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Amy Walter: It's Politics with Amy Walter on The Takeaway. The bedrock of our democracy is free and fair elections, but it's not a given. It requires a lot of us. The system itself is built on trust. Now the president has been sowing seeds of distrust throughout the course of the campaign using his bully pulpit to spread conspiracy theories about the integrity of absentee ballots and it's having an impact. A recent Monmouth University poll found that almost 40% of Americans don't believe that the elections will be conducted fairly and accurately. A majority of Americans in that poll said they think the Trump campaign will try to cheat if necessary to win in November. 39% say the same thing of the Biden campaign. On top of it all, of course, is a pandemic that makes going to the polls or staffing those polls a serious health risk for many. All of this has meant that state election officials are under an unprecedented level of scrutiny and pressure. That's why over the course of the next three weeks, we'll virtually venture to three swing states to hear how election officials and some of the most-watched states are preparing. These conversations are part of a series we're calling Every Vote Counts and this week, brought us to North Carolina.
Barack Obama: I can't do this by myself. I need you Charlotte. I need you, North Carolina. [cheering]
Hillary Clinton: Hello, everyone. It's great to be here at UNC Greensboro. [cheering]
Speaker 1: What a great North Carolina Day. [cheering]
Speaker 2: Thank you, North Carolina.
Speaker 3: It's a state full of wise voters and I can truthfully say nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina in the morning. [cheering]
Amy: Aside from Barack Obama in 2008, the state hasn't voted for a Democrat for president since Jimmy Carter in 1976, but polls show President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, neck and neck. Also on the ballot, is a hotly contested US Senate race that could determine control of that body and voting is already underway. On September 4th, the state began sending out mail-in ballots. I sat down with Damon Circosta, Chair of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, to find out how it's going. Now, unlike many states, North Carolina's election process is overseen not by a secretary of state, but by a board of five. I started out by asking him how the board with three Democrats and two Republicans actually functions.
Damon Circosta: On the board of elections, there's five of us and not one of us think of ourselves primarily as partisans. The Republicans aren't there to look out for Republican votes and I'm not there to look after Democratic votes. We do a good job of making sure that all votes count. We're the plumbers of democracy. All we're trying to do is make sure that our pipes flow, that everybody can get to their polling place or vote-by-mail or vote early and do it in a way that makes sure that their vote counts. There's a partisan play to be made by others, but on the board itself, it's very, very non-partisan. In fact, one of the Republican members and I, we co-authored an op-ed right when the pandemic began about voting in the pandemic and how we all need to work together to make it happen.
Amy: If we have a very, very close election in North Carolina, you expect no matter what that this process is going to be carried out in as open, transparent, and non-partisan way possible even if you see, for example, the president weigh in or other political figures weigh in. Talk about the pressure that you may feel or your colleagues may feel on that.
Damon: I don't think the pressure really-- Obviously, partisan actors are going to do what partisan actors do, but our job isn't to decide who North Carolinians vote for. Our job is to just make sure your vote counts and that's our North Star at the board of election. I don't see any pressure and I don't see any opportunity for that pressure to have any effect on what we do. It's boring in most years. Obviously, there's a lot more attention being paid to voting in North Carolina this year, but the job remains the same and that's just to make sure that we get it done right. It's not glamorous. Sometimes it's exceedingly tedious, but that tediousness is for a reason and so that we can make sure that we get the count accurate.
Amy: Let's look at your preparedness for the fall. We know that there's a record number of absentee ballot applications requests that have come in. Talk to us about the preparedness at the local level and what this would mean from small town versus a big urban center and everything in between.
Damon: We got lucky in 2020. This was the first year in which we conducted our primary election during Super Tuesday. The actual first case of COVID-19 was on primary Election Day here in Wake County. Our big election in the spring didn't happen before the pandemic. We then had a smaller congressional second primary. We got a little bit of a taste of what we would need to do to make sure that our election here in the fall is going to operate well. Here's the good news. Election administrators don't just work one or two days a year. They're at it 365 and lately, it's been 24/7. We learned a lot from other states. We've been on top of all the processes that we need to make sure that it goes smoothly and we've had some built-in advantages that were in our law well before COVID-19. A good example of that is how we prepare your absentee vote-by-mail in order for it to be counted. First things first, we were the first state in the union to start sending those out. We started on September 4th and we're very proud that almost 700,000 haven't checked today. Absentee ballot request went to us and we're getting those out as we speak. Not only do we have the opportunity to get them out early, those ballots out early, but when they come back, we can do everything but the tabulation in the weeks leading up to the election. A group of bipartisan board of electors review each ballot, the envelope in the container and make sure that it's sufficient and secure. Then we do everything except tabulate those. Come Election Day, we'll be ready to go with all of our tabulation work and we'll be able to get many of our results out right there November 3rd for all the people who voted absentee by mail, all the people who voted early, and then as election night rolls on after the polls close, we'll start tabulating those votes as well.
Amy: I'm so glad you walked us through that because that was one of many questions that we got from your state was, when will vote-by-mail be counted? It sounds like you're saying is you can get it, the process, all set up, make sure that all the absentee ballots are-- They're valid and then the day of the election, starting at what time can they actually start saying, "Okay, add them up."
