool. When a problem arises, he goes into solutions mode, turning his eyes to the sky. His employees know that when he lowers his eyes, he’ll have a plan. 

“There was never a moment where he seemed panicked or overwhelmed,” said Samuel Gedman, former deputy director of elections. “He simply lays out what needs to be done. In this business, that’s huge.”

“We feel confident that things are under control”

In a conversation with Lehman, Bowens once gave his top three priorities in life: 

Faith, family, and elections.

Elections appear to be a newer passion. Growing up in Wilmington, he lived in an apartment in the projects with his single mother, sister, and two brothers. 

His mother, who worked at a preschool, tried to expose her children to positive experiences while shielding them from the drugs and violence of the inner city. Eventually, she married Bowens’ stepfather, the owner of a local painting company who built the family a house in the suburbs when Bowens was 12 years old.

But the years of poverty had made their mark. Bowens wanted to keep climbing up.

“I had a decision to make, to be better than my circumstances,” he said.

He was a good student in high school, a self-described nerd. He was president of the debate team and won a “principal’s choice” award, accomplishments that helped him earn grants to subsidize his college, which he split between UNC Charlotte, community college, and UNC Wilmington. He was determined to graduate with honors. 

He wanted to give back to his mother.

“My mom is very important to me,” he said, his voice softening. “I want to be in a position where I can do everything for her, so she doesn’t have to worry about a thing.”

The 2008 presidential election was a turning point in his self-realization, when he saw a Black man on the ballot for the first time. 

In a necessarily nonpartisan job, Bowens doesn’t talk politics. He says he doesn’t have a stake in who wins the elections he oversees, “or care, for that matter.” Still, Barack Obama’s candidacy and subsequent presidency rocked Bowens to his core.

“It was something that I could never fathom,” he said. “It was the first time I felt like I could do something in this country.”

After graduating college in 2011, he got a job as a New Hanover County elections specialist in Wilmington and quickly ascended the ranks. By February 2015, he was the county’s director of elections — at age 27. 

Bowens is now 32, significantly younger than many of his employees. But Deputy Director Brenda Baker says he has an old soul.

“He could be any age,” she said. “He’s very mature, a methodical thinker, and a great problem solver. It’s impressive.”

Lehman said Bowen is “the kind of guy that, when he talks, you listen. With his leadership, we feel confident that things are under control.”

Finding belonging in Durham

Bowens says any worries about a chaotic election are unfounded.

“I have every confidence in our ability to execute a great election here in Durham,” he said. 

“Derek is running a multi-ring circus,” says Durham elections board Chair Philip Lehman. “But he’s always ahead of the game.” Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal

More worrisome to him is the threat of voter suppression, which has historically disproportionately affected Black and Latino voters. In September, President Trump encouraged North Carolina citizens to “watch all the thieving and stealing and robbing” at the polls, pushing misinformation about the prevalence of voter fraud while seeming to encourage voter intimidation. Later that month, his son Donald Trump Jr. released a video calling for supporters to “enlist” in an “army for Trump.”

At the mention of voter intimidation, Bowens’ jaw clenched. 

“We’re doing everything we can to create a safe voting environment in Durham,” he said. “The issue of voter intimidation is very important, and it certainly won’t be tolerated.”

For years, Durham County has dispatched unarmed security guards to polling places to protect voters from instances of intimidation. Two weeks ago, the North Carolina State Board of Elections told elections officials that law enforcement could not be assigned to a polling site. But Bowens appealed the decision and got Durham’s policy reapproved.

In addition to the unarmed security guards, if a precinct in Durham does see an instance of voter intimidation, “I’ll be the first one out there, I can tell you that,” Bowens said.

Durham’s approach to voter suppression is largely an expression of its racial and ethnic diversity. The county’s “cultural melting pot” allows Bowens to feel at home here, which he said wasn’t always the case in Wilmington.

“There were some difficulties there, in terms of feeling like I belonged,” he said. “In Durham, I see other people that look like me. I feel like I belong.”

Durham elections officials welcomed his arrival in 2016, after years of turnover in an office “flying by the seat of its pants,” according to Lehman. Before Bowens, they had no written manual of office procedures. Within months, he wrote a manual. 

