Sharita Banks (left) and Andrea Lyon wait in line to vote at Brown Recreation Center in Greensboro. (photo by Jordan Green)

When he arrived at the polls to vote for the first time on Thursday, Ricardo Lopez-Salazar was on edge.

“On the way over here I was kind of nervous,” Lopez-Salazar, an 18-year old student at GTCC, told Triad City Beat

Soon enough, a Republican poll observer stared directly at him, just days after Donald Trump encouraged his supporters to show up early and often at polling places across America. 

Under North Carolina law, each party is allowed to have up to two observers in each polling place. Dianne Doughty, a Guilford County GOP volunteer, told TCB the poll observer has extensive training, is allowed to take notes, and may not speak to anyone except for the chief judge at the polling place.

And for Lopez-Salazar, at least, the first dance with democracy was a smooth one — even if the run-in was something he had to brace for.

“I was worried there might be a group of people in vehicles like in the movies, but nah, everybody seems kind of welcoming,” he said.

North Carolinians rushed to polling places on the first day of early voting in the state Thursday, braving fears not just of the resurgent coronavirus pandemic, but also a climate of potential disenfranchisement and intimidation to get a head start on a hotly-contested election.

Talisha Gray, a cook at a childcare center, waited for over an hour to vote at Brown Recreation Center in southeast Greensboro.

“One of the reasons I’m voting is for the 217,000 people who can’t do what I’m doing now,” she said, referring to the number of people who have died from COVID-19 in the United States since the pandemic began. 

The line from the polling place wound out the front door and around the perimeter of the parking lot at mid-morning, with cars backed up to the road waiting for parking spaces, and also parked on the shoulder of and alongside streets in the predominantly African-American subdivisions around the recreation center. 

Some voters brought lawn chairs, chatted with neighbors, and made new friends in the line.

Voters said they were not overly concerned about potential exposure to COVID-19, even as North Carolina set a new record of 1,152 virus-related hospitalizations on Tuesday. Polling places in Greensboro provided hand sanitizer and masks. At one polling facility in Greensboro, an election official admonished voters to maintain six feet of distance in the line, explaining that the lines were moving slowly because there were only 10 voting stations and each one had to be disinfected after each use.

The same scene played out across the state, with the Durham County Board of Elections reporting wait times up to 90 minutes at polling places in the county with the highest concentration of Black voters. One voter in Gaston County, west of Charlotte, said they waited two hours to vote and had to cancel morning meetings.

“This is crazy,” said Nikki Baker, a facilities manager for UNCG, observing the line down the sidewalk outside of a polling place at a campus fitness center around 9 a.m. Ordinarily, she said, she advises people to vote on campus because students rarely show up to vote before noon. 

When he showed up for the first day of early voting at the UNCG location four years ago, Todd Zimmer, a graphic designer, recalled, there was no line. Normally, he and his wife would bring their 8-year-old son with them to vote, but they said they were keeping him at home this year due to concerns about exposure to COVID-19.

Also: They were voting in shifts.

“My wife and I had discussions about how we were going to vote,” Zimmer said. “I had dreams about it. I said, ‘I have to vote!’ She said, ‘Okay, you go first.’”

More than 500,000 people have already voted by absentee ballot in North Carolina. More than 10 percent of registered Democrats have already voted that way, compared to only 4.4 percent of Republicans. That sets up a daunting challenge in a state that was supposed to be a red firewall for Donald Trump, and in which polls show Democrat Joe Biden highly competitive.

The start of early voting in North Carolina began amid widespread concern about the possibility not just of pandemic contagion, but also poll intimidation and racial polarization. During a Sept. 8 campaign stop in Winston-Salem, Trump told his supporters: “Got to be careful with those ballots…. Watch it. Be poll watchers when you go. Watch all the thieving and stealing and robbing they do.”

Trump parades in Alamance and Orange Counties have also featured overt displays of white supremacy in recent weeks, with participants shouting “white power” and “Heil Hitler.”

With early voting now underway, election officials are on the lookout for potential disruption from people impeding access to polling places with vehicles and shouting at voters. The NC Board of Election issued guidance on Tuesday directing that “the chief judge or one-stop site manager is responsible for ensuring voters have unimpeded access into the buffer zone and voting enclosure,” while recognizing that the area outside of the no-campaigning buffer zone is considered a “public forum.” The state board’s guidance also declared it impermissible for law enforcement to be stationed at polling places, noting that some voters find police presence to be intimidating, while advising that law enforcement should be called to respond to incidents that may arise. 

Republican state lawmakers responded with outrage, declaring that elections officials have no authority over what happens outside the 50-foot buffer and insisting that “the board must rescind yet another lawless memorandum that undermines election security.”

Charlie Collicutt, the Guilford County elections director, told TCB he had not heard about the Republican objections.

“My plan through training is to make sure chief judges understand they have authority within the buffer zone to prevent intimidation and keep pathways clear,” he said. “The number-one thing we’ve got to look out for is blocking access. That would be the biggest sign things are going askew.”

A Republican poll observer (left) scrutinizes Ricardo Lopez-Salazar outside the UNCG polling place. (courtesy of Siembra NC)

Outside the UNCG polling place, the Latinx outreach group Siembra NC filmed a promotional video with members giving testimonials in Spanish about the importance of early voting. Almost immediately, a self-identified Republican poll observer emerged from the building and began watching them intently from about five feet away, while taking notes on a clipboard. 

“As voter intimidation goes, this was ‘amateur hour,’ but it’s a good reminder that conservative activists will do anything to keep Latinos from voting,” organizer Laura Garduño Garcia said in a press release blasted out by the group within an hour of the incident. The Guilford County Republican Party did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Talisha Gray, the cook voting at Brown Recreation Center, said she wasn’t the least bit concerned about intimidation or harassment.

“I, finally, as a Black person have the right to vote, and no one is going to take it away from me,” she said. “A whole lot of my Black ancestors fought long and hard for me to do this. I dare not disrespect their honor.” 

This story was reported in partner with the Daily Beast.

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