Damon: We don't tabulate until the polls close and the reason we don't do that is we don't want anybody to know beforehand what the results might be going into Election Day, but we can do everything beforehand ready to go. As you said, we can review the absentee ballot. It's called an absentee ballot container, which it's the envelope in which your ballot comes in. Make sure that's ready to go. We can get the ballot ready, scan it, get it in the tabulation machine, and then on Election Day, every ballot that came to us before Election Day, we will tabulate right then when the polls close. There'll be some late-breaking ballots, people who'd mail their absentee vote-by-mail balloting late. We will count those so long as they're postmarked by Election Day, we'll count them up to three days after Election Day. We'll get all of those done and then any ballots, if there was any question on and needed to go through a curative process, we'll count those as well. The overwhelming majority of our ballots will be counted on Election Day and into before sunrise, if you will, on Wednesday morning, we'll have both of our ballots done. That's not the case everywhere, we're very proud of that here in North Carolina.
Amy: You make a really good point though, it needs to be postmarked by Election Day. We know there's been a lot of back and forth about the role of the Postal Service in this election. If the race is really, really close, will you know how many ballots you expect to still come in after Election Day?
Damon: We will certainly have a rough idea because you have to request your absentee ballot. We'll know how many outstanding requests there are. Some of those people might have chosen to go and vote on Election Day. You're allowed to request an absentee ballot and so long as you don't try and vote that ballot, you can go and vote in-person. We'll have a rough idea of how many outstanding ballots there will be. It's really important for people to understand that our job isn't to get it fast. Our job is to get it right and we're going to do everything we can to move as quickly as we can, but this is the middle of a pandemic. We're anticipating a huge surge in the number of voters who choose to vote absentee by mail and those take more time to process. We're going to ask the public for some patience and we're going to ask that everybody just sit tight and take a breath. I think here in 2020, a little bit of everybody just relaxing a bit is probably a good idea for all sorts of reasons. We'll get done and we'll get through it and we'll get through it together.
Amy: Do you have an expectation for what percent of the vote you think is going to come early absentee versus in-person?
Damon: Internally, we've been looking at anywhere between 20% and 40% of North Carolina voters choosing to use their vote absentee by mail. We also have had a good history in the last decade or two of early voting, and a lot of voters using the roughly two week period from October 15th to October 31st to vote early. There's a good chance that North of 70% of our voters will have cast their ballot before November 3rd.
Amy: Wow. Let's talk then about that in-person process. Obviously, what we saw during the primaries were a lot of places that normally had been open for voting were closed either because they didn't have the poll workers to staff them or because they were in places that quite frankly weren't safe during a pandemic. Senior centers, schools, et cetera. What is the in-person situation going to look like in North Carolina at this moment and do you think you're going to get the number of poll workers and the number of polling places that you need?
Damon: I'm optimistic on both fronts. I'm optimistic about poll workers for two reasons. One, in a bipartisan fashion, the General Assembly passed a bill that lets poll workers be from in the county in which they're registered, not simply the precinct in which they're registered. That'll give us a little bit more flexibility in how we staff these polling places. We have over 2,500 election day polling places as well as almost 500 early voting places to vote and that's a lot of staffing that we need to do. We're anticipating a need for nearly 30,000 election workers in order to achieve the election. The reason I'm optimistic that we'll get those 30,000 election workers is we've seen North Carolinians step up. We ran something called the Democracy Heroes Campaign, said "Not all heroes wear capes. Some work on elections." What we did at the state level is we opened a portal that let anybody note their interest and then we're sending those interest forms to the county so they can use that in their already staffing preparations. We've had 17,000 North Carolinians fill out an interest form. That's on top of all the work that the counties are doing. I'm an election nerd. I've been around this work for a long time and nothing warms my heart more to see that people are taking a real interest in making sure that their friends and neighbors can vote and vote in a way that's convenient and safe and accessible. I am optimistic that we're going to have all of our polling places fully operational, and that we're going to have everybody step up to do that work so that people can vote quickly on Election Day and during the early voting process, and frankly, during the mail-in process which also takes a fair amount of stuff done.
Amy: North Carolina in voting, as you very well know, been in the news recently thanks to some comments the president recently made encouraging voters to vote by mail, and then go in-person to make sure that that ballot was actually counted. Can you talk about that for a minute about what that would look like?
Damon: Certainly, the first thing I'll say is in regards to the president's comments. We sent out a statement earlier on that specific instance, but generally speaking, what I want to talk about is the notion of double voting. If you attempt to vote twice fraudulently in North Carolina, that's a felony, and you will go to jail. Believe me, we know how to catch you. If you're trying to simply verify your vote, you're doing a disservice for a couple of reasons. First of all, we give you plenty of options to verify your absentee vote by mail. You can do it without leaving the comfort of your own home. You can do it online, you can call your County Board of Elections. You can send an email and we can certainly verify whether or not your vote has been received and tabulated. Secondly, when you go to the polling place having already voted, what you're doing is you're taking the spot of somebody else who hasn't voted in that line. You're going to make it more challenging for your friends and your neighbors and other people who need to do their civic duty and that's discouraging for a lot of reasons. I will say to everybody. One, if you intend to defraud us, it's a crime, you will go to jail. Two, there are plenty of ways to make sure that your vote counts. Three, make sure your neighbors have the opportunity to vote as well.
Amy: Damon, I have to say that the number three is the thing that I kept thinking about is what happens when 200 people show up at 7:30 in the morning at the local polling place, all asking these poll workers to double-check and make sure that their vote was cast. Meanwhile, there's a long line out the door of people who still are waiting to vote in this creates-- it gums up the whole work, is that what you're thinking as well?