During Baker’s interview for the position of deputy director, her first impression of Bowens was of a “pretty serious and very precise person.” At first, she worried he would be a tough boss.

But after 5 p.m., when the phones finally stop ringing and the office closes for the night, his employees see him at his most comfortable.  

He takes off his shoes and wanders the office in his socks. He whistles to himself and blasts Michael Jackson’s greatest hits from his phone. When Gedman worked in the office, they’d turn on the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. 

Bowens says unwinding together at the end of a long day helps the office build comradery.

“We spend more time together than we do with our own families,” he said.

He doesn’t see his own family much these days. He says his wife, Andrea, doesn’t always agree with his commitment to the job, “but she understands the importance of it,” he said. 

He misses his 3-year-old daughter, Harper, most of all. When trying to describe her, Bowens shook his head in awe.

“No words,” he said. “I just love being a papa.” He wishes he could spend more time with her.

“But this is our democracy,” he said. “It requires sacrifice.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Republicans need senior voters, but Trump is pushing them away

House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy has good reason to worry about senior voters in North Carolina. 

McCarthy told Axios that he spent hours telling President Trump his unfounded attacks on mail-in voting could not only doom the president’s re-election, but also imperil Republicans running for Congress. 

The House Minority Leader said that he’s particularly concerned about losing the senior vote, which historically leans right. “I tried to show [Trump] … you know who is most afraid of COVID? Seniors. And if they’re not going to go vote, period, we’re screwed,” McCarthy said. 

A new 9th Street Journal tally of absentee ballot requests from the North Carolina Board of Elections shows why McCarthy is so concerned. Democratic voters older than 65 have requested nearly twice as many ballots (13,319) as their Republican counterparts (7,007), according to the data available on Sept. 14. 

The numbers also show that Republicans account for 36% of the state’s voters who are older than 65, but only 23% of the absentee ballot requests for that age group. Meanwhile, Democrats represent 40% of the state’s senior voters and 44% of voters older than 65 who have requested ballots. 

Unaffiliated senior voters, who account for 24% of all senior voters, have requested 32% of the ballots.

As McCarthy feared, Trump’s repeated attacks on mail-in voting seem to be having an impact — particularly with Republicans. A WRAL poll last week found a third of likely North Carolina voters have little to no confidence that votes cast by mail will be counted correctly. The sentiment varied by party: While 42% of Republicans and and 39% of Independents said that they had little to no confidence in the mail-in voting process, only 28% of Democrats felt the same way. 

Republicans usually depend on senior voters, who voted 55% to 42% for Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016.

People over the age of 65 make up 23% of the statewide electorate. In the 2016 and 2018 elections, they had the highest voter turnout compared with other age groups. 

But COVID-19 has re-written the expectations for 2020: Adults ages 65 years old and above are the most vulnerable to the virus, representing eight out of every 10 coronavirus-related deaths in the U.S. People in this age group may decide it’s in their best interest to stay home and mail in their ballots. But Trump’s repeated attacks on absentee balloting might discourage his older supporters from voting at all. 

Republicans can still overcome the disparity in mail-in balloting by getting people to vote in person. Early voting starts Oct. 15 and Election Day is Nov. 3. 

Terri Benforado, a 57-year-old Durham resident who plans to vote for Trump, said that she and her husband, who is over 65 years of age and also supports Trump, will vote early in person. 

Benforado said that she has always casted her ballot at an early voting site, and this year will be no different. She also volunteers as a poll worker on Election Day. She’s not concerned about potential health risks due to the coronavirus, which she said are exaggerated by Democrats and the left-leaning media. 

“I think there’s a risk, but there’s not a risk to my husband and I,” Benforado said.

Staff writer Rose Wong can be reached at rosanna.wong@duke.edu

Assistance with data analysis was provided by Joel Luther of the Duke Reporters’ Lab; graphic by Henry Haggart of The 9th Street Journal

Why Moe Davis thinks he can win the Western North Carolina congressional seat

Never mind what the pundits and the prognosticators think. Moe Davis says he has a fighting chance to win the 11th Congressional District in Western North Carolina because his opponent is inexperienced and the district has new lines that make it more winnable for a Democrat.

