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Election season is here, and candidates want your vote. Do signs matter?

Clusters of campaign signs across Durham vie for people’s attention. Some display slogans or a picture of the candidate, but all were designed to capitalize on the split second of attention they receive from voters.

Mayoral candidate Elaine O’Neal’s signs are the simplest, with a light blue background and “O’NEAL” in large white letters. Javiera Caballero, who suspended her mayoral campaign on Oct. 11, hired a local designer to create her signs based on input from her supporters. They say “VAMOS BULL CITY-JAVIERA FOR MAYOR” in white lettering with a purple background. (Caballero’s campaign materials always have a purple theme). 

Ward III City Council candidate AJ Williams’s signs are decorated with several colors, slogans such as “Honor the Legacy”, and a photo of himself. They differ from the other simpler signs. From the start of his campaign, he saw yard signs as key investments. “Yard signs are a way to really maximize your ability to be seen across the city, even if you can’t knock every door, or make every phone call,” Williams said. “Durham is a city of over 300,000 people and the truth of the matter is, you’re not going to be able to contact all 300,000.”

Williams believes his nearly $5,000 investment in signs paid off in significant ways. People recognize him from his signs, even when he wears a mask. The vibrant graphic, combined with the image of his face, was intended to stand out. “I’m glad we made the decision to really do something different,” Williams said.

Durham voter Jimmy Lamont wishes more signs had photos of the candidates. He voted in the primary because his son knows one of the mayoral candidates. He’s unfamiliar with many of the other candidates, but he thinks adding pictures to campaign signs would help. “I don’t know none of these people,” Lamont said, gesturing toward the signs.

In the book “Winning Elections: Political Campaign Management, Strategy, and Tactics,” Becky West of Campaigns & Elections advised candidates to use simple yard signs and logos that emphasize their names. She added that signs should include minimal colors and bold lettering so that voters can see the candidate’s name. “Plan for simplicity,” she wrote. “An effective logo needs only the candidate’s name, the office sought, and possibly a simple graphic symbol.”

Signs may not be the decisive factor in a campaign, but they have a measurable impact. One study found that signs “had an estimated effect of 2.5 percentage points.”

Zach Finley, Javiera Caballero’s campaign manager, explained that campaigns try to place signs in strategic locations to “get the most bang for your buck.” Areas like intersections have high traffic rates, making them optimal locations for signs. He added that engaged supporters “really enjoy” putting signs up in their yards.

The cost per sign depends on various factors, but usually hovers around $2-$2.50. Finley said that Caballero’s campaign signs were more expensive than average due to their unique colors and material. Her campaign spent $2,433 on yard signs. O’Neal’s campaign spent $4,239.

Many Durhamites say that while signs boost visibility, candidates should prioritize engaging with constituents in more meaningful ways. “I had a hundred and something signs,” said Jan Oartie, who previously ran for Durham Soil and Water Conservation District supervisor. “But it’s more about me going out to meet people. I’d go to a farmers market and give out water. I’d be downtown when they had events.”

Charlitta Burruss, who lost her bid for Durham mayor in the recent primary, sees signs as expensive and unnecessary. She believes that candidates waste money on signs without showing voters that they’re willing to tackle important issues. “When I say ‘know’, I mean not just your name,” Burruss said. “I mean know who you are …  What is your agenda — your real agenda?”

Instead of spending money on signs, Burruss’s campaign strategy centered on news coverage and word-of-mouth. She relied on being a familiar face in Durham after years of working and volunteering in the city. “I feel like I market myself in many different ways,” Burruss said.

Signs may be a crucial tool for candidates lacking name recognition, but some believe that voters should get to know a candidate in other ways, too. Geneva Ennett, a Durham judge, said that candidates should have several years of experience working in the community so that voters are familiar with their names and what they plan to do in office. Still, “[signs] do make a difference,” she said. “They really do. They trigger people’s memories.”