Damon: I'm concerned about that. I want to assure everybody that if you vote absentee vote by mail, we're going to count your vote. What I will suggest to all voters is make a plan and make your plan as early as possible. If you choose to vote absentee vote by mail, request your ballot early, and get your ballot back in as soon as you're ready. If you're going to early vote, you've got a 17-day period in which to do it. Typically the first day is really busy, and then the next 10, there's plenty of room and then it gets busier and busier as the last few days approach. If you're going to early vote, go ahead and do that early. If you're going to vote on Election Day, I would suggest you do that as early as you can. Making a plan and having contingencies so if the babysitter doesn't show or something comes up at work, you've already done your civic duty. I think it's just smart planning on everybody's part and I hope voters will do that when it comes to how they choose to vote.
Amy: Let me ask you this question, and we got one of these from a listener. I think it was a listener from Raleigh who was saying, "What if I do request a ballot and it hasn't come. How nervous should I be that I haven't gotten my ballot yet? Should it be a week? Should it be five days?" What's the process in which you would say to a voter, "You know what? Gosh, you should definitely [unintelligible 00:16:28] ."
Damon: I would say, one, give us a little bit of time especially in these early days, but if you don't hear from us, middle of this month, then certainly check in with us and see what's going on. I would say, two, if it's towards the end and it's crunch time, and you're still waiting for an absentee request ballot, you still have options during the early voting period and during Election Day. I know people have some concerns about COVID-19 and being safe, let me tell you, going to vote is going to be safer than a trip to Walgreens. We have secured enough PPE for all of our election workers as well as our voters. We're doing social distancing. We're keeping people spaced, and we're moving them through relatively quick so we don't anticipate you being indoors all that long. There's plenty of ways to do this and if you don't hear from us on your absentee vote by mail request, give us a little bit of time and if you're still concerned, you still have other options here in North Carolina.
Amy: Are you getting those same kind of questions, Damon? I'm curious and it's not just the president's remarks, but obviously, the issue of absentee ballot and early vote and safety being talked about constantly. What are the questions that you all are fielding at your office from North Carolinians?
Damon: One of the thing that we election nerds, we election administrators have to remember is that while we live and breathe this stuff every day, most North Carolinians don't think about the election process all that often. It's understandable that there are a lot of questions. People really are trying to figure out what's going on. I will say that yes, we're getting a lot of the questions that you've asked and I'd say that one of the most important things you can do when you're seeking answers about your election process is go to trusted sources of information. Obviously, us at the North Carolina State Board of Elections, ncsbe.gov is our website and we've completely revamped it to make it more voter-friendly. There's a trusted source of information. Go to new sources that you have trusted for some time and check a couple different news sources in case somebody got it wrong. The fact of the matter is, it's a lot of information. The process is very demanding if you're not familiar with it. What you want to do is make sure that we make it easy for you. The way we make it easy for you is by sharing as much information about it beforehand and being as transparent as we go ahead and count the votes.
Amy: How worried are you, speaking of trusted sources of information, that they're either through nefarious means? This could be Russians or other foreign governments or through just the conspiracies that start out as Facebook posts and then somehow make their way through the viral process that that really is making what you do so much harder and that some of these conspiracy theories, again, whether they were placed there intentionally or not, are going to deter people from voting or impact how people vote.
Damon: Over the last couple years, you mentioned Russian interference. There's been rumors going around that somehow the voting apparatus or the machines are not secure. I can 100% guarantee you that the hacking of elections will not happen because somebody is able to hack our machines. In North Carolina, everybody will have a paper ballot and whether or not you mark that paper ballot with a stylus or using a ballot marking device and we spit out a ballot for you that you can review. Everybody's got a paper ballot so we can go back and audit these things if we need to. The machines themselves are not hackable. What is hackable is the mind of the voter and that's what the Russians did in 2016 and that's what nefarious folks will try and do again. The thing you can do to protect yourself from being hacked is being very, very intentional about where you get your information. I don't want to cast aspersions on social media accounts and social media feeds. We have one at the state board of elections, but the best sources of information are going straight to the source itself or to trusted longstanding news organizations. The news organizations that have been in business for a long time have a reputation and a history of creating journalism, verifying facts, making sure what they're saying is true. Then, we at the board of elections, our only job is to make sure that you understand how to cast your ballot. If we're trying to prevent hacking, we need to worry less about the machines in which are used to conduct voting and more about people who are trying to spread misinformation. The best way we can inoculate ourselves against that type of hacking is to not trust any one source of information and to make sure that we do our homework and who's talking to us.
Amy: How much work, Damon, are you doing yourself to knock down any of these rumors that start? For example, I saw the Ohio secretary of state on his Twitter feed. He actually broke down what he saw on Facebook as this conspiracy that was floating around that apparently you all send out different ballots, different people and can track who they're voting for. You think it's a secret ballot, but because they have these letters here, it means they know you voted for a Democrat or a Republican, and then someone can throw your ballot out. What I worry about too is people walking around the weeks leading up to early vote and Election Day with their iPhones, their handheld phones, and taking either photographs or videos of things that they think are nefarious. Whether that's with a postal office worker or somebody they say is illegally harvesting ballots. How much work is the North Carolina Board of Elections going to do to push back on every one of these? At least the ones that make it into the social media at a pretty high level. A lot of people are watching it.
Damon: I can say speaking of bipartisanship, I don't know the Ohio secretary of state, but I saw him on Meet the Press. He was on with our executive director last week. He's doing an excellent job of pushing back against some of those nefarious misinformation campaigns. Here at the North Carolina State Board of Elections, we have the same job, which is to push back and be speaking constantly to folks like you. We have a social media feed. We've got a wonderful public information office that pushes out as much as we can. It's incumbent upon us as election administrators to let the world know about what we're doing and let them see. Every time we have an opportunity to show you exactly how we do this process, it's an opportunity for you to see that your vote will be secure and your vote will count. It's hard in a fractured media environment as we've had here for the last 15 or 20 years, it's even more challenging but it's a big part of our job and we take it seriously.