In a wide-ranging interview with The 9th Street Journal, Davis, the Democratic nominee, said the district may have voted for Donald Trump in 2016, but voters have become disillusioned with the president and his party. That lack of enthusiasm should help Davis defeat his Republican opponent, 25-year-old Madison Cawthorn. 

According to The Cook Political Report, the 11th District is rated likely Repubican. But Davis said that evaluation is too dependent on results from the 2016 presidential election. 

Davis said the most revealing statistic about the new district isn’t Trump’s 17 point margin over Clinton in 2016. It is the more narrow 6.5 point margin in the governor’s race the same year.

“Two polarizing New Yorkers are probably not the best barometer for Western North Carolina,” said Davis, referring to Trump and Clinton. “The Roy Cooper, Pat McCrory governor’s race [is] a better measure.” 

That indicates the race is “doable,” Davis said. “And our polling is showing that we can win.”

Internal campaign polls are always questionable because they are often used to persuade donors to give money and to convince journalists that a race is winnable. But Davis insists his poll, conducted in July, shows real promise for his campaign.

Respondents were more supportive when they were read information about the candidates’ records and policy stances. By the last question, they preferred him 52% to 35%, he said.

“Our challenge over the next 48 days is to inform the voters so they can make an educated choice,” he said in the interview Wednesday. 

Davis was dressed casually in a denim button-down shirt and sat in front of a Zoom background with blue mountains and stars and stripes. Among the highlights: 

  • Davis was unapologetic about angry tweets in recent years that sometimes were vulgar or called for violence. He said that as a commentator for CNN, MSNBC, Fox, and NPR, “you tend to use bombastic language because you want to get noticed.” He compared himself to Seb Gorka and Rick Wilson, who have also generated controversy with their tweets and comments.
  • Asked about the spectrum of ideologies of the Democratic Party, Davis said he considers himself a moderate Democrat.
  • After the election, Davis plans to go to one of the many breweries in Asheville. “Win or lose, I’m getting an IPA and sitting on the porch,” he said.

At top, Moe Davis in an interview with The 9th Street Journal with his patriotic Zoom background. 

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

As he continued to sow distrust in the electoral process at a Sept. 8 rally in Winston-Salem, Donald Trump encouraged his supporters to take on alleged voter fraud themselves. 

“Watch it,” he said. “Be poll watchers when you go there. Watch all the thieving and stealing and robbing they do.”

Trump previously stated he had plans to send law enforcement officials to monitor the polls, which is prohibited by federal and state law. Poll watchers, on the other hand, are legal, so long as they don’t interfere with the voting process. But officials say their job isn’t quite as action-packed as the president would make it seem.

The role of poll watchers

Poll watchers have long been deployed by political parties to observe election proceedings and ensure each party gets a fair shot, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. They are prohibited from directly communicating with voters, but they can watch for potential offenses and track turnout to help estimate how a party’s candidate is doing. 

If they witness a potential instance of voter fraud, they can bring it to the attention of precinct officials or contact the county board of elections, “as long as it’s done in a nonobstructive manner,” according to Derek Bowens, Durham County’s director of elections. But such disputes are rare, he said.

“Election Day challenges are pretty nonexistent here,” Bowens said. “When we do get them, a lot of times it’s a misunderstanding of process on the observer’s part.”

Not just anyone can be a poll watcher. In North Carolina, the county chair of each political party can nominate two poll watchers per polling place. The nominees have to be approved by the county board of elections. Poll watchers must be registered voters of the county, cannot be candidates on the ballot, and must possess “good moral character,” according to state statute.

“It’s probably more subjective than it could be,” Bowens said. “But the threshold is pretty high for the board to reject someone. I’ve never seen that happen.”

Each county party may also nominate up to 10 at-large observers that can monitor any precinct, and state parties can nominate up to 100, but a maximum of three poll watchers from each party may observe a precinct at a time.

While the president can’t mobilize law enforcement to oversee the polls, North Carolina statute does not prohibit law enforcement officials from independently serving as poll watchers. However, they must follow the same rules as all other poll watchers and cannot communicate with or intimidate voters.