John Weisman, who voted in the primary election at the Durham County Library, is not swayed by signs. Weisman prefers to read profiles, newspapers, and questionnaires and attend candidate forums. However, he does notice when opposing candidates have more signs around the city than his preferred candidate. “It’s more of an observation than a worry,” Weisman said. “There are segments of the voting population who are influenced by different things, so you need multiple strategies.”

Weisman can’t put up his own signs because he lives in a condominium. However, his friends display them in their front yards to show solidarity and boost their preferred candidates’ visibility.

 Still, Durham voters ultimately support candidates who are integrated in the community, understand their struggles, and strive for solutions. “Everyone gets these signs,” Oartie said. “But are you out there in the community?”

***

For more information on when and how to vote in the 2021 Durham city elections, check out our article on important dates and voting rules

The 9th Street Journal will continue to cover the city elections. Check in with us for more candidates profiles, campaign coverage and other important updates. You can submit questions and news tips to our staff by emailing jacob.sheridan@duke.edu or julianna.rennie@duke.edu.

At top: Signs promoting Durham mayoral candidates are popping up around Durham. 9th Street photo by Josie Vonk.

Meet the seven candidates running for Durham mayor, including Bree Davis, Daryl Quick, and Jahnmaud Lane

By Julianna Rennie and Jake Sheridan

There’s one week left for Durham voters to cast their ballots before the primary election on Oct. 5. The outcome will determine the two finalists in each of the four City Council races. 

There are seven candidates vying for the mayor’s seat. Durham’s current mayor, Steve Schewel, is not seeking reelection. 

The 9th Street Journal recently profiled some of the candidates. Check out our stories on City Council member Javiera Caballero, former judge Elaine O’Neal, housing advocate Charlitta Burruss, and youth minister Rebecca Harvard Barnes

Here’s what you need to know about the remaining three candidates: Bree Davis, Daryl Quick and Jahnmaud Lane.

Bree Davis

Born in sunny South Florida, Bree Davis comes from a family of changemakers. Her father worked as a Baptist minister and coordinated outreach for Haitian and Cuban refugees. 

“This is kind of my legacy,” she told the 9th Street Journal.  

After moving to Durham 12 years ago, Davis experienced houselessness, food insecurity, and underemployment. As a single mom and bisexual Black woman, Davis says she knows what it feels like to fall through the cracks.

If elected, Davis promises to make sure that all Durham residents benefit from the city’s recent economic boom. 

“The goal has been achieved, but now we have to pick up the folks that have been left behind,” she said.

Her other policy priorities include affordable housing and community safety. In her INDY Week candidate questionnaire, Davis wrote that she would fully fund the Durham Police Department while exploring alternatives to policing through Durham’s new Community Safety Department. 

Davis currently works as a research coordinator for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She started her own social media consulting company, Social Media Phobia Solutions, in 2011. She’s also a collage artist and filmmaker

Daryl Quick

Daryl Quick is pledging to “make a better Durham by getting back to the basics.”

Throughout the campaign, Quick has talked openly about his experiences growing up in public housing with family members who struggled with drug addiction. 

A native Durhamite, Quick hopes to inspire children experiencing poverty to dream of running for public office.

His platform addresses violent crime, social services, and infrastructure.

Quick promotes his campaign heavily on his Facebook page. In a Sept. 8 post, he wrote, “No more status quo! No more gentrification! No more low wage paying jobs! No more kids can’t play! No more walking past a homeless person downtown!”

Jahnmaud Lane

Jahnmaud Lane isn’t just a rare Durham Republican: He’s a highly followed conservative commentator. 

His Facebook page, “Mind of Jamal,” has over 300,000 followers. The clips regularly stretch over an hour. 

In his videos, the adamant Trump supporter pours over a range of far-right topics. He recently criticized coronavirus vaccines and workers’ unions, decried calls for national political unity, and urged his followers to “break out the Old Dixie” because “this union stuff aint working.” Lane often speaks in front of a Confederate flag. 

He streams videos on YouTube, too, but the apparently associated “MindofJamal” Twitter account has been suspended. 

