Despite the predictions of chaos and bureaucratic breakdowns on Election Day, which occasionally robbed Damon Circosta of a good night’s sleep, the chair of the North Carolina Board of Elections can finally rest easy. The state’s election went smoothly, with “remarkably few” difficulties — ”and that’s saying something,” he said.
“Every election has a number of these Election Day challenges that you have to work through,” he said. “It is notable that in the midst of a pandemic, where we had to make considerable adaptations, how few hiccups there were in the process.”
From the six polling places of 2,660 statewide that opened late,to the thousands of mail-in ballots that voters requested but never returned (as of Wednesday morning, around 92,300 absentee ballots remain outstanding), the election wasn’t without its share of problems. Yet county and state officials say they have tackled those challenges with ease, extending vote times at the precincts that saw delays and allowing mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day to be counted if they arrive by 5 p.m. Thursday.
Phil Lehman, chair of the Durham Board of Elections, says the board “didn’t have any real glitches” on Election Day. The county prepared for possible instances of voter intimidation by putting unarmed security guards at every precinct, but he says no harassment occurred.
“In fact, one of the complaints we got was from an observer who complained about someone in uniform in a patrol car, which was part of the security service. I thought, man, if this is what passes for voter intimidation in Durham, we’re doing very well,” he laughed.
Both Lehman and Gerry Cohen, a member of the Wake County Board of Elections, agreed that mail-in voting provided the greatest challenge, largely due to changing requirements for witness information.
“It really didn’t get worked out until two weeks until the election, so we had to hold onto a number of ballots until then,” Cohen said. Still, because North Carolina law enabled counties to process absentee ballots weeks before they were counted on Nov. 3, the state reported 97% of its votes on election night.
Counties are now in the midst of the canvass, the final tally of votes that ends on Friday. During the canvass period, county election boards will meet to count any remaining absentee ballots postmarked by Election Day and review provisional ballots for voter eligibility.
Durham has 1,277 provisional ballots yet to be reviewed, and 2,800 absentee ballots remain outstanding. The county is unlikely to receive all 2,800, however, because some voters who requested absentee ballots may have voted on Election Day or chosen not to vote at all. The county board of elections will meet Thursday and Friday to certify the remaining ballots.
After the state board reviews county results for final certification on Nov. 24, there could be a recount in the race for chief justice of the state Supreme Court. A 10,000-vote margin is required for the losing candidate to request a recount; as of Wednesday morning, Republican Paul Newby’s lead over Democrat Cheri Beasley had shrunk to just under 1,000 votes.
While Cohen anticipates the recount, he doubts North Carolina will see any further legal challenges.
“The margins are large in the national races, and there’s no evidence of any kind of fraud,” he said.
Until the counties send their results to the state board of elections, Circosta is standing back to “supervise and support.”
“My job right now, after having built this funnel for democracy, is to let the funnel do its work over the next week,” he said.
Above, a voter fills out her ballot at the polling place at the Ruritan Club in Bahama. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal
Wearing a plastic face shield, a blue surgical mask, blue gloves and a white surgical gown that reaches down to her pink running shoes, Maria Quiros looks like many of the health workers battling the coronavirus in hospitals across the country.
But this is no hospital. It’s the early voting site at Duke’s Karsh Alumni and Visitors Center. And Quiros’s job isn’t to heal the sick — it’s to protect thousands of voters from the virus.
Her outfit is a reminder that the coronavirus pandemic has transformed voting, usually no more risky than visiting the county library, into an activity that is potentially life-threatening.
“It makes everything feel very surreal,” said Emma DeRose, a Duke senior and volunteer poll worker who helped wipe down the voting stations with disinfectant. “Obviously, we know a pandemic is going on. But I think Duke is kind of in a bubble in a way. We’ve had a pretty low case count, and it doesn’t really feel that present. And then I think you get to the polling center, and you’re seeing these people, including myself, just all decked out, and it’s like ‘woah.’”
Voting, like going to the grocery store or to school, has become a stroll through a minefield. And, since early voting started in North Carolina on Oct. 15, Quiros, DeRose and others have kept voters safe with a wad of paper towels and a spray bottle of disinfectant.