The prevalence of voter fraud

What about the “thieving, stealing, and robbing” Trump mentioned? “I have no clue what he’s talking about,” Bowens said.

Voter fraud is rare, but Republicans have latched onto a few recent cases. On Sept. 8, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger revealed investigations into 1,000 cases of double voting in the state’s June primary election and August runoff. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement also announced on Sept. 3 that 19 foreign nationals would face charges for illegally voting in the 2016 federal election in North Carolina.

However, neither case of voter fraud altered the outcome of any race, state officials from Georgia and North Carolina confirmed. Trump has similarly claimed fraudulent ballots caused him to lose the popular vote in the 2016 presidential election, despite losing by almost 3 million votes. Now, he’s urging supporters to try out the same fraudulent techniques he denounces. 

At a Sept. 2 briefing with reporters in Wilmington, Trump encouraged Republicans planning to vote by mail to visit their local polling place and attempt to vote again in person. 

“Let them send it in and let them go vote, and if their system’s as good as they say it is, then obviously they won’t be able to vote,” he said. “If it isn’t tabulated, they’ll be able to vote.” 

Intentionally voting more than once is a felony in North Carolina. Karen Brinson Bell, the executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, issued a statement the next day reminding voters of the state’s protections against double voting. The board also launched an online service called BallotTrax last Friday to allow voters to track the status of their absentee ballots. 

“If someone has voted, and we’ve logged their vote at the board of elections, when they present to vote in person, they won’t be able to cast their ballot,” Bowens said.

Damon Circosta, chair of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, said voter fraud is “so exceedingly rare that it’s almost laughable.”

“Any time you get a conspiracy big enough that it could impact the outcome of an election, too many people know that you’re trying to do something fraudulent,” he said. He referenced one such case in the 2018 election for North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, where a Republican operative was accused of tampering with absentee ballots. That operative was indicted last year.

Some worry that Trump’s fear-mongering tactics will embolden his supporters to intimidate voters. But Circosta said such attempts at voter suppression won’t be tolerated — they’ll be met with “the full weight of the law,” he said.

“I don’t think there’s anything more sad than intimidating your fellow citizens out of the franchise,” he said. “We should pause and think about what we’re trying to do with democracy, and it’s certainly not silence other voices.”

Redrawn Greensboro congressional seat predicted to flip to Democrats

In a post on his campaign Facebook page, Lee Haywood smiles, posing neither masked nor socially distanced from Madison Cawthorn, a fellow Republican congressional candidate.

On Twitter, the Kathy Manning campaign shares a photo of Manning in a pink and green mask, standing distanced from North Carolina State Council of Machinists President Theodore McNeal.

This familiar dynamic, in which face masks have been politicized, is playing out in North Carolina’s 6th Congressional District, where Haywood and Manning face each other and a transformed electorate in the midst of a global pandemic.

The redrawn district seems to be Kathy Manning’s to lose. Republican incumbent Mark Walker declined to run for reelection after court-mandated redistricting converted the district from an amalgamation of eight counties to just Guilford County and the southeastern portion of Forsyth County. Its borders encompass Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and High Point, which make up North Carolina’s more urban, more Democratic-leaning Triad region. 

In 2018, Manning lost by 6 points in her bid to unseat Ted Budd in the 13th Congressional District. This year, she emerged from a crowded primary in the 6th with nearly half of the vote — a race perhaps more competitive than the general election will be.

Candidates focus on healthcare, economy

Manning, a former immigration lawyer, has never held public office but has emphasized her community and nonprofit work in her campaign, citing public service such as Greensboro’s Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts as work she will continue if she wins.

Haywood, a small business owner, also has never held public office, though he has emphasized his conservative ties instead. A self-described “constitutional conservative,” he served for the past two years as chairman of the congressional district’s Republican Party before making a leap into the election.

“I only became active in politics 10 years ago with the emergence of Barrack [sic] Obama and his vision for a radically changed America,” Haywood writes on his campaign website.

