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

The Biden campaign passed through Durham on wheels.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donald Trump Jr. wants YOU for his “army” against voter fraud

In a recent video for the Trump campaign, Donald Trump Jr. becomes a modern-day Uncle Sam, urging Americans to sign up for a new kind of war.

“We need every able-bodied man and woman to join Army For Trump’s election security operation,” he says.

The younger Trump’s video, posted on the Team Trump Facebook and Twitter pages on Sept. 21, follows the Trump campaign’s strategy to rile up Republican voters against the perceived threat of voter fraud. The president’s son claims that the “radical left” plans to cast “millions of fraudulent ballots that can cancel your vote and overturn the election.”

The solution: assemble the troops.

To “enlist today,” he tells supporters to visit defendyourballot.com, which links to a section of the Army For Trump website that encourages voters to join Trump’s Election Day team. The site says volunteers will primarily focus on get-out-the-vote efforts “to ensure any voters who did not vote early vote on Election Day,” and does not mention poll watching or voter fraud.

Experts say voter fraud is rare, including fraud in voting by mail. Both Facebook and Twitter have added disclaimers below the video from the president’s son that state voting by mail is secure, but neither site has removed the video under their misinformation policies.

No U.S. presidential candidate has ever mounted these types of attacks on the electoral process nor called for supporters to “enlist” against the opposing party, said Judith Kelley, dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy and an expert in global democracy. But, she said, “dictators do it all the time.”

“The use of terms like ‘army’ is by no means coincidental,” Kelley said. “Once you start using language that hints at the use of force, you are stoking the embers.”

Every party has the right to contest an election on the grounds of potential voter fraud, she said, but those objections should happen after the election, and be accompanied by documentation alleging specific instances of fraud. 

Trump’s accusations of mass voter fraud, lodged before the election and without documentation, are “a blatant attempt to undermine the credibility of the process and erode confidence in it,” she said. 

David Dixon, chair of the Durham Democratic Party, called the president’s campaign strategy “the most blatant form of voter suppression or voter intimidation possible.”

“You’ll have regular people taking the law into their own hands at polls across the country, scaring voters,” he said. “I think that’s really going to affect turnout.”

The Durham Republican Party did not respond to a request for comment.

Fifty-four percent of Durham voters are registered Democrats, compared with 11% of registered Republicans. As a blue county and a “monolith,” Dixon doubts Durham will see an instance of violent voter intimidation. But as the president and his campaign continue to use militaristic rhetoric, Dixon worries that Trump supporters in North Carolina’s more conservative counties will arrive at the polls armed. 

“Forty-five minutes north in Franklin or Vance County, there’s a possibility that folks may show up at the election site with guns or other weapons, thinking they’re doing exactly what the president told them to do,” he said.

On Sept. 19, a group of Trump supporters gathered outside of a polling site in Fairfax, Virginia, to wave “Make America Great Again” signs and chant “four more years.” The group did not directly harass voters but did form a line that voters had to walk around to enter the polling place. Several voters reported feeling intimidated. 

Dixon noted that the Trump campaign has chosen its words carefully, which provides deniability if there is any violence.

“It gives them wiggle room in case something does happen,” Dixon said.

Kelley and Dixon said Trump’s strategy to stir up fear and anger among Republican voters may signal his intentions to refuse to concede the election, an intention that the president himself has alluded to.

“His tactic is to create a situation that is so chaotic that he’ll be able to say, ‘We can’t accept the results of the election, because look at this mess,’” Kelley said.

The uncertainty of a pandemic election has given Trump plenty of opportunities to instill doubt in the electoral process, said Dixon, but voters will have to wait until November to see what sticks.

“He’s planting so many different seeds,” he said. “Once we get to November fourth, we’ll see what has been sown.”

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

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

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

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

The role of poll watchers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The prevalence of voter fraud

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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