Winding through the intense green of the Uwharrie National Forest is a country road. At a gentle curve on state Highway 109, the speed limit drops from 55 to 45 mph, cars slow down slightly and a symbol of the American South flaps in the breeze.
"The first thing I noticed was the confederate flag, on top of the building," said Frances Hudson, who served as a poll worker this past spring at the volunteer fire department in Troy.
The flag's presence at a polling site in rural Montgomery County, about 50 miles south of Greensboro, has caused a local dispute, according to some residents and pollworkers.
A firehouse, a polling site and a flag
Troy is a town of less than 4,000 residents. Its Main Street is home to a Hometown Barbecue, Adam's Gun and Pawn Shop, and Pugh-Troy funeral home.
Eight miles outside of town, that confederate flag flies just below the stars and stripes, atop a firehouse – that doubles as a voting site. Hudson noticed it during the March primary and told a more experienced poll worker.
"I said 'I don't care what they do every other day of the year, but when we vote, that shouldn’t be there'," Hudson said. "I find it to be very intimidating. To me, it’s saying we really don't want you coming in here. It is a form of intimidation, any way you look at it. And you know in a sense – it kind of intimidated me."
From Cherokee to Currituck County, North Carolina voters will cast ballots at about 2,800 different polling locations this fall. Nondescript schools, churches, and municipal buildings are the backdrop as citizens select the next elected leaders.
The flag at the firehouse is a hybrid North Carolina confederate flag: closest to the flag poll is a yellow NC, and the dates the state was founded; to the left are bars and stars that cover two thirds of the flag.
Frances and other locals say the flag has flown here for as long as they can remember – a controversial mark of Dixie flying high. During the state’s second primary in June, the flag was again over the polling site. At that point Frances’ husband, Ray had had enough.
"Let's be honest here, the confederate flag by definition is an anti-American flag," Ray Hudson said. "It was raised in opposition to the United States – it has no place on a building that serves a public function and particularly not on a polling place."
Ray Hudson said what private property owners do is their own business. However, what makes this dispute tricky is that the firehouse actually is privately owned.
The current fire chief repeatedly declined WUNC's requests for interviews. The former chief did not respond to five messages seeking comment either. Attempts to speak with any volunteer firefighters who supports the flag were largely unsuccessful.
"I'd rather not, I mean it will just be a battle of words and it won't wind up good for either one of us," said Clinton Dwyer, a volunteer firefighter in Montgomery County.
Local complaints go to board of elections
After the June primary, officials in Raleigh explained that no current election statute prohibits the display of the flag. They also expressed deep regret that voters are made to feel the sting of that symbol when exercising their right to vote, according to correspondence between Montgomery County and the state obtained by WUNC.
But despite that sting, it is legal for the flag to fly, according to UNC Law professor Bill Marshall.
"There is nothing illegal about a governmental entity doing that. There is a private right of expression if people want to put a confederate flag up there," Marshall said. "It's politically problematic, obviously. As you may recall, South Carolina had the flag up there at its own state capitol and that wasn't unconstitutional in itself."
But the intersection of public money and private speech is complicated, at least to some. Tension over the firehouse goes back decades.
Former County Commissioner Ralph Bostic, who now heads the local chapter of the NAACP, opposed the flag when he served as commissioner.
"They put a truck in there, that's why I raised so much hell about it," Bostic said. "We had a $270,000 truck under that Confederate flag and that's everybody's money."
Today, the firehouse has four trucks; the most recent of which came within the last year – a $320,000 vehicle, according to a county finance employee. That new shiny engine is so big that the three door firehouse needed an addition. And according to a government employee, the volunteer organization took out a loan to pay for that construction, and has since asked Montgomery County to help pay back the debt. No official action has yet been taken.
Meanwhile, since the June primary, local election officials asked the volunteer firefighter organization to take down the flag for the election this fall. They refused. So the county pursued a second polling location at the Uwharrie Community Building. That didn’t work out either.
Clinton Dwyer, the volunteer firefighter who also handles scheduling for that building, said the polling location should remain in the firehouse, according to county officials.
Finally, last week, the Republican-led local board of elections voted unanimously to move the polling site to the Eldorado Precinct. The state board approved the plan this week -- and there is no symbol of the confederacy overhead.