In an election cycle dominated by racial, healthcare, and economic fault lines laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic, this race has been no exception, even as both candidates largely follow party platforms.

“I’m a pragmatic person,” Manning said during a July 28 event with the Forsyth County Democratic Party. She does not support Medicare for All, the universal single-payer healthcare system advocated by progressives. Instead, she has backed a public option, in which the federal government would provide its own health insurance plan, as well as the expansion of Medicaid in North Carolina. “The most pragmatic way to get good, affordable healthcare to everybody is by building on the ACA, rather than dismantling it.”

Haywood is aligned with his party on healthcare. He has proposed overhauling the ACA for a private, free market-driven system.

Both candidates tout their small business experience as good preparation for charting the district through the pandemic and toward economic recovery. While both favor extending programs such as low-interest loans to mitigate the effects of the pandemic recession, their approaches sharply diverge for the post-pandemic future. 

Haywood has stressed the need to eliminate the ballooning national debt, while Manning has leaned on past work in the Triad as evidence of her ability to guide long-term economic development.

Haywood confronts ungiving new district

The new district lines are unkind to Haywood and Republicans at large. Barring a major gaffe by Manning or a statewide red wave, he is considered a long shot in the now blue district. In Guilford County, Hillary Clinton won by almost 20 points in 2016; she won Forsyth by more than 10 points. In both counties, about three-times as many Democrats as Republicans turned out in this year’s primary.

The redrawn 6th Congressional District includes all of Guilford County and part of Forsyth County. Map from NC General Assembly.

“It’s nice to have a district that reflects the electorate finally,” State Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Greensboro) said. “Guilford’s pretty blue, and we haven’t had a Democratic representative in a long time. I think it’s going to be good to have somebody that reflects more of our values.”

The newly drawn political landscape has led pundits to forecast a Manning win. The Cook Political Report rates the district as “likely Democratic,” and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball rates it as “safe Democratic.”

Beyond the new map, Haywood faces a name recognition problem — compounded by his lack of incumbency, Manning’s 2018 race, and a pandemic that has stifled traditional avenues of voter outreach — which his campaign is trying to solve by positioning Haywood alongside Donald Trump.

On Facebook, the Haywood campaign’s chief social media platform, the president has made several appearances, including in an ad from early June, where his face accompanies “Keep NC-06 Red” and an invitation to donate to and get involved with the Haywood campaign. But the president has neither endorsed nor boosted Haywood.

“To embrace the president, given the president’s relatively low approval rating, is certainly a strategy if you want to maximize turnout amongst people who like the president. But there’s just not enough of those folks [in the district],” David Holian, a political scientist at UNC Greensboro, said, adding that the association might also turn out voters against the president and, in turn, Haywood.

Manning outpaces Haywood in fundraising

Without his own voter base, Haywood has struggled to amass funds. 

From the start of the campaign up to the most recent Federal Election Commission filing on June 30, the Haywood campaign has raised just over $15,000, with about $7,000 cash on hand. Almost all contributions to the campaign have been made by individuals, save a $1,000 one by the Greater Greensboro Republican Women’s Club and $200 from a committee for B.J. Barnes, Summerfield mayor.

The Manning campaign has raised almost 100 times more — $1.4 million, with about $300,000 cash on hand. More than 85% of the total fundraising amount is from individual contributions. 

“My opponent is a very rich limousine liberal, and I have a very profound monetary disadvantage,” Haywood said during a June 11 event with the Forsyth County Republican Party, sandwiched between asks for donations.

Mac McCorkle, a public policy professor at Duke, said that the disparity reflected the likely outcome. 

“This is seen as a Democratic victory. The Republican forces are probably not encouraging people to waste money on this race,” he said. 

The lack of institutional and party backing, coupled with a redrawing that has compacted the district around a strong Democratic base, will be difficult for Haywood to overcome. 

“It’s like trying to reverse political gravity,” McCorkle said. “Subject to some major change, all the vectors are pointing in one direction — that it’s a blowout.”

At top, candidates Kathy Manning and Lee Haywood. (Photos from their campaigns)

Your questions about mail-in voting, answered

After four years of relentless partisan drama, when wearing a mask or buying a can of black beans has become a political statement, the 2020 election was destined to be contentious. A worldwide pandemic of respiratory illness just made it weird. 