According to an Aug. 14 memo from the North Carolina State Board of Elections, workers at voting sites are required to perform “ongoing and routine environmental cleaning and disinfection of high-touch areas” with an EPA-approved disinfectant for COVID-19.
On a recent Friday, Quiros stood at the left side of the voting room in Karsh. She had her dark hair in a bun, and her eyes scanned the booths. As soon as a voter left a booth, Quiros scurried over and began cleaning.
She started by wiping the bottom of the polling booth. Next, she cleaned one side, and then the other, finishing with a horizontal swipe along the front edge.
While waiting, Quiros also directed voters to empty booths or helped them follow the blue arrows to the spot where they could scan their ballots — she’s both the cleanup crew and stage director.
It’s tedious work, but Quiros is staying positive. She’s confident that the polling place is safe for voters.
“Because we are taking care of them,” she said.
Quiros said she has been working 12 hours a day since Oct. 15. She has help. There are 10 to 15 poll workers during each shift, and these workers rotate between various positions, from ballot tabulator to sanitation worker, said DeRose, who was greeting people and handing out pens.
“I think just us being very thorough with the cleaning provides a sense of comfort,” DeRose said.
This Friday afternoon, Quiros was accompanied by Kate Young, 72, who had started her cleaning duty at 1:30 p.m.
“You get used to it,” she said, referring to the protective gear she was wearing. “This is what we have to do now.”
She has volunteered as a poll worker for four years, and she said this voting site is far better run than the one at the Devil’s Den in 2016.
“It was a madhouse,” she said, chuckling.
Uncertainty looms over this election, but Young isn’t worried. She prefers to focus on helping in small ways, a lesson she has learned from her years with the Peace Corps, End Hunger in Durham, and other activist work.
“You do what you can,” she said.
At top: Poll volunteer Emma DeRose wipes down a voting booth after a voter leaves. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street journal
Four years ago, the number of absentee and in-person early voting ballots cast in North Carolina crushed records. But those records didn’t stand a chance against this year’s stunning numbers.
Absentee ballots, which include mail-in and in-person early voting, have revealed the intense interest in the 2020 election. A surge of mail-in voting could be expected during a global pandemic, but the numbers suggest COVID-19 is not the sole reason behind the state’s record-shattering count.
The tally is so staggering that Damon Circosta, chair of the North Carolina Board of Elections, said he “absolutely believe[s] that this will be the largest turnout in the history of North Carolina.”
What the numbers tell us
With two days of early voting still to go, more than 4 million North Carolina voters have already cast their ballots. For perspective, 2.5 million people had voted at this point in 2016, and the early voting period ended with 3.1 million total ballots cast.
According to data from the State Board of Elections, more Democrats have voted (1,556,483) than Republicans (1,286,508) so far.
Democratic ballots account for 38.1% of total ballots cast, compared with 31.5% for Republicans. Unaffiliated voters account for another 29.9% of ballots cast.
There’s a larger discrepancy between parties when it comes to the number of absentee mail-in ballots requested. The deadline to ask for a mail-in ballot was Oct. 27, and requests from Democrats were over double the number of requests from Republicans.
Unaffiliated voters also requested more mail-in ballots than did Republicans – a little under twice as many. In total, only 287,552 Republican voters chose to request a mail-in ballot, making up 19% of all requests.
The most revealing aspect of this year’s vote is the amount of early voting that has been done in person.
Compared with 2016, nearly 1 million more voters cast their ballot at in-person early voting sites. This is often referred to as one-stop voting, because you can register and cast your ballot at the same time.
Even with the threat of the coronavirus, in-person early voters account for about 78% of all absentee ballots cast.
The massive jump in the number of mail-in ballots compared to 2016 – more than a sixfold increase, to 883,964 – can partly be explained by the pandemic. Voters who would normally head to the polls are now sending in their vote from a safe distance. But the overall growth of early voting suggests a bigger force at work.
Mac McCorkle, a Duke University public policy professor and longtime Democratic consultant, said the pandemic has actually opened up new avenues of voting, because mail-in ballots are now more widely accessible than ever before.
Strong feelings about the race are also likely playing a role, he said. There’s passionate voters on both sides, and that increases overall turnout. “The realistic view is that each side’s turnout enthusiasm magnifies and expands the other’s,” McCorkle said.
