By Hadiya Presswood, Howard University News Service
When prospective voters arrive at a polling place, they typically expect to see long lines and energetic campaigners with signs and flyers encouraging people to vote for their candidate. At Mallard Creek Elementary School in Charlotte, North Carolina, voters were greeted instead by lone campaign signs and “X”’s taped six feet apart on the ground.
It appears that many North Carolinians have taken advantage of early voting. According to the State Board of Elections, more than 3.6 million North Carolinians have already voted early or by mail as of October 28, which is about 49.6 percent of all registered voters.
In North Carolina, the early voting period began October 14 and concluded October 31.
The number of ballots cast and early voting turnout has increased since the last three elections, and given that we are at the intersection of a polarizing election and a pandemic, it’s possible that this trend could continue.
Cathie Clarkson, the Republican judge for precinct 128 where Mallard Creek is located, remarked that day-of turnout has been remarkably low, both from voters and campaigners.
“During a normal presidential election the line would be wrapped around the building three times, but in Mecklenburg County in particular, and in the state, nationwide, early voting has been through the roof. I’m just assuming it doesn’t feel like they need to be here today,” she said.
Clarkson’s job is to ensure smooth voting operations at the precinct, and this is her first year working as a judge for the Board of Elections. She spent previous years volunteering on campaigns for other candidates and being one of the people you would encounter at the polls.
“Today they [campaigners] expected the turnout to be so low because everyone’s pretty much thinking that everyone’s already voted,” she continued.
This particular polling place has been open since 6:30 a.m. and by 9:30 a.m., there were only 76 Election Day voters.
The two sole campaign volunteers present at Mallard Creek Elementary were Reuben Griffin Jr., volunteering on behalf of the city bonds’ vote, and Adam Pasiak, Vice-Chair of the North Mecklenburg Democrats, volunteering on behalf of the Democratic candidates of local and state elections.
The bonds that Griffin was encouraging people to vote for included measures related to affordable housing, neighborhood improvement, and transportation.
“Good morning,” he called out as someone passed. “Don’t forget to vote yes to the city bonds.”
Griffin explained that this was his first time volunteering on behalf of the city; he usually doesn’t participate because the “pie ain’t always cut evenly” when it comes to monetary disbursements and where the city’s interests lie for targeted areas of growth. He cited growing up on Beatties Ford Road, bearing witness to gentrification across the city, and the current rising rate of homelessness in Charlotte as motivating factors for him to get involved and encourage others to vote yes for the bonds.
He worked on the Biden campaign this summer and previously worked on the Obama campaign. One major difference between those experiences was that there was a big technological push to connect to voters; Biden’s campaign outreach focused more on phone banking and texting. Given the extent of increased social distancing due to COVID-19, it was not surprising to Griffin that traditional canvassing had taken a backseat and voter turnout on Election Day was low.
Pasiak and the North Mecklenburg Democrats are supporting candidates in races including County Commissioner, the Senate, House of Representatives and Soil and Water Conservation. He’s prepared with a stack of flyers in blue type and a shirt reading “Elaine Powell for County Commission.”
“People already kind of knew who they wanted to vote for … in the early voting process we went through about 40,000 of our blue ballots that has all of the Democratic candidates on the slate, which is good because that means people are unsure of the entire slate or they just want to make sure they get it right,” says Pasiak.
The North Mecklenburg Democrats’ volunteers are spending the day stationed throughout the area passing out blue ballots in final efforts to encourage people to vote for the candidates they are supporting.
“As far as questions and people asking questions at the last minute to make up their mind, we haven’t seen too much of that … The biggest thing is getting people out of their houses especially in this environment with COVID … For us the focus was really to spend most of our energy getting people out, so doing field campaigns, canvassing, door-knocking, phone calls.”
A “normal presidential election” that Clarkson alluded to roughly translates to one not affected by a months-long pandemic. The now-common health and safety precautions were taken: marking distances, having one designated entrance and exit, providing hand sanitizer and masks for voters without any, and having every workstation outfitted with a clear barrier.
Curbside voting became an option for those with a certifiable medical reason that renders them unable or unsafe to go inside. In this instance, a poll volunteer determines how many people in the car need a ballot, and they bring the voters an affidavit, their ballot, and the “I Voted” pen in succession.
COVID-19 has affected how voter turnout looks on the day of. The numbers are relatively low, but it was still early in the day, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg has more than 200 polling locations.
“Look to see if the turnout is different [between a Democratic-leaning and Republican-leaning precinct]. They were saying that was going to be the case, I don’t know if in Charlotte it’s going to be different. Everybody was so worried about unrest, I think a lot of people were just worried that it wasn’t going to be safe to vote,” said Clarkson.
By the end of the day, the final count will include mailed-in ballots, early voting ballots, and day-of ballots. The totals will be somewhat accurate, keeping in mind that voters can still have their ballots counted as long as they were postmarked by November 3, even if they are received after today.