Updated at 3:20 p.m.
Long lines formed at polling places across North Carolina on Thursday as the battleground state kicked off early in-person voting. Early voting locations that opened in all 100 counties of the high-stakes swing state quickly drew crowds. More than 500,000 people have already cast mail-in absentee ballots amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Our reporter @LSchlemmer_WUNC is in the field today visiting various polling sites to get an idea of what early voting looks like for NC voters.
Follow along with us. pic.twitter.com/xWBob4q33G
— WUNC (@wunc) October 15, 2020
A Durham County government tracking tool measured the average wait time as more than an hour across 14 polling places in the Democratic-leaning area. Several reported two- and three-hour waits.
Exemplifying the critical importance of this wave of voting, President Donald Trump plans to hold a rally Thursday afternoon in Greenville. Vice President Mike Pence will visit Selma on Friday.
Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris was supposed to visit Charlotte and Asheville on Thursday, but suspended her campaign events until Monday after two members of her team tested positive for COVID-19.
The early-vote option, which continues until Oct. 31, allows someone to vote at any voting center in their county of residence. People can also register to vote and cast a ballot at the same time during the early-vote period.
More than 60% of the total ballots cast during the 2016 presidential election in North Carolina were cast through early in-person voting, or nearly 3 million votes. That percentage is likely to drop in 2020 as more 500,000 absentee ballots have been turned in so far — 10 times more than had been cast by mail at this point in the 2016 election.
Mail-in ballots have been preferred by those at higher-risk for severe illness from the coronavirus and those who want to avoid long lines. These absentee ballots also can be dropped off at early-vote sites.
State and county election officials have been preparing for months for in-person voting, accumulating personal protective equipment for poll workers and voters. Voters are encouraged but not required to wear masks. In many locations, the “I Voted" stickers usually handed out will be replaced with single-use pens that voters can take home once they fill out their ballot.
Wake County Lake Lynn Community Center in NW Raleigh has over 400 people in line to early vote at 7:50 am. Polls open at 8 am. I’ve never seen this many in line here. #ncpol pic.twitter.com/dvpf4ll199
— Gerry Cohen (@gercohen) October 15, 2020
In Wake County, hand sanitizer will be available at all voting sites and polling booths will be disinfected after each person uses them. Officials will also be limiting the number of voters inside each location to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
Olivia McCall is the Deputy Director for the Wake County Board of Elections. She says voters are strongly encouraged to wear a mask.
“We will not deny any voter the right to vote because they choose to not wear a protective face mask,” McCall said. “However we will have those available if they do need one."
— Colin Campbell (@RaleighReporter) October 15, 2020
In addition to the presidential race, voters are choosing between Republican Sen. Thom Tillis and Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham and between Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican rival Dan Forest, the current lieutenant governor. All 13 U.S. House and 170 General Assembly seats are up for reelection, as are several other statewide elected positions on the Council of State and the appellate courts.
WUNC's Celeste Gracia and Mitch Northam contributed to this story.