Early voting has begun in North Carolina, and Haywood County replied with tremendous enthusiasm.

By the time the polls closed on Oct. 15, the first day of early voting, 2,282 ballots had been cast at polling places in Haywood County. Nearly 230,000 ballots were cast across the state compared to 166,000 at the same time in 2016. In addition, about 553,000 mail-in ballots have been accepted in North Carolina.

“The State Board is glad to see North Carolina voters taking advantage of the different options to cast a ballot,” Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the State Board of Elections, said in a press release. “The county boards of elections and election workers worked diligently to ensure a successful first day of early voting. We thank them for their heroic efforts.”

Of Thursday’s voters, in Haywood County 37% were Democrats, 36% were Republicans and 27% were unaffiliated.

Worth the wait

People began lining up outside the Waynesville early voting site at the Senior Resource Center off Russ Avenue around 6 a.m. Thursday. By the time the polls opened at 8 a.m., the line stretched all the way around the building.

First in line was Pam Davis, a former civics teacher.

“It’s important that we vote. It’s not only a right and a privilege, but it’s a duty,” she said.

Like many others in line, Davis had strong opinions about the Presidential election.

“It’s time we decide to come out from under this orange cloud,” she said.

Karen Hammett and Larry Diggs were next in line. Even though Diggs was wearing a mask, it was clear he was smiling.

“For me, it’s tradition,” he said. “I always come to vote early on the first day.”

Although people in line spanned the political spectrum, the atmosphere was generally friendly, and positive energy pervaded almost entirely. Victor Bono, who proudly sported a “Make America Great Again Hat,” arrived at 7 a.m.

“I wanted to get it out of the way early and make sure my vote doesn’t get caught up in the haze of all the last-minute voting,” he said.

Bono was clear that keeping President Trump in office was a top priority.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much vitriol and bias toward someone, and he’s even working for free,” he said.

Kaleb Wingate and his mother, Pam Taylor, were out before the doors opened. Wingate, who is running for District Court Judge, was the only candidate for any office out that early at the Senior Resource Center.

“It’s great to see the turnout this morning,” he said. “There are several hundred people out here, and it’s great to see them all coming to vote early.”

Near the back of the line was Ann Grose, 83, who came to the Senior Resource Center with her son, J.C. She said she was happy to wait.

“Nobody likes to stand in line, but it’s a real privilege,” she said. “A lot of people died so we could stand here.”

Jesse and Marga Fripp handed out Democratic voting guides for much of the day at the Clyde Town Hall early voting site. Jesse Fripp said the flow of people was “nonstop and constant.”

“There’s been a lot of enthusiasm … it’s incredibly encouraging to see the positivity and enthusiasm of the people participating,” Marga Fripp added.

Michael Careccia, campaign manager for Alan Jones, Democratic candidate for the NC 118 house district, was at the Canton Library.

“We’re happy with the turnout,” he said. “If anything, 2020 has energized people enough to come out. The Alan Jones campaign hopes everyone in Haywood will come out and vote.”

Haywood County Board of Elections Director Robbie Inman said the line in Waynesville was the longest he’d ever seen.

“Some of it has to do with how far apart we were standing,” he said. “But what I really go by is asking people approximately how long they were standing in line. There was one couple that was a little bitter that said they’d waited an hour.”

As the day went on, the stream of voters ebbed and flowed, but Inman said by 6 p.m., there wasn’t a line at all.

Chris Cooper, who heads up Western Carolina University’s Political Science Department, said he believes 2020 will bring overall record turnout, especially considering the staggering number of absentee ballots already processed.

Of the 4,117 accepted in Haywood, 56% are from Democrats, 27% from unaffiliated voters and just 16% from Republicans. Cooper said those numbers are the opposite of what is normally seen.

“2016, the largest group of absentee by mail voters was Republican, and in 2020 it’s Democrats by a mile,” he said. “To me the most interesting thing is just the fact that absentee by mail is so far up and the partisan trend is reversed.”

Cooper said the other interesting trend is simply the enthusiasm surrounding this election.

“No one can question the effect of politics on their lives anymore,” Cooper said. “Whether it’s positive or negative, the last four years has reminded Americans that politics matter. Sometimes it’s pro-Trump, sometimes anti-Trump, but he has mobilized and galvanized in a way that other politicians have not.”