Between now and Election Day on Nov. 3, a record number of people will vote by mail to avoid interacting with others and potentially contracting the novel coronavirus. Typically 4% of the state electorate vote by mail, said Damon Circosta, board chair of the North Carolina State Board of Elections. This year, the number will be between 30 and 40%. 

If you, too, are considering mail-in voting, The 9th Street Journal is here to cut through the chatter and answer your questions about the process. 

What is all the fuss about mail-in voting? 

Mail-in voting has been part of American democracy since Civil War soldiers re-elected Abraham Lincoln in the 1864 election. The elderly and voters with disabilities or chronic illness have found postal voting a safe and convenient way to pick their political representatives, said Mac McCorkle, director of POLIS, the center for politics in Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy. 

Voting by mail gained fame in recent months when it was attacked by President Trump, who claimed, without evidence, that it would invite fraud and lead to “the greatest rigged election in history.” Meanwhile, the president and his wife both requested absentee ballots on Aug. 12. 

Cost-cutting measures by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Greensboro resident and longtime donor to the president, heightened the controversy after he took over the U.S. Postal Service on June 15. 

The brouhaha isn’t over. DeJoy temporarily suspended the measures, but the announcement and comments from the president left many people unsure how mail-in voting will play out in this year’s election. 

What is absentee voting? Is it different from mail-in voting?

President Trump repeatedly made false distinctions between absentee voting and mail-in voting, confusing many voters. Mail-in voting is actually just one type of absentee voting. 

You can vote in one of three ways: Show up at a local precinct on election day, or vote absentee, which includes casting your ballot at an early-voting precinct or mailing in an absentee ballot.

“Absentee is anything with the exception for voting in person on election day,” Circosta said. 

Any registered voter in North Carolina may request an absentee ballot, no reason or special circumstance required

Are Durham election officials ready for the volume of mail-in ballots they are likely to  receive? 

They say they are.

Durham County has already had a 350% increase in absentee ballot requests compared with 2016, according to Derek Bowens, director of the Durham County Board of Elections. 

Through last Friday, when the first batch of absentee ballots requests were mailed out, 40 people in the elections office were working 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. putting together absentee ballot packages, which include return envelopes, “I Voted” stickers and instructions for how to complete the ballot, Bowens said. 

Starting this week, only 10 people will be needed to put together and send out ballot packages every day, Bowens said. 

In addition to the staffers processing requests and stuff envelopes, more than a dozen will authenticate ballots and call voters if their ballot is deficient and cannot be accepted. 

Bowens said that he is not concerned about a shortage of workers because the county can enlist a temporary employment agency. 

The mail-in voting process will cost the county at least $100,000, Bowens said, but that can be covered through an existing county election budget, potential CARES Act dollars and budget amendments requested from the Board of County Commissioners. 

Is the Postal Service ready for the volume of mail-in ballots that Durham will receive? 

Well, let’s just say that if you are voting by mail, do it early. 

Postal Service spokesperson Philip Bogenberger did not answer The 9th Street Journal’s questions regarding mail-in voting in Durham, but postal officials have warned that they could have difficulty because some states have late deadlines for requesting ballots.

Thomas J. Marshall, the general counsel for the Postal Service, sent a letter in July to all 50 states and the District of Columbia, warning that “certain deadlines for requesting and casting mail-in ballots are incongruous with the Postal Service’s standards.” 

Marshall told officials with tight schedules to require that residents request ballots at least 15 days before an election, and that ballots requested too close to the deadline may not “be returned by mail in time to be counted,” according to the New York Times. A separate analysis by the Times confirmed this could be a problem in 19 states. (The Times said the deadlines in North Carolina might provide sufficient time.) 

Another possible problem: Changes to the Postal Service that DeJoy had already implemented prior to reversing the announcement. 

At least seven mail sorting machines were removed from a post office facility near the Charlotte Airport, which DeJoy said that he will not replace while testifying in front of the House Oversight Committee on Aug. 24. 