Amy: Damon Circosta, I want to thank you so much for taking all this time. Walking us through this process is really helpful.
Damon: Amy, thank you. [music]
Amy: For most of the last 40 years, North Carolina had been a rather reliable Republican state, but since 2008, the state has become much more competitive. Barack Obama narrowly won here by less than a point in 2008. Mitt Romney, he carried the state by just two points. Trump won it by just three. This state is big and diverse. It has fast-growing urban centers like Charlotte and the Research Triangle, but it also has huge rural stretches as well. Reaching voters here is incredibly expensive because there's not just one main media market that encompasses the majority of voters. To understand a bit more about the political dynamics at play in North Carolina, I spoke to Rusty Jacobs, a politics reporter at WUNC North Carolina Public Radio, and Michael Bitzer, a professor of political science at Catawba College. I asked Michael if it's an influx of voters to the state that has made North Carolina more competitive.
Michael Bitzer: It is certainly in migration. We are seeing more and more people registering unaffiliated. That does not mean that they are independent or nonpartisan, but they are just choosing to go unaffiliated in this state because they want to have options, particularly when it comes to party primaries. Unaffiliated voters can vote in either one. I would also add that there is a geographic and a generational dynamic that is playing out really that mirrors the national dynamics, I think, what we're seeing. Geographically, it's urban versus rural, but in the suburbs of North Carolina, you have to think about suburbs that are inside urban counties versus the exurbs, the surrounding suburban counties. Two very different dynamics playing out. There's also the generational component. There's 37% of our 7 million registered voters are under the age of 40. Millennials and now Gen Zeers are really going to reshape this state and I think if they play true to national dynamics, we could go from center lean right to center lean left in terms of North Carolina politics moving forward.
Amy: Rusty, I want to get to you. Talk to us a little bit about the political environment right now in North Carolina. When we look at national polls, it's the economy, it's COVID, a lot of issues surrounding policing and racial reconciliation. What is going on in North Carolina? What do you think are the driving issues and how do you see it playing out across the state that, as Michael pointed out, is so big and so diverse.
Rusty: A lot of those same things are happening. A lot of those discussions are happening. Just in the past few months, I and my colleagues here at WUNC have covered protests. Really, if you go towards the beginning of the pandemic and the public health restrictions that were imposed, there were gatherings outside the legislature by people who wanted to see some of those restrictions lifted and some of the economy opened, the reopen protests that you saw here and in other states. Then after the killing of George Floyd, you saw even bigger, more widespread protests definitely with more diverse crowds, with younger crowds, and those protests continue. I would say, just comparing numbers and broad array of citizenry, the reopen demonstrations pale in comparison to the size and the volume of the demonstrations that have followed that ensued after George Ford's killing. In that respect, you've got the demand for police reforms on the one hand and you still got a loyal, probably Republican electorate that wants to see some of those restrictions lifted in easing or in helping the economy get restarted. You'll see that in the governor's race, Dan Forest, who's the current lieutenant governor challenging incumbent Roy Cooper is hoping that will help propel him. You see in the governor's race, certainly a reflection of that debate, "economy versus continued public health restrictions". Then, of course, you've got new developments in the news cycle that Trump appointee leading the United States Postal Service has suddenly has his contributions going back a decade under scrutiny. All of that's going to start factoring in the way people are looking. One thing, I'll end on, is that as Damon Circosta noted and as Michael Bitzer will confirm, some votes are already being cast. The ones that are being cast are being based on the landscape now, not on whatever may happen in the next 50 days or so before the election.
Amy: I can't wait to get into that. I wanted though follow up on your point about Governor Roy Cooper who's up for re-election. The lieutenant governor is a Republican. They run separately, which is how you can have a Democrat and Republican as governor and lieutenant governor. My understanding was Roy Cooper, especially in the beginning stages of the pandemic was enjoying some pretty good job approval ratings. The public was supporting what he was doing, how we handled the pandemic. Now that we're into September, has that job approval that especially on that issue started to slip?
Rusty: Overall, his policy and his approach and his steering of the state through this pandemic is still supported by a majority of people that will be polled. Elon University and Meredith College in Raleigh did polls recently and there were indications that if not the majority of plurality of registered voters, expected voters, do support Governor Cooper's decisions even though they counsel restraint and there are still challenges to the economic community or the business community. Overall, he does not seem to be damaged by those positions.
Amy: That they told debate back and forth between the president and the RNC and the governor over holding the convention in Charlotte. That doesn't seem to have hurt the governor either, does it?
Rusty: It would seem that Cooper's positions are viewed by a critical number of voters and majority were plurality of voters in North Carolina that he's making decisions based on what is best for the public. Not as what is best for him politically, even though it may be getting cast that way by his opponents. I'll note too that Cooper the campaign, Cooper the candidate, not the governor is trying to draw a lot of attention to the fact that Lieutenant Governor Forest, his challenger, is holding in-person donation and in-person campaign events, despite the fact that those may present a health risk.