Intimidation fears

While the overall spirit at the polls was overwhelmingly positive, there was one concerning incident at about 8:15 a.m. at the Senior Resource Center. As Richard Suhre stood outside the buffer handing out Republican voting guides while wearing large signs showing his support of Trump, a woman in an SUV drove by yelling at him, and even swerved toward him in a threatening manner.

Although she wouldn’t give her name, she said she was frustrated after seeing Suhre so often during prior elections and claimed he’d been antagonistic in the past.

“He drives me crazy,” she said.

Inman said he didn’t personally deal with any incidents of intimidation or improper electioneering and that he didn’t hear about that encounter but he did field a few complaints.

The state board of elections had anticipated that voter intimidation could become a concern and put out a memo on Oct. 9 that highlights the importance of enforcing the 50-foot buffer zones at polls, inside of which electioneering is prohibited. The memo also cites state law, which says “anyone who intimidates, threaten, coerces” another voter, or attempts to do so, can be fined or imprisoned.

In the event that a chief judge or one-stop manager is unable to ensure voters can safely reach the polls without obstruction, they are to call either the county board of elections or law enforcement.

“Contact local law enforcement as soon as a situation begins to escalate beyond the ability of election officials to respond and control the situation,” the memo reads. “It is appropriate to contact law enforcement any time there is a reasonable concern for individuals’ safety or election officials believe the situation may be likely to get out of control.”

While law enforcement is not allowed to be stationed at any polling place, officers or deputies may drive by occasionally in the event heightened security is needed. Haywood County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Jeff Haynes said they will follow all state laws.

“It’s pretty clear and spelled out what our responsibilities are if needed,” he said of the state directive. “Unless needed, we do not man any polls or anything such as that because that’s not the acceptable way of doing business.”

Haynes said that while many voting precincts on Election Day are in the Sheriff’s jurisdiction, all early voting sites are in municipalities, meaning local police are responsible.

Haynes, who in the past served as a chief judge for many elections, said that if law enforcement is called to a polling place, they won’t treat it any different than any other call for service.

“We’ll respond to anything as it happens, just like normal,” he said. “If it’s an actively engaged situation, our response will be more vigorous just as it would be in a domestic or robbery in progress.”

While Haynes made it clear he in no way spoke for the board of elections or any current chief judges, he did recall some of his prior experiences in that role.

“I’ve encountered things like this throughout my career, not in law enforcement, but from the chief judge side where people would be volleying back and forth … I’ve also had people that come to the site who were restricted based on prior felony convictions, and we asked them to leave. Everyone I’ve dealt with has been compliant.”

Staying prepared

Part of ensuring a fair and safe election under any circumstances is considering a few worst-case scenarios. Last Monday, 18 people in various leadership roles across the country gathered for a table top discussion on potential issues.

Haywood County Emergency Services Manager Greg Shuping said participants got the idea for the exercise from some regional neighbors.

“My counterpart in Buncombe County and the city of Asheville mentioned the other day they were doing a tabletop exercise for different situation, and we followed suit to do one for ourselves,” he said.

Such guidance was also provided in the board of elections memo.

“Each county board of elections is encouraged to meet with local law enforcement, including the sheriff’s department and municipal police, to alert them of upcoming election dates, election laws related to voting places, and to share any information about possible threats or gatherings,” the memo reads. “If a voting site and county board cannot control a situation at the polls, partnerships and information sharing with local law enforcement are important to ensuring a swift and appropriate response.”

Shuping said that tabletop discussions such as that typically require dozens of people to gather in one room, but in this case, it was 16 socially-distanced people, along with Waynesville Police Chief David Adams and Waynesville Fire Chief Joey Webb being patched in via Zoom.

“The room couldn’t hold any more than that,” Shuping said.

During that tabletop exercise, multiple situations were discussed, including civil unrest, long-term power failure and a cyber-attack. Haywood County EMS Operation Officer Zach Koontz created the five scenarios.

“Koontz is the hero,” Shuping said. “Everybody else is the boss of this and the boss of that but Koontz is the one that gets the job done. He made the scenarios and contacted everyone and made sure they were coming, and he made sure we had food.”

Shuping said everyone who took part in the tabletop had valuable input, which he said is in contrast to so many meetings that seem to reach no constructive end.