Lane did not reply to a call requesting an interview. He described himself as a former “no-good, piece-of-trash drug dealer” in an interview with The News & Observer

The article noted that he was charged in 2001 with a misdemeanor for resisting arrest and assaulting an officer. Two years later, he spent over a year in a state corrections facility for assaulting and seriously injuring another person, the article added. 

In the News & Observer piece, Lane also acknowledged that he attended the Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol, though he said he didn’t enter the Capitol building. 

On Lane’s campaign website, his platform focuses on addressing a rise in violent crime. He would like to pay police officers more. His other policy ideas include building more affordable housing and more intensely inspecting public housing facilities for tenant damage.

***

For more information on when and how to vote in the 2021 Durham city elections, check out our article on important dates and voting rules

The 9th Street Journal will continue to cover the city elections. Check in with us for more candidates profiles, campaign coverage and other important updates. You can submit questions and news tips to our staff by emailing jacob.sheridan@duke.edu or julianna.rennie@duke.edu.

At top: Bree Davis is one of seven candidates running to be Durham’s next mayor. Photo provided by Bree Davis.

Burruss banks on ‘boots on the ground’ experience in her mayoral campaign

As mayoral candidate Charlitta Burruss showed us around her neighborhood, Edgemont Elms, she stopped at the road in front of her house and pointed to the ground where bullet shells had strewn the street the night before. 

“I picked up 15 shells from this parking lot,” said Burruss, shaking her head. 

Having served on the resident councils of several Durham Housing Authority communities – she previously lived in Calvert Place – Burruss is familiar with the gun violence and affordable housing crises facing the city. 

Through her campaign, Burruss hopes to encourage others from low-income neighborhoods to run for political office. She said people like her, who have relationships with residents of Durham’s often-overlooked communities, have an important perspective to share. 

“We don’t consider people who are actually boots on the ground, that are actually in the community and making a big impact,” Burruss told the 9th Street Journal. 

In June this year, after hearing gunfire every night from her home in Edgemont Elms, Burruss organized a community barbecue, inviting district police and local families to spend time together and build relationships. In addition to her resident council responsibilities, Burruss is a member of the Residential Advisory Board of DHA and chairperson for the Consumer Family Advisory Committee of Durham.

In 2018, she received a Neighborhood Spotlight Award for her community outreach effort in Durham, which included organizing food and toy donations and community events. 

This campaign marks Burruss’s fourth attempt at running for political office in North Carolina. She was a candidate for mayor of Monroe in 2007; town council in Marshville in 2011; and city council in Durham in 2019, receiving 1,258 votes. 

Born in Washington, D.C., in 1959, Burruss comes from a family of preachers. After working many different jobs to support her son, Burruss decided to pursue higher education in her late 40’s, receiving an associate’s degree in Human Services from South Piedmont Community College in 2004 and a Bachelor of Sciences in social work from Gardner-Webb University in 2006. 

Though she has never held a political office, Burruss is an experienced community leader; she said her roots in the community give her an advantage over other candidates. For example, Burruss has become frustrated by what sees as broken communication channels between DHA residents and local government officials. In her experience, the local government makes a dangerous presumption that all DHA residents have access to  computers and internet required to find information about affordable housing and employment opportunities.

“Durham officials don’t realize not everybody can afford internet access, and older people are not using computers,” said Burruss. 

Alternative methods of communication, such as electronic billboards and posters containing updates from the local government, could be a better way to reach those without internet access, she said. 

Patching the communication gaps between low-income residents and the Durham mayor’s office, Burruss said, is a vital prerequisite to addressing the issues she is most passionate about — crime, affordable housing, and employment. 

Addressing crime and poverty would be Burruss’s main priority as mayor. She believes investment in education and parental support in communities with high crime rates can help break this cycle. 

Burruss does not support defunding the police in Durham. Rather, she believes police officers should be retrained to better communicate with residents and those with mental health conditions. She also supports paying police officers more so they don’t leave to find work in counties offering higher salaries.

