As the sun rose Thursday, voters at some Triangle polling stations formed lines hundreds of people deep, waiting over hours to cast their ballots on the first day of early voting in North Carolina.
The number of ballots crept up all day: 76,000 by noon. The state reported 170,000 as of 3:30 p.m.
With two hours left to go, 230,000 ballots were cast.
And as the polls closed at 7:30 p.m., North Carolina voters had cast more than 272,000 votes, far surpassing the first day of early voting in 2016, when roughly 166,000 ballots were cast, the N.C. State Board of Elections reported.
Combined with absentee ballots also received so far, more than 826,285 North Carolinians had already voted in the election, about 11% of registered voters, the board reported.
At N.C. State University, Carolyn Edmonds stood nearly first in line Thursday morning. Her mask hid a broad smile she said lay hidden behind the cloth.
She had arrived at 7 a.m. and, shortly after the polls opened at 8 a.m., was among the first to emerge with a red, white and blue sticker on her jacket.
“I’m just so anxious to make a difference,” she said. “I want to make my voice heard, and so should everybody.”
Voters waiting at Knightdale Recreation Center reported crowds of up to 350 people and waits up to five hours. One voter there with back pain lay on the ground, while another lost her balance and fell.
“This elderly couple ahead of me, they should not have to wait in line for three hours,” said Sonya Whitaker, 46, pointing to the man in the grass. “This is hard on people. … These sorts of problems should be anticipated.”
But most first-day voters shrugged off the wait, like Jules Morris at Roberts Park in East Raleigh, who had arrived at 4:45 a.m.
“I feel like we all wait in line for iPhones and (Jordans),” she said. “I don’t think there’s anything more important than democracy.”
NC, a battleground state
North Carolina is considered a battleground state in the presidential election with several high-profile races on the ballot.
The Senate race between Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican, and Cal Cunningham, the Democrat, has garnered national attention, not only because it could flip the Senate, but because of Cunningham’s recent admission he sent flirtatious text messages to a woman who is not his wife.
Meanwhile, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper debated Lt. Gov. Dan Forest Wednesday night, with both spending much of their time discussing their opposing positions on the handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
On Thursday afternoon, President Donald Trump campaigned in Greenville at Pitt-Greenville Airport. Democratic Vice President candidate Sen. Kamala Harris was expected to campaign in Asheville and Charlotte, but canceled both after two people with her campaign tested positive for the coronavirus, The News & Observer reported.
Vice President Mike Pence plans to visit Selma in Johnston County on Friday.
Absentee ballots booming
In 2016, during the last presidential election, 56% of Wake County voters who cast ballots did so during the early voting period.
This year with coronavirus guidelines encouraging — but not legally requiring — voters to wear masks, more people began voting even earlier.
As of Thursday morning, 85,207 Wake County voters had cast absentee ballots, according to the State Board of Elections. That was already nearly three times the 28,994 absentee ballots cast four years ago.
Still, lines stretched around buildings in Wake, Durham and Orange counties Thursday for those voting in person.
At the Herbert Young Community Center in Cary, Maurice Spencer showed up at 7 a.m. and waited 90 minutes to cast his ballot.
Spencer said he sent in two applications for absentee ballots but never got one. His mother-in-law is immunocompromised and he didn’t want to potentially expose her to the coronavirus. The rest of his family received their absentee ballots and returned them to the board of elections.
“I was expecting it to be more dense,” he said. “So the fact that it wasn’t as dense was good. I mean it’s just good to see everybody taking this seriously.
“So it’s not been bad at all, there haven’t been any major issues,” he said. “It’s just patience. Bring a book, bring something to eat.”
In person ‘to make sure my vote is counted’
In Durham, Adele Johnson-Davis said she arrived at the Main Library downtown about five minutes after 6 a.m. when it was still dark.
“I am just excited to vote,” said Johnson-Davis, a 72-year-old retired legal secretary who said her top issues include health care, the U.S. Supreme Court and voter suppression.
She initially planned to vote by mail — as of Thursday, 28,277 Durham County voters had cast absentee ballots — but decided against that as lawsuits challenged state procedures.
“I decided to come vote in person just to make sure my vote is going to be counted,” she said.
“Trump needs to go,” she said.
As the sun appeared, its golden light reflected off the library’s new glass walls, more than 110 people waited in line.
All wore masks, but people weren’t all six feet apart, not even those at the front where yellow marks showed where people should stand.
Parking was a problem at South Regional Library in Durham, where Ashley Harrington tweeted about police directing people to get out of line to move their cars and voters having to cross a street to cast their ballots.
“I cannot imagine having a disability, or handicap — or even just being a little older, and having to wait in a line like that,” Harrington, 32, said in an interview with The N&O.
“There was a sign that said ‘vote parking only’ but there was no crossing guard to help the elders walk across, and traffic was busy,” she added. So Harrington said she and other voters stepped into the street to help people cross over and stand in line.
Back downtown Norvel Lewis, a biblical counselor at the Durham Rescue Mission, and his wife arrived at the Main Llibrary around 7 a.m.
“Didn’t want to wait until the last minute,” he said.
Lewis said he came out to vote on issues affecting his family.
“I am here to vote for someone who is going to care for my children and grandchildren,” he said. “I don’t want to read about my son being shot by police,” he said, or to have his grandchildren pulled over again and again.
Last four years ‘pretty stressful’
The line at the Seymour Senior Center in Chapel Hill stretched up the hill and around the parking lot. Cars were parking in an overflow lot nearby.
The last four years have “been pretty stressful,” said Angel DeJesus, 25, as he waited with his mother, Winowa DeJesus, 47.
“It’s well worth it” to stand in the line, Winowa DeJesus added. “There are important issues on the ballot — health care, housing, criminal justice reform — not just federal but state and local, so definitely it was worthwhile to be out here.”
In Orange County, 16,045 absentee ballots had been cast of Thursday morning, more than three times the 4,930 absentee ballots cast in the 2016 general election, Orange County elections director Rachel Raper said.
Another 59,766 ballots were cast in the county during early voting that year.
It’s very important to vote, said Nawwar Kasrawi, 48, who took advantage of the first opportunity to cast his ballot at the Seymour center in person.
“Maybe the sheer number of people who I assume are going to come out and try to vote today will make an impression about how important this is,” he said.
Colin Campbell, Ashad Hajela and Helen Mamo contributed to this story.