Amy: Michael, let's get to the point that Rusty brought up and that we talked a lot about with Damon Circosta about absentee ballot requests. You are following this more closely than certainly, I think anyone in the country. You send out wonderful gifts every day telling us just what to expect from the upcoming tranche of absentee ballot requests. Here we are. It’s September. What can you tell us about the voters who've been requesting the absentee ballot? If you can break it down into the kinds of people and the parts of the state that are requesting these ballots.
Michael: Typically, for those folks who don't know much about North Carolina. In 2016, less than 5% of all the ballots cast came from absentee by mail. Typically, that vote method tends to be more Republican than the electorate as a whole. What we are seeing now is basically 10% of the 7 million registered voters in the state have requested an absentee by mail ballot. That's 700,000. Four years ago, this same day, the total number of ballots requested was a little over 40,000. Basically, we are talking about 16 times. What we saw this time four years ago, we've already tripled the number of ballots that were returned and accepted from 2016. If we continue on this pace, by the end of September, it looks like we could reach 1.7 million requests, which is 1/4 of all the registered voters in this state. Now, the breakdowns in terms of party registration is really interesting because it is overwhelmingly coming from registered Democrats. They are over a majority of all the requests. Registered unaffiliated are almost 1/3 and registered Republicans that typically tend to dominate are only 16% of all the requests. Something obviously is driving all of this. This is probably COVID infecting partisanship to a level that I haven't seen. I don't think anybody in North Carolina politics has seen this level of interest in terms of having a ballot in your hand in case something happens over the next two months. How this plays out? I'm not really sure. The requests are actually quite representative of the electorate racially. It skews older, which is traditional, but it also very much skews to urban counties and particularly some congressional districts that are very competitive, most notably the 11th congressional district, Mark Meadows' old district, which is now an open seat in the mountains of North Carolina
Amy: To Rusty's point though, I'm wondering if you can tell us what you think about how many of those ballots actually get returned. In other words, he made the point that we're in the middle of this new cycle here in early September but in October, maybe something else has happened that none of us can even assume. Do you think that really does impact then the final outcome that people are going to be voting at different times, and if Democrats have more of these absentee ballots in hand that it could benefit Democrats?
Michael: I think in this environment, anything goes. Honestly, I think the number of ballots that we will see returned this week. Remember they just went out Friday. I got my absentee by mail ballot today. We had a federal holiday, no mail came through, so I received my ballot today. I think people who are returning in this first couple of weeks are the diehard partisans. Their minds are made up. They're not going to change their votes. The likelihood is we will get a flood of returns coming in. The question is, as I tell my students, read the syllabus, read the instructions. You have to sign the back of the ballot envelope. You have to have a witness who also has to provide information and sign as well. If you don't do those things, the counties have the option of sending you an affidavit to attest to it or they will send you a second ballot saying, "Your first ballot was invalid for these reasons, make sure to do this. Read the instructions and then resubmit." In 2016, we saw about 87% of all the ballots requested, returned, and accepted. Granted also, that some folks decided to vote in-person. That will automatically void the absentee by mail ballot. There’s no issues that Damon talked about of double voting in North Carolina because their records are well kept. I would also say in this state, the records are transparent. We know what's going on for those of us who study this dynamic.
Amy: One question. Michael, I'm going to start with you and then Rusty I’m going to ask you about this. This was from YouTube from Mary Cleanse who asked to talk about how the virus could be impacting student turnout, specifically college student turnout, now that many are at home. Rusty obviously is in Chapel Hill, which has a lot of college students and of course, Michael Bitzer, you're on a college campus, what do you think?
Michael: I think certainly a lot of students utilize absentee by-mail voting. They may be living outside of their hometown. They're at a college campus. They want that convenience to be sent a ballot to their dorm. Oftentimes, what happens if a college has to close down or they have to go back home, they will simply cancel that request, void that request, and then request another one. They could also show up to vote in-person as well. I think for a lot of North Carolina voters who are probably requesting these ballots, they can request the ballot and then return it in-person to either an early voting site or to their County Board of Elections. As Damon noted, there's a lot of flexibility. Certainly, college students are a key group that is oftentimes targeted by grassroots mobilizing efforts. If they're not on campus, that really loses the punch or the impact of trying to get them out to the polls. We'll just have to see how this all plays out in the data as we get over the next couple of weeks in two months.
Amy: Rusty, what's going on at Chapel Hill, Duke, those schools? Obviously, that's a lot of students. What's the in-person situation right now?
Rusty: Tumultuous. UNC is a great test case. They were one or two weeks into a semester where students were supposed to end actually attending class online and then suddenly cases of COVID popped up and the school reversed course. Those students are in exactly the situation you're conjuring with your question. If they had absentee ballot requests in and were expecting to get them on campus, and now they're going back home, what can they do? The best thing to do if anybody has a question is, of course, contact the State Board of Elections or their County Board of Elections office, or go online and issue another request. It cannot be emphasized enough that once you have that absentee ballot by hand, you don't have to mail it in. You could go in-person to your County Board of Elections. You could go to an early voting site during that 17 days or so of early voting. The situation is complicated by the fact that an institution as big as UNC had to reverse course and students had to uproot themselves and go back home because of the outbreak of COVID on campus.
Amy: I assume if you're a campaign that was planning on, earlier this year, targeting college campuses, saying, “We're going to get on campus as soon as the students are back and organize and get them registered to vote and turn them out for our candidate,” now, what can they do?
Rusty: My guess is there'll be a lot of phone banking, and there'll be a lot of cleanup by those groups. I don't think any effort will be spared to make sure-- Bi-organizations, they want to see as many people vote as possible. The question is just, where do you reach them, and do you get them the message in time? My guess is, yes. Again, North Carolina started sending up about 60 days ahead. I mean, the other states, won't start for another two weeks or so, 45 days out. North Carolina has given itself a lot of breathing.