Bogenberger did not answer The 9th Street’s Journal’s question about whether any mail sorting machines in Durham county were removed. 

Will Trump’s attacks on the Postal Service hurt his own party? 

House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy is worried about that, according to Axios. McCarthy is privately encouraging voting by mail and warned Trump recently that their party could be “screwed” by his bluster against mail-in voting.

“We could lose based on that,” McCarthy (R-Calif.) told Alayna Treene, an Axios White House reporter.

McCarthy said the party can’t afford for Republicans to sit home, afraid of getting COVID-19, while Democrats flood the field with mail-in ballots.

“I tried to show him…you know who is most afraid of COVID? Seniors. And if they’re not going to go vote, period, we’re screwed,” McCarthy said.

Indeed, as Trump rails against the Postal Service, his campaign and other Republican candidates are quietly encouraging supporters to vote by mail. 

WRAL reported that the North Carolina Republican Party sent out ballot request forms to selected voters in July, along with an edited tweet by President Trump. 

The original tweet said, “…Absentee ballots are fine because you have to go through a precise process to get your vote privilege. Not so with Mail-Ins. Rigged Election!!! 20% Fraudulent Ballots?” 

The party highlighted the first half of the president’s tweet that praised absentee ballots in yellow, and blurred the last three sentences that disparaged mail-in ballots. 

While the Republican Party mops up after Trump, Democrats have been pushing their base loud and clear to vote by mail. And the results are paying off. 

State Board of Elections data shows that 53% of absentee ballot requests so far this year came from registered Democrats, compared with 15% from Republicans, according to WRAL

It’s hard to predict the impact of the mixed messages about mail-in voting. 

McCorkle said that misinformation and Trump’s comments surrounding mail-in voting may fire up some to vote, but the less politically engaged may shy away. 

“In between COVID-19 and what President Trump is saying, some people might not vote,” he said.  

Trump’s comments could indeed hurt his own party. FiveThirtyEight reported there is no historical evidence that mail-in voting gives one party an advantage, although this year could be different. 

What are the pros and cons of voting by mail? 

Pros: You don’t have to leave your home and worry about any interaction with someone who might have the coronavirus. No standing in lines, either. 

Cons: Voters make mistakes. Thirty percent of mail-in ballots in Durham County have historically not been counted because they don’t meet necessary guidelines, said Gunther Peck, Duke history professor and voting rights activist. 

“There have been problems with mail-in ballots because if people don’t cross every T then the ballots get thrown out,” Peck said. 

Peck said that recent changes to the state mail-in voting process, promoted by the advocacy group Democracy North Carolina, may reduce the rate of rejected ballots. 

Voters will be contacted if their mail-in ballots do not meet the criteria and then asked to resubmit their votes. The county office will call, email or send a letter to the voter, depending on the number of days until Election Day on Nov. 3. 

Another change is that local boards of elections have begun processing absentee ballots five weeks ahead of Election Day, Peck said, allowing ample time for voters to fix ballot mistakes. 

The best advice: Send in your ballot as soon as possible.

I received an official-looking mailing from the Center for Voter Information with an application for an absentee ballot. What is that about? 

The Center for Voter Information is a Washington D.C.-based organization that aims to increase voter turnout. It is a partner organization to the Voter Participation Center, which is particularly dedicated to increasing voter registration among young people, people of color and unmarried women. 

Page Gardner, founder of Center of Voter Information, told ABC-11 that the organization has mailed 1.8 million absentee voter request forms this year in North Carolina alone. 

Garder said many people want to vote by mail but don’t know how, and that’s where her organization steps in. 

“We’re doing a very robust voter registration in North Carolina,” Garder said. “We’re exceeding our original goals and we’re seeing an enormous response to our vote by mail application.” 

However, Circosta said that the third-party mailings are confusing some voters, who don’t know why they received the forms and where they came from. 

The state board of elections, concerned that the mailings can confuse voters, has told groups it will review them to ensure they comply with state and federal laws and don’t do more harm than good.  

“These efforts typically are legal, but they can be confusing or frustrating for voters and erode confidence in elections, especially when they are unsolicited,” states an Aug. 6 press release by the State Board of Elections. 

