Community Safety at the Polls

CGC contributor Courtney Napier offers this look at how people in North Carolina are working to be sure that polling places are safe and welcoming. In an uncertain moment, with questions of legitimacy coming from the highest offices in the land, local people are working to ensure a safe and fair election.


“Where I live, I’m swimming in a sea of Trump signs,” Andrea, a mother from Randolph County, North Carolina, told Scalawag. “I’m worried about going to the polls and being harassed more than I am COVID-19. I’m going to mail in or drop it off at the board of elections.”

Alongside widespread concerns with the processing of mail-in ballots, North Carolinians and voters across the South are preparing to reckon with a new threat on Election Day: Right-wing, armed poll-watchers.

Intimidation at the polls has returned to a growing list of previously-banned voter suppression tactics in recent years, following the national conversation around the kinds of voting fraud that President Donald Trump alleged affected the outcome of the 2016 presidential race. But the conversation first began in 1981, when the New Jersey Republican State Committee and the Republican National Convention targeted Black voters by assigning armed, off-duty police officers (then referred to as the Ballot Security Task Force) to polling places in their Newark and Trenton communities, and sending mailers to voters threatening penalties for voter fraud.

The Democratic National Convention sued, and a judge ruled that the RNC had violated the Voting Rights Act and engaged in illegal harassment and voter intimidation. It was mandated that the RNC enter into a consent decree, forcing them to get court approval for all future poll-watching activity.

When that consent decree went up for renewal in 2018, the DNC in turn argued that further poll-watching activities implemented by the RNC in the 2016 election were also out of compliance, but the judge ultimately chose not to renew. Now, Republican organizations are using the current political climate to recruit poll-watchers for this November’s election, and progressive civic officials and activists are concerned that groups like the Ballot Security Task Force will be a feature in communities across the country, especially in Southern swing states.

At a September 8 rally in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Trump called on the crowd to become poll watchers themselves. Voters in Virginia have already seen the effects of this sort of call to action, and its potential to create a hostile environment for voters and intimidate citizens from casting their ballots altogether.

On the second day of early voting in Virginia, Trump supporters gathered at a polling place in Fairfax with flags and signs, chanting “Four more years!” as locals attempted to cast their ballots.

“Some voters, and election staff, did feel intimidated by the crowd and we did provide escorts past the group,” said Gary Scott, the general registrar of Fairfax County to Business Insider.

Barry, a retired state employee and cancer survivor, said, “Part of the reason I’m strongly considering voting in-person on election day—despite COVID-19 and being at higher risk of complications—is to observe for myself whether there are any on-site intimidation efforts going on, which I doubt will happen despite reported Republican plans to solicit/hire polling observers and/or challengers.”

But despite attention-grabbing national headlines and Trump’s new attempts at localized poll-watching recruitment, the North Carolinians we asked about their concerns around voting suggested that the worry that their mail-in ballots may not be counted weighs on their minds just as much as the threat of conservative poll-watcher’s attempts at intimidation.

“I’m going in person,” Aerial, a Black mother and business owner told Scalawag, “They won’t ‘lose’ or ‘throw away’ my ballot. I will make sure this one is accounted for.”

The NC State Board of Elections (or NCBSE, which is composed of three Democrats and two Republicans) announced on September 22 that they would extend the amount of time a voter had to send in their corrected ballot by one week in hopes of mitigating national postal service slowdowns. NCBSE also announced that voters who made a mistake on their mail-in ballot are no longer required to request a new ballot, but will instead be notified by a county official and asked to sign an affidavit with the missing information.

But on Saturday the RNC and the Trump Campaign sued to block those changes. Senate President Pro-Tem Phil Berger and other Republican lawmakers in the North Carolina General Assembly also filed a lawsuit later that evening.

Justin and Beverley, both professionals from Durham, shared that they had already turned in their mail-in ballots and are confident that they will be counted.

“I’m going in person,” Aerial, a Black mother and business owner told Scalawag, “They won’t ‘lose’ or ‘throw away’ my ballot. I will make sure this one is accounted for.”

Last week, the NCBSE launched Ballottrax, a free service that allows voters to track their mail-in ballot through text, email, or voice alerts. This service can notify the voter if their ballot has been received by the NCBSE and whether or not it has been accepted.

Those who are choosing to vote in person also have options to ensure their safety at the ballot. Organizations like The Poor People’s Campaign and NC Black Alliance are providing free personal protective equipment kits by request. The Poor People’s Campaign and the NCBSE are also training their own poll-watchers, beginning in October.

One facet of the training is finding and sharing factual and up-to-date election information. This can be challenging in the parts of the rural south, where companies are monopolizing local news outlets and many depend on social media for information on current events. Independent, nonprofit news and media outlets are taking up the cause of providing this crucial information to voters, regardless of their location or internet access.

Like Barry, Sheila shared that she is voting in person not only to ensure her vote gets counted, but to bear witness and document any instances of voter intimidation she observes. “This year I intend on taking pictures—if they can bring a gun, I can bring my camera.”


If you observe any signs of voter intimidation at your polling place, document the incident on your smartphone’s camera (if possible) and notify the election official on site. You can also report the incident to The Advancement Project— a nonprofit civil rights organization—by calling 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683).

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