She says her experience as a liaison between local residents, police, and the Housing Authority positions her well to improve city relations as mayor. If elected, Burruss plans to spend time in Durham, speaking to people “on the ground” to inform her policy decisions. 

“If I were in the mayor’s chair, you’d be able to put your hands on me,” said Burruss. 

At the top: Mayoral candidate Charlitta Burruss serves on the resident council for her neighborhood, Edgemont Elms. 9th Street Journal photo by Josie Vonk.

Mayoral candidate Javiera Caballero envisions a Durham for all

Until a few months ago, Durham City Council member Javiera Caballero had no plans to run for mayor. She was in the middle of serving her four-year term on the council when Mayor Steve Schewel unexpectedly announced he would not be running for reelection. After years of public service, Caballero decided to take her leadership to the next level.  

“It created an opportunity and an open seat that I felt compelled to at least try for,” Caballero said of Schewel’s retirement. She’s motivated to continue the mission she began on the City Council to make Durham more inclusive, accessible, and sustainable. The city is on the cusp of unprecedented progress, she believes, and there’s important work to be done.

Durham’s most pressing challenge is still COVID-19, Caballero said. She and her fellow council members are working hard to vaccinate Durhamites and distribute resources to every neighborhood. 

Beyond the pandemic, Durham faces a web of interlocking issues that Caballero is determined to face head-on, from gun violence to affordable housing to the need for green infrastructure. 

Caballero moved from Chicago to Durham in 2010 with her husband and children. The city has transformed since then, but some of the biggest changes are still to come, including the implementation of a $95 million dollar affordable housing bond and the development of a new community safety department that offers alternatives to policing. 

Caballero worked on both these initiatives as a city council member and is determined to see them through. “It’s so important that the things we’ve passed actually get implemented effectively,” she said. “I want to ensure that the work I have helped to start continues at the kind of expansive level I know it can.”

Caballero’s vision for Durham revolves around community engagement and collaboration. Both are necessary to confront challenges like public safety and affordable housing access, she said. If elected mayor, she promises to prioritize transparency and communication.

“Our systems are designed to be opaque, but we can be intentional about including folks,” Caballero said. “Democracy doesn’t work if people don’t participate.”

Caballero’s ability to connect with all pockets of the Durham community is one of her greatest strengths, said Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson, who serves on the City Council with Caballero and has endorsed her in the mayoral race. “Javiera is able to reach out into communities that have been underserved and unheard in government for a long time,” Johnson said. “She really cares about everyone who lives here.”

Javiera Caballero became the Durham City Council’s first Latina member when she was appointed to fill a vacancy in Jan. 2018. 9th Street Journal photo by Josie Vonk.

Caballero, whose family moved from Chile to the United States when she was young, would be the first Latina mayor ever elected in North Carolina. That representation is important, especially in Durham, where Latinos make up nearly 14% of the population. On the City Council, Caballero has advocated for improved language access programs and legal aid for immigrants. 

Schewel, who endorsed Caballero for mayor last month, praised her deep knowledge of Durham and its people. “There’s no doubt at all that Javiera is deeply rooted in our community and knows the community inside and out,” he said. “She wants to make the city we love a city for all, and I think she knows exactly how to do that.”

Caballero has also been endorsed by the People’s Alliance, an influential Durham political action committee. Caballero is “policy centric and detail oriented,” the endorsement reads. Community organization Durham for All and the Durham Association of Educators have both endorsed Caballero as well. 

Both Schewel and Johnson describe Caballero as extremely hardworking and productive. She wants to get things done for Durham, they said, and that will remain true whether she’s elected mayor or not. 

If Caballero doesn’t win, she’ll continue to serve her current term on the City Council, which ends in 2023. She’s deeply invested in continuing the work she’s started, she said, and refuses to slow down. 

“Regardless of the outcome, there’s a lot to do,” Caballero said. “In either seat, I will keep on doing the work.”