At top, photo of Durham elections office by Henry Haggert | The 9th Street Journal

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

Overseeing a statewide election in a pandemic gives Damon Circosta plenty of things to fret about. But when the chair of the North Carolina Board of Elections lies awake at night, his biggest worry is the poll workers.

The state needs to accommodate over 7 million registered voters so they can cast their ballots for president, U.S. Congress, governor, and other statewide offices on Nov. 3. That takes about 25,000 workers. But finding them may be difficult this year, since poll workers are typically senior citizens who now face the risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

The state needs more poll workers than usual, too. In addition to their normal tasks of greeting voters and handing out ballots, they will be expected to enforce social distancing, wipe down ballot stands, and distribute masks and hand sanitizer.

Damon Circosta | State Board of Elections

Circosta, who was appointed to the board a year ago, describes himself as a “true zealot” of accessible elections. Ensuring that counties can staff their polls in November has become his top priority — and his greatest concern.

“Recruiting those people has always been a challenge,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do now.”

Fortunately, state elections officials “didn’t put all our eggs in one basket,” he said. Voters can choose to vote absentee by mail, head to the polls for early voting from Oct. 15-31, or cast their ballot on Election Day at one of 2,700 precincts. 

The state board of elections has helped recruit workers for all three methods of voting with its “Democracy Heroes” campaign — they’ve collected about 17,000 interest forms that way, said Circosta. But most of the burden of recruiting poll workers lies with the counties.

Durham is on track for a smooth election, said Director of Elections Derek Bowen. The county has already secured about 600 of the 800 volunteers it needs by Election Day, with over 100 applications pending. Plus, Durham has a program that will send government workers to staff the polls if necessary.

Circosta is optimistic that the rest of North Carolina will round up enough poll workers, too — “but we cannot let off the gas,” he said. He recommends that businesses let employees take a day off and college students be released from classes to work at the polls.

He isn’t concerned about health risks for workers. “Going to your polling place will be safer than going to your local Walgreens,” he said. But he knows some residents might be scared to vote in person.

“I’m worried that talking about the challenges COVID-19 creates will inadvertently tell people that (voting in person) isn’t what they should be doing,” he said. “Absolutely, we can make it safe. I just want people to show up.”

Others predict a high turnout despite the pandemic. Page Gardner, founder of the Voter Participation Center, said the advocacy group has seen “an enormous response” from voters, especially to its vote-by-mail application.

“There is a hunger to participate,” she said. “People want to help, and they want to vote.”

President Trump has stirred up questions about the election with false allegations about the prevalence of voter fraud, most recently targeting the validity of mail-in voting. Gardner said the president is “doing everything he can to keep people from voting.” He has even claimed there are plans to send law enforcement to monitor the polls, which critics say could be a form of voter intimidation.

But Circosta said state and federal law prohibit the mobilization of law enforcement for poll monitoring. “It’s not going to happen,” he said.

Yet the suggestion may put voters on edge. Durham routinely sends unarmed security officials to monitor polling sites to “help diffuse any situations that may arise,” said Bowen. The protocol was created to protect voters, but he recognizes that the presence of uniformed guards could make some voters feel threatened.

“We don’t want to have any form of voter intimidation,” he said. “So that’s a hard balance.”

Chatham County had an incident of voter intimidation in February, when pro-Confederate demonstrators reportedly hurled slurs and flew Trump and Confederate flags in front of an early voting site. Gardner said it’s up to election officials to prevent similar incidents this year.

“There are people trying to confuse, intimidate, and make the voting process seem chaotic,” she said. Election officials “need to guarantee that this will not be allowed.”

Circosta said he has “no tolerance” for citizens who harass fellow voters, but he anticipates counties will need additional guidance in responding to voter intimidation.

“If people do wish to engage in that behavior, I expect the full weight of the law will be used to thwart it,” he said. 

Circosta’s job comes with plenty of anxiety. But he said being the face of the North Carolina election feels “absolutely wonderful.”

He doesn’t know when or how the election will end, but he urges voters to be patient.

“By every account, this is going to be a close election,” he said. “But we’ll get it right.”