Amy: Michael, I want to get to this question too. As the absentee ballot requests start turning into absentee ballots actually turned in, what will that tell us, if anything, about the potential outcome in North Carolina? More importantly, what can it not tell us? [laughter]
Michael: It can't tell us until after 7:30 on November 3rd.
Michael: Those of us that watch the website for the state board of elections are hitting refresh at 7:30:01 to see when these numbers get dumped. Oftentimes, these early votes, both the mail and the in-person early votes, are the first numbers reported. We get a sense of how things are going and the sheer numbers. North Carolina has a unique dynamic and that in the past, absentee by mail tended to favor Republicans, in-person early voting tended to favor Democrats, but then, you switch back to Republicans on Election Day. That's, oftentimes, what causes this very competitive nature is that leads can be built up through these early votes, but then, they get whittled down to competitiveness once the Election Day numbers come in. Certainly, the dynamic of knowing who is casting an absentee by mail vote, we get the data, we get the individualized information on these voters once they're accepted. That gives us a little bit of a hint, but it's 2020, I'm not making any predictions whatsoever about what could happen over the next two months just based on numbers and the patterns playing themselves out here.
Amy: Right. So don't read too much into this again if indeed all 700,000 people turned those ballots in and they happen to be more Democrats than Republicans at least by registration? Don’t assume that means, “Oh, Democrats are going to win the state.”
Michael: Exactly. We know from a lot of polling both nationally and starting here in North Carolina, Democrats are preferring to vote by mail and Republicans are preferring to vote in-person. That dynamic is really one to be careful in terms of trying to read the tea leaves.
Amy: Rusty, one other race I want to talk to you about because it's getting a whole lot of attention certainly here in Washington, that’s the Senate race, where Republican Thom Tillis, freshmen, is in what looks like, by the polls, very, very close race against Democrat, Cal Cunningham. I wonder if you can tell us what your sense of where that race is and whether you think that the fortunes of those candidates are tied to how well the top of the ticket does. If you're Cal Cunningham, you need Biden to win. If you’re Tillis, you really need Trump to win.
Rusty: Tillis certainly needs Trump because he's tied his faith so closely to Trump. He, right now, maybe getting, I wouldn't say pulled under, but snagged in the whirlpool of news. Again, indications are from campaign finance records that Louis DeJoy, when he was running this company, New Breed, and having some employees, whether they were being coerced or not, contribute to campaigns, Thom Tillis was one of the recipients of money. That doesn't necessarily say anything bad about him, but it's going to require him to pay attention to that. Cal Cunningham is running a mainstream, middle of the road, Democratic campaign very much like Joe Biden. He doesn't support the funding the police. He supports reform. He supports a public option with the ACA. He's not making radical pitches in terms of policy, but he's running a very straight and middle of the road campaign. For him, there's nothing much more to do than that right now. A lot of the work is being done for him by these new developments about campaign finance and the fact that even Thom Tillis didn't wear a mask at one of the RNC events when President Trump spoke from the White House. Again, for Cal Cunningham, it's probably, keep it cool and keep pushing very mainstream policies. For Thom Tillis, it's playing a little defense while trying to hope again. As Michael Bitzer said, 95% of the North Carolina electorate is probably decided. I mean, I've spoken to the most experienced political campaign consultants out there, and they'll tell you what it's coming down to is 10 or 12%, a very small sliver of the people who call themselves, unaffiliate.
Amy: That's why I'm wondering if-- We're going to see the president come down there this week. I'm assuming, at some point, Joe Biden is going to be coming down. How important do you think then the actual physical act of campaigning? Something that for the last few months has been put on hiatus, it coming back is going to matter, do you think?
Rusty: I'm purely speculating.
Amy: Yes, yes.
Rusty: My guess is, again, if the candidates are trying to swing that last sliver of voters, for President Trump to visit North Carolina and malign a lot of people, it's probably not the best thing because the people who agree with him were already going to vote for him, the people who are offended or put off by that, they're the ones who might walk away saying-- Now, maybe Joe Biden doesn't get the vote from the person who doesn't vote for Trump, maybe that's just a protest, non-vote, a protest, no-show vote. For Joe Biden, I think an appearance, if again, he doesn't get drawn into just personal attack, it probably helps him, again, for the few people who are undecided who want to see him as close as possible.
Amy: Rusty Jacobs, Michael Bitzer, this has been great. Thank you so much for taking this time with me, appreciate it.
Rusty: You’re welcome.
Michael: My pleasure.
Amy: Rusty Jacobs is a political reporter at WUNC North Carolina Public Radio. Michael Bitzer is a professor of political science at Catawba College. Be sure to join us next Tuesday, September 15th, for Every Vote Counts Arizona. The event will be live-streamed on our Facebook page, starting at 6:00 PM Eastern. [music] Many credit Barack Obama's win in North Carolina in 2008 to strong turnout from African American voters. Exit polls that year showed African Americans making up almost a quarter of the electorate in North Carolina, and they gave Obama 95% of the vote. In 2016, African Americans made up just 20% of the vote and supported Clinton by a smaller 81%. To understand the role Black voters will play in this key state and get a little context regarding what Democrats would need to do to win, we checked in with Kerry Haynie, a professor of political science in African and African American studies at Duke University.