***

For more information on when and how to vote in the 2021 Durham city elections, check out our article on important dates and voting rules

The 9th Street Journal will continue to cover the city elections. Check in with us for more candidates profiles, campaign coverage and other important updates. You can submit questions and news tips to our staff by emailing jacob.sheridan@duke.edu or julianna.rennie@duke.edu.

At the top: Mayoral candidate Javiera Caballero poses in her campaign t-shirt. 9th Street Journal photo by Josie Vonk. 

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

Despite the predictions of chaos and bureaucratic breakdowns on Election Day, which occasionally robbed Damon Circosta of a good night’s sleep, the chair of the North Carolina Board of Elections can finally rest easy. The state’s election went smoothly, with “remarkably few” difficulties — ”and that’s saying something,” he said.

“Every election has a number of these Election Day challenges that you have to work through,” he said. “It is notable that in the midst of a pandemic, where we had to make considerable adaptations, how few hiccups there were in the process.”

From the six polling places of 2,660 statewide that opened late, to the thousands of mail-in ballots that voters requested but never returned (as of Wednesday morning, around 92,300 absentee ballots remain outstanding), the election wasn’t without its share of problems. Yet county and state officials say they have tackled those challenges with ease, extending vote times at the precincts that saw delays and allowing mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day to be counted if they arrive by 5 p.m. Thursday.

Phil Lehman, chair of the Durham Board of Elections, says the board “didn’t have any real glitches” on Election Day. The county prepared for possible instances of voter intimidation by putting unarmed security guards at every precinct, but he says no harassment occurred.

“In fact, one of the complaints we got was from an observer who complained about someone in uniform in a patrol car, which was part of the security service. I thought, man, if this is what passes for voter intimidation in Durham, we’re doing very well,” he laughed. 

Both Lehman and Gerry Cohen, a member of the Wake County Board of Elections, agreed that mail-in voting provided the greatest challenge, largely due to changing requirements for witness information.

“It really didn’t get worked out until two weeks until the election, so we had to hold onto a number of ballots until then,” Cohen said. Still, because North Carolina law enabled counties to process absentee ballots weeks before they were counted on Nov. 3, the state reported 97% of its votes on election night.

Counties are now in the midst of the canvass, the final tally of votes that ends on Friday. During the canvass period, county election boards will meet to count any remaining absentee ballots postmarked by Election Day and review provisional ballots for voter eligibility. 

Durham has 1,277 provisional ballots yet to be reviewed, and 2,800 absentee ballots remain outstanding. The county is unlikely to receive all 2,800, however, because some voters who requested absentee ballots may have voted on Election Day or chosen not to vote at all. The county board of elections will meet Thursday and Friday to certify the remaining ballots.

After the state board reviews county results for final certification on Nov. 24, there could be a recount in the race for chief justice of the state Supreme Court. A 10,000-vote margin is required for the losing candidate to request a recount; as of Wednesday morning, Republican Paul Newby’s lead over Democrat Cheri Beasley had shrunk to just under 1,000 votes.

While Cohen anticipates the recount, he doubts North Carolina will see any further legal challenges.

“The margins are large in the national races, and there’s no evidence of any kind of fraud,” he said.

Until the counties send their results to the state board of elections, Circosta is standing back to “supervise and support.” 

“My job right now, after having built this funnel for democracy, is to let the funnel do its work over the next week,” he said.

Above, a voter fills out her ballot at the polling place at the Ruritan Club in Bahama. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal

A wad of towels and a spray bottle to keep voters safe

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.

An occasional series on the 2020 election in North Carolina.

“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

North Carolina likely to shatter voter turnout record

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

‘I voted’ pens are an odd souvenir of the pandemic

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.

They’re paid for by a $1 million grant from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a pro-democracy group funded by tech companies and foundations.

An occasional series on the 2020 election in North Carolina.

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.”

Durham voter David Lorimer shows off his free pen. Photo by Bella Caracta | The 9th Street Journal

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.”