Circosta, chair of the North Carolina Board of Elections, said he also sees more energy and enthusiasm from voters. “This year, everybody is talking about [the election],” he said. “It’s not just in the media and not just on the news, it’s a topic of constant conversation.”
The influx of early voters is a relatively new phenomenon, Circosta said. The rhythms of election years have gradually changed as the state has allowed more early voting. The trend began in 2008, when North Carolina first established one-stop voting.
“There used to be an Election Day,” Circosta said, “and now Election Day is like the last call for voting.”
Election Day will still be busy, but Circosta says counting all the votes won’t be the problem. The state is well suited for the high numbers of early ballots it’s receiving this year.
“North Carolina is lucky to have laws in place that have let us begin the preparation for counting all of the absentee ballots, both for early voting and absentee vote by mail,” Circosta said. “I anticipate us being able to achieve that task quicker than most other states.”
Voters lined up on the first day of early voting – and kept coming. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal
When it was time to buy pens for the 2020 election, the North Carolina State Board of Elections went big: 6 million. Well, 5,909,820 to be exact. That’s enough to cover 520 miles and weigh more than six school buses.
The pens “minimize the potential spread of the coronavirus because the voter will be the only person to touch their own pen,” said Noah Grant, a spokesman for the board of elections. Also, they’re a souvenir of an election you’ll never forget.
Grant helped design the retractable, metallic “I voted in the 2020 election!” pens. But not all early voters got one because the big order arrived a few days late.
Archie Services in Greensboro, winner of the state’s bid for the cheapest pen, had just under a month to fulfill and deliver the pens to over 85 sites across the state.
Durham voter, David Lorimer, shows off his free pen that he says he’ll use in the future.
The day before early voting began, Brent Archie, owner of Archie Services, had to take matters into his own hands when he realized that some polling sites wouldn’t get the custom pens in time.
As large shipments of pens sat lost in a Chicago warehouse, he and his team desperately wiped their Charlotte warehouses clean of other types of pens. When that wasn’t enough, Archie drove to his Atlanta warehouses, covered over 1,200 miles in 18 hours, and personally helped deliver 180,000 backup pens the night before early voting began on Oct. 15.
“I really wanted everyone to have that pen the first day,” he said. Still, he was disappointed the first voters didn’t get the souvenir version.
“A Bic is a Bic, but it’s not our voting pen,” he said.
Sites eventually received the thicker, hourglass-shaped pens. But it’s hard to please everyone.
Durham voter Amady Barrie wished he had that black backup pen instead.
“Oddly enough, when I was writing with it, I was thinking, ‘How come every pen isn’t like a sleek Bic pen?’” said Barrie.
With only five days left until election day, 3 million North Carolinians have already voted in-person. That leaves about 3 million pens. Is that enough to cover the rest of early voting and Election Day? State officials believe it is. If not, the state board of elections is prepared to dip into federal funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, according to Grant. If a polling center runs out of pens, the site can request additional ones or change to the process of collecting and sanitizing pens for reuse.
At some locations, the pen replaces the popular “I voted” sticker. Many counties cannot afford the transmission-reducing sticker dispenser used in Durham, nor do they have the spare election workers to cut rolls of stickers into singles, said Grant.
Durham, however, is still giving stickers – a custom version that says “No bull, I voted.”
On Tuesday, voters left the early voting site at the Durham County Main Library with the sticker and pen.
Bianca Evans, a self-proclaimed “pen lady,” said she was excited to receive one and plans on using it “until it stops working.”
Others were not so enthusiastic.
“It’s just a pen,” said voter Donta Cash.
Grant views the pen in a larger context. “It’s a memento to how much our world has changed in 2020.”
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.
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
Absentee ballots dropped off on site that day
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.
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.
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:
The board reviews the number of provisional ballots cast and determines whether or not each registration was legitimate so the vote can count.
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.
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.
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.
Patrick Gannon, public information office for the North Carolina State Board of Elections
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.”
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 repeatedattacks 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
Assistance with data analysis was provided by Joel Luther of the Duke Reporters’ Lab; graphic by Henry Haggart of The 9th Street Journal
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.