Kerry Haynie: I actually think your Democrats have a chance to win. Now, in order for them to do so, they need to have high Black voter turnout, and they need to have think in terms of 2012, where we saw record Black turnout in North Carolina. In that election, just over 70% are registered Black voters turned out to vote for President Obama's reelection. Now, in 2016, we saw a decline in Black voter turnout in North Carolina. It dropped to 50. Thus far, the Biden-Harris ticket has been using the traditional means of mobilizing the Black vote, and that is using churches and religious organizations. However, I expect in the coming weeks we'll see a significant effort directed at historically Black colleges and universities. North Carolina has a large number of those. Senator Harris is a proud alum of Howard University, a historically Black university, and I expect that connection will play well in North Carolina.
Amy: I also reached out to Congresswoman Alma Adams. She represents North Carolina's 12th Congressional District, which includes Charlotte. I spoke with her about the role she'll play in turning out key voting blocks and how her constituents have fared throughout the pandemic.
Congresswoman Alma Adams: We've had businesses that closed. They are needing support, not only for themselves and their families, but we also need greater support for our schools and for our city and county. People are weathering this storm, but it's been very difficult. It has been very difficult. We've had a large number of people of color to be infected by this virus, many of whom have died from this virus because we had issues from the outset in terms of disparities that already existed in communities of color.
Amy: I want to move to politics for a minute. I was reading a piece in the Charlotte Observer that said you are, "Expected to take a leading role in boosting turnout by urging early voting and you were taking a caravan of supporters to show up, Mecklenburg County Board of Elections to turn in your absentee votes," can you talk to us about what that means to be urging early vote turnout, and how you're doing that, and what you expect to be able to achieve?
Alma: First of all, we expect to achieve a large turnout here in Mecklenburg. As I said before, we have a large number of voters. If you look at what has happened with our early vote requests for absentee ballots, in my district, we're looking at more than 80,000 people who have requested absentee ballots. That suggests to me that people are very interested in this election. They believe that it is an election that will really determine the rest of their lives, and I'm impressing upon people how important it is to vote early, especially since we're having issues with the mail service.
Amy: Can you talk to us a little bit about African American voters and their interest in this election, and specifically, their enthusiasm for this election? What we've been hearing in different communities, talking to different folks or around the country, is a lack of enthusiasm for Biden but certainly an interest in seeing Trump defeated.
Alma: I have not heard to any significant degree that African Americans are skeptical about Biden. I mean, they're very excited about the possibilities that he brings to build back better. I think people are very excited about this election. I haven't heard that. What I've heard is that we must get out to vote. People are too afraid, at this point, not to vote, and African Americans, in particular, because the president asked a question once, "What do you have to lose?" We have a lot to lose and looking at these past four years with this president, people are just afraid of having more of that for another four years. African Americans are very excited. We also know that this president is not truthful. I've been out here for a long time, and I can tell you from personal experience that the president has not been honest when he says that he's done more for Black America since President Abraham Lincoln, and as a Black woman, who've been out here working, I can tell you that's the biggest lie he's ever told.
Amy: I don't know if you watch much of the Republican Convention, but if you did, you didn't, one thing that we heard a lot about during that convention was support that the president was getting, not just from African Americans but he featured a lot of African American men, and the Trump campaign does believe that they're going to be able to win over more African American support in 2020, in part, by winning, doing better this year with African American men. Curious what you're seeing and hearing in North Carolina about that.
Alma: I can tell you that African American women are going to carry this vote. We have always done that. I think that the men are a little bit confused, but you can always find a few. I knew some of the folks who spoke at that convention. We've turned out for our party. We've been the backbone of this party. We have been the ones who have sealed elections for many candidates who were maybe in a losing streak. I just believe that the power of Black women and the fact that we know what's at stake, we're going to convince our men. When you look at it, realistically, the president has not done anything even for the African American men and women. Now, we also know that he continues to lie, as I said before about what he's done for our community. I want to just specifically mentioned the investment that he continues to say he's made in HBCUs, he has not. He talks about the bills that we've passed in the Congress, but those were bills that came through the Congress, the FUTURE Act, in specific, that provided the support for historically Black colleges and universities, which I have a bipartisan caucus, was not something that the president even pushed.
Amy: Congresswoman Adams, I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me. Please stay safe out there on the campaign trail.
Alma: Thank you, and I'm going to do that. As I said before, you just watch, as my mama used to say, "Mark my word. We're going to turn the mother out in North Carolina." [music]
Amy: Alma Adams represents North Carolina's 12th Congressional District. [music] It's that time of year when summer fades to fall, and under normal circumstances, this would also be the time of year when candidates flocked to battleground states as their political allies stumped for them on the other side of the country, but nothing is as it was. As part of our continuing conversation about how the pandemic has changed how campaigns interact with voters, I checked in with Chase Gaines. He's a junior at North Carolina State and also the coalition director for the North Carolina GOP.
Chase Gaines: The start of the pandemic, we were doing all phone banking operations, virtually, so that we could prevent people from getting sick because when this has started, the pandemic, we didn't have the personal protective equipment that was necessary to go out knock on doors. Now, that we're able to get mask, get gloves, we're able to follow CDC recommendations and be able to door-knock in campus like we used to but with obvious new restrictions.
Amy: What response do you get as you go to somebody's door? I think there were some expectations that you'd go to a front door and people would look at you like you're crazy, right?
