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Otherwise Peaceful Early Voting Period Ends On Troubling Note

Voters line up at the Alamance County Annex Building, a polling site in Graham, NC. Saturday was the final day of North Carolina's early voting period.
Rusty Jacobs

The mood at an Alamance County polling site in Graham on Saturday was fairly festive. It was a mild and sunny Halloween. Volunteers at a table set up by Down Home North Carolina offered voters coffee, donuts and safety kits with gloves and masks.

The grassroots group advocates for working-class people in rural and small-town North Carolina, according to co-founder Brigid Flaherty.

Flaherty marked Halloween by dressing up as a whoopee cushion. She has been at the Graham polling location for the entire early voting period.

"We have had nothing but positive interactions with the voters and I have been very encouraged by that," Flaherty said.

Partisan divisions and inflammatory rhetoric from the White House have put elections officials here and around the country on heightened alert for voter intimidation. But North Carolina's 17-day early voting period that ended Saturday was for the most part marked by civility, at the polls at least.

At the early voting site in Graham on Saturday, Abert Casillas grabbed a free snack from the Down Home North Carolina table and was feeling good, having just cast his vote.

Credit Rusty Jacobs, WUNC.
Abert Casillas, 35, cast his ballot on the final day of early voting, in Graham, NC.

"Once I got here, the wait wasn't really bad," the 35-year-old truck driver said. "I thought it was going to way worse, especially with it being the last day, you know, but the wait was actually good, a lot of good people in line, you know, we were talking and it went by really, really fast."

Casillas said it felt good to do his civic duty.

"It feels like I'm fighting for something," he said.

Christine Ashley was also at the Graham site on Saturday, dressed in a bright yellow t-shirt with large black letters identifying her as a Vote Protector Volunteer.


Credit Rusty Jacobs, WUNC.
Christine Ashley, at the early voting site in downtown Graham, NC, on Saturday. Ashley's a member of the Alamance County NAACP, helping monitor polls.

Ashley is a member of the Alamance County chapter of the NAACP. She has been checking out two early voting sites, the Graham location and one in Burlington. Her biggest concerns have been clear signs to direct voters at the polls and safe distancing due to COVID-19, a particular problem at the Graham site.

"Definitely people are not maintaining a six-foot distance," Ashley said. "It looks like a lot of people are wearing masks and people seem to be quite evenly tempered here, which is great."

State law allows party-appointed observers to watch polls inside the voting enclosure but they may not campaign or interfere with voters or poll workers.

Poll watchers or monitors like Christine Ashley, along with campaigners, are allowed outside a buffer zone around polling sites but they do not have a legal status.

Violence, Unrest On Or After Election Day More Of A Worry

"It's really impossible in this case to overestimate the impact that President Trump's lies about widespread voter fraud have had on the far right," said Cassie Miller, a researcher with the Southern Poverty Law Center. The center recently held a media briefing on concerns about voter intimidation and suppression this year.

Miller said most of what militias and far-right groups have been saying on social media is hypothetical.

"It's a lot of groups talking about violent fantasies, about what they might do on Election Day or what might happen on Election Day. There are very few concrete plans, actually," she said during the SPLC briefing.

Miller said that, with the help of social media, far right groups can mobilize quickly and she's concerned about what could happen if the Trump campaign makes claims on or after Election Day of ballot fraud or counting irregularities.

It didn't help that, during the first presidential debate, President Donald Trump told far-right groups like the Proud Boys to: "Stand back and stand by."

Credit Rusty Jacobs, WUNC.
On Saturday, at the site of a Confederate monument in downtown Graham, demonstrators kneel during an eight minute-plus vigil to remember George Floyd, the Black man killed by a Minneapolis police officer in May. The demonstrators had planned to march to a nearby early voting site in downtown Graham, part of what was billed as a Legacy March to the Polls before police broke up the rally with pepper spray and arrests.

Back in Graham on Saturday what was billed as a "Legacy March to the Polls" came to a screeching halt when police dispersed a crowd of demonstrators using pepper spray.

After gathering around a Confederate monument to protest police brutality, a group of around 150 demonstrators had planned to march two blocks to the nearby early voting site.

But local law enforcement suddenly declared the permitted rally an unlawful assembly. At a news conference Sunday, Graham Police Lt. Daniel Sisk said the group was entitled to gather at the monument but not to block traffic by marching down the street to the polls.

"We never directly sprayed anyone in the face, it was all directed towards the ground in an effort to disperse the crowd," Sisk said.

Gov. Roy Cooper issued a statement late Saturday calling the incident "unacceptable" and said "voter intimidation in any form cannot be tolerated."

The group, led by Rev. Greg Drumwright, plans to march again on Election Day.

So a relatively peaceful early voting period in North Carolina came to a jarring end just before Election Day.

Rusty Jacobs is WUNC's Voting and Election Integrity Reporter.
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