“We’ve all been to those meetings, and that wasn’t the case here,” he said.

Inman discussed preparations to prevent cyber-attacks.

“There’s a couple of other very important, unique security layers to our system to address this,” he said, adding that he believes it’s sophisticated enough to stop any attacks.

Inman said county boards of elections have worked with local, state and federal partners — in particular the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) — to ensure their systems are as impenetrable as possible.

In the event one should occur, the county’s IT department would take immediate actions in conjunction with the state board of elections.

“Nobody wants that dark day to ever come, but [the IT department] would be heavily involved,” Inman said. “Each and every county reports to the state board, which automatically implements measures to lock down and verify what is happening.”

Shuping said such preparedness is the key to success during any incident.

“You have to be prepared and the more prepared we are, the less excited we are when things do happen, and the more we can take care of our citizens like we have to,” he said.

Shuping said preparedness doesn’t only apply to first responders and county leaders. It also boils down to each individual.

“I think the citizen has the biggest role in this,” he said. “We’re reacting to their preparedness.”

“Maybe you might get sick on Nov. 3 and not be able to vote,” he added. “Well, what was your plan before that? Now is the time to think of early voting or absentee voting. You are responsible for your preparedness.”

Shuping also said local leaders welcome input from citizens since so often they can bring up issues that leaders may not have even considered.

“We always want their input,” he said. “We are not sitting in some vacuum making decisions that affect their lives without their input. If they read this article and think ‘it’d be nice if they did this or that,’ please reach out to election officials or the Sheriff’s office and inquire and offer your input.”

Voting in the time of COVID

Haywood County Public Health Director Patrick Johnson and Medical Director Mark Jaben were both at the table-top discussion to address concerns regarding the pandemic.

“I thought it was really helpful,” Jaben said. “In the sense of having all the parties in the room and in the sense of thinking what possibilities there were and then how are we going to share with the public how we’re dealing with them so people know what to expect.”

The Oct. 9 memo also addressed COVID-19 concerns. It notes that although face coverings are “strongly encouraged,” voters can’t be turned away for not wearing them.

“When we get inside of the election facility, everybody is asked to wear a mask,” Johnson said. “Masks will be provided if you don’t have one. But of course some people will refuse.”

“We talked about what do you do with the person who’s coughing hacking refuses to wear a mask and wants to vote. They need to vote and they should vote,” Jaben said. “Being a public health risk doesn’t preclude your right to vote.”

In addition, voters won’t be required to have their temperature taken.

Inman said most people were cooperative regarding COVID-19 precautions, although some refused to follow the recommendations.

“I want everybody to be healthy,” Inman said. “And I would ask for their patience and understanding if they’re faced with a line that’s longer than they experienced in years past.”

While only one of the scenarios at the table top focused specifically on COVID-19, it was still a topic of discussion throughout the rest of the exercise. For example, when talking about civil unrest and voter intimidation, the spread of the virus during face-to-face altercations was a concern.

Jaben said one of the first things addressed was minimizing close contact at voting sites. Johnson said he believes the potential for spread of the virus in polling locations is minimal.

“Voting booths are 6 feet apart, and there shouldn’t be 15 minutes of contact between people,” he said, adding that the 50-foot buffer also helps minimize close contact.

Jaben said the response to a cluster emerging from a polling place won’t be different than anywhere else, although he did admit contact tracing would be difficult in that instance. Because it takes upward of three weeks for a cluster to be identified, should one emerge from early voting, it likely wouldn’t even be known until near Election Day or beyond.

“I think what we anticipate is an increase in cases, but to tie it to voting is hard,” he said. “Contact tracing is tricky.”

Jaben noted that while he thinks the board of elections has been diligent and has left no stone unturned, sometimes that simply isn’t enough when it comes to such a transmissible virus.

“You can put the best play and practice in place, and it can work well, or it can go to custard,” he said. “That’s the nature of the uncertainty of all this.”

Jaben said that ultimately the best way to mitigate the spread of the virus at the polls is to do the right thing at home, at work and in public. Johnson and Jaben both said everyone agreed on the importance of ensuring the line is entirely outside and added that masks are still paramount, especially while exercising such a fundamental Constitutional right.

“Voting is not a threat at all, but people need to wear their masks,” he said.

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