Chase: I would actually say it's very similar to what it was before, pre-pandemic. I think people see that after we go to make them feel comfortable, stepping six feet back, wearing the mask, wearing the gloves. It really shows through. I think people-- They'll give us honest reaction if they like the president, they're happy to see us, if they don't like the president, they'll take the material usually, read it over. That's always a comforting thing. There's just a lot of enthusiasm surrounding the president this year. One thing that's really got to people's-- He's been here in North Carolina three times in the past three weeks. Sadly, we haven't seen Joe Biden in the last six months here in North Carolina.
Amy: When you're talking to folks about Trump, what are the things that they cite, specifically, that they're most excited about?
Chase: They just love the way he's able to speak, the way he's able to speak directly to voters, touch with their issues. The law and order aspect is so big in North Carolina. It's sad to say we've seen a lot of rioting in the streets in the last couple months, and people want to see our country return back to normal, where we're able to talk to each other, have a conversation without fighting, without being mad at or malice of people in law enforcement.
Amy: Do you think that's what's changed, let's say, between, I don't know, earlier this spring and now is the issue of some of the violence that we're seeing around the country?
Chase: It's just a mix of things. There's a lot of turmoil going on with the pandemic, of course, and with these protests recently. Republicans, especially, we've been happy to see peaceful protesting. It's just when things get out of place, it starts to scare people. It really does. When they see-- I'll give you one example. Our local CVS, that I used to go to bi-weekly, was burnt down in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Amy: Obviously, North Carolina is in the news a lot, and one of the reasons it's in the news, it's one of the first states to mail out absentee ballots. There's a lot of talk about the fact that so many absentee requests have already been submitted, but many more of those requests are Democratic voters or at least people who are registered-
Chase: Registered as Democrats.
Amy: -as Democrats.
Amy: Yes. Are you concerned that Democrats may be putting more votes in the bank right now and that the Republicans are ceding this early vote to the Democratic Party, counting too much on Election Day turnout?
Chase: Right. Now, I'll give you an example in Chatham County, where I'm from in North Carolina, I think it's doubled. The absentee ballot request has doubled in just one county. It's pretty astonishing. I think we're making up ground and has been in the last few weeks. We've recently-- The Trump campaign and a few other people have asked people to request your ballot, go ahead and do that. I do think you'll have more Republicans voting at one-site locations and going election night. That's just how they like to do it. They like the feeling of voting on Election Day and seeing the results that night. I will say, in the past, Republicans have won in absentee ballots in North Carolina. It's going to be interesting. I know there's still a lot of people in North Carolina that vote for the Republican candidate but are registered Democrats. I know there's probably about five in my family alone that do that same thing. It's an interesting state, and it's going to be an interesting election. We're making up the ground we need to. The latest CNBC poll has the president in a margin of error, but it's way better than we were a couple of weeks ago.
Amy: It seems as if, nationally and in North Carolina, Republicans are doing much more hands-on grassroots like you, door-to-door canvassing type. Very few Democrats are doing this sort of operation. They would be in a normal year-
Chase: Oh, right.
Amy: -without COVID, right? Do you think that's a mistake? Do you think that Democrats are missing an opportunity here and that they should be even doing maybe as you are doing, wear masks, put on gloves, and go door-to-door?
Chase: Right now, it does take a special kind of person to be able to be willing to walk around the hot sun with masks on, gloves on, and doing all these different things to try to be able to do that, but canvassing operations adds a special touch to campaigning, and touch from six feet away, still, but it is an interesting thing. The Democrats are making a mistake when it comes to that. We had a voter goal, neo-Republicans, of one million voter contacts. We're at about 800,000 now in the state of North Carolina, and that's just young Republicans. I mean, you've got field organizers for the Trump campaign going out every day, wearing the protective equipment, going out, knocking on doors. It's an amazing thing. You've got more-- We're probably knocking on doors, making more phone banking calls than we ever have in the past for any presidential candidate.
Amy: Chase, I want to thank you so much for taking the time.
Chase: Thank you, ma'am. God bless.
Amy: Take care. Chase Gaines is coalition director of the North Carolina GOP. [music] Here's one more thing from me. I've talked to a lot of people recently who are nervous about casting an absentee ballot. They're worried the post office may not deliver it on time, that it could be lost in transit, or it could be stolen or altered. These are valid worries, especially at a time when the president himself is casting so much fear and doubt, but in the course of interviewing the people involved in the administration of the vote, I actually feel a lot better. They know the challenges ahead of them, and they're preparing for it. Sure, they'll make some mistakes, but they're doing all they can to ensure a fair, safe, and transparent election. You have a role in this too. If you want to vote by mail, do it, but don't wait until the last minute. Request your ballot as soon as possible. Get it in the mail and plenty of time before Election Day, or drop it off in person. Here's the most important thing, read the instructions. If you have questions, go to the website of your state election officials or give them a call. The way intimidation works is it gets you to doubt yourself in this process. Do not let that happen. Go out and vote. Remember, you can join me on Tuesday, September 15th, for Every Vote Counts Arizona. I'll be interviewing Arizona secretary of state about the changes they're implementing to the election process in the wake of COVID-19. You can RSVP at thegreenespace.org, and we'll send you a link to the live stream, or head to The Takeaway's Facebook page and watch it live there on Tuesday, September 15th, at 6:00 PM Eastern. That's all for us today. Our senior producer is Amber Hall. Patricia Yacob is our associate producer. Polly Irungu is our digital editor. David Gebel is our executive assistant. Jay Cowit is our director and sound designer. Debbie Daughtry is our board op. Vince Fairchild is our director and engineer. Our executive producer is Lee Hill. Tanzina Vega is back with you on Monday. I'll see you next week. Thanks so much for listening. It's Politics with Amy Walter on The Takeaway.
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