Nov 4, 2020 - Election

Election Day in Charlotte brings worries, weapons, and lots and lots of waiting

Sunrise on Election Day

Sunrise on Election Day at precinct #13

Early Tuesday morning, while the sun was still rising on the other side of Oaklawn Language Academy, Daran Goines stood in line in the chilly shade, same as he does every year.

Goines could’ve voted any time in the past three weeks, at any of the early polling places around the county. But he wanted to vote here, at Oaklawn, in the neighborhood where he grew up, with the precinct workers he remembered, and near where his grandmother, Willie A. Smith, was a schoolteacher who became one of Charlotte’s first Black female politicians.

Daran co-owns the Juice Box in NoDa with his fiancée, and he runs a nonprofit youth sports organization called Charlotte Seminoles. Daran grew up with politics at the Thanksgiving table. He went through high school at West Charlotte, back in the days of busing, back when West Charlotte was one of the most diverse schools in the state. And it thrived that way.

“You went to school with people from all walks of life,” he said.

daran goines at Oaklawn Language Academy on Election Day 2020
Daran Goines.

He grew up believing in two things: that when people come together for something, they’re better off. And that voting on Election Day is something you just do.

“Voting is not only a right,” he told me, “it’s a tradition in our family.”

He was voting on issues, and those most important to him were healthcare and education.

Standing in that cold air, I asked if he was optimistic.

“Always!” he said. “You can’t just think about your next four or your next eight years. You have to be optimistic every day in life. Because if you’re blessed, you’ll live longer than a president’s term. We have a lot of living to do.”

But when I pressed him on who he was voting for, the lifelong Democrat smiled and said, “Today we’re going to see something we haven’t seen in a long time.”

Election Day line
Voters waiting patiently in line at Precinct 22.

Two weeks ago, 30 miles west of Charlotte, 23,000 people stood on hot asphalt on an 80-degree day in the middle of a pandemic to wait six hours to see the president speak at the municipal airport at the base of a mountain in Gaston County.

That’s just Gaston County, people in Charlotte said.

Four years ago, 62 percent of Mecklenburg County voted against Donald Trump. This year, 66 percent of the county voted against him. The county went so far as to send nine Democrats back to the county board of commissioners again. Once again, Mecklenburg County was so blue it was hard to see any other color.

And yet, it looks like it happened again. That’s just Gaston County, is actually more like,  That’s just North Carolina.

The president had a 76,701-vote lead (or about 1.41 percent) after all the state’s precincts were reported early Wednesday morning. The networks haven’t called the state, though, because the elections board sent out more than 117,000 mail-in ballots that haven’t been returned. Voters had until Tuesday to put them in the mail.

North Carolina was one of a handful of states that weren’t called as of 3 a.m. — along with Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Nevada. But of those, it was one of the most likely to go to the president.

What’s clear, though, is that Mecklenburg County did not endorse him. Of course, yes, 32 percent of the county, or about 178,066 people, did. That’s not insignificant. But with 375,503 voting for his opponent, former vice president Joe Biden, we have a pretty good idea of who we are and where we are, politically, as a county.

And that place is as politically disconnected from the areas around us as we were four years ago. If not more. We know Biden signs dotted tidy yards around Charlotte this year, but on waterways and on mountaintops, the Trump flag and all it stood for flew.

Trump carried countless down ballot races with him. Senator Thom Tillis. Congress. Aside from governor, which Roy Cooper won, Republicans won or were ahead in six of the remaining nine council of state races. And they won big numbers on the state supreme court. Not that Mecklenburg had much to do with any of that.

Of course some leaders who live outside of Mecklenburg weren’t exactly doing their part to understand anything on the city side, either. That fact was made clear last night, when a young Republican named Madison Cawthorn won his congressional race to represent a western North Carolina district that includes Asheville. He tweeted out his celebratory note that read, “Cry more, lib.”

Justin Dunn
Justin Dunn was arrested for trespassing at Precinct 212 on Tuesday.

After my conversation with Goines, I went to the Oasis Shriners polling station near UNC Charlotte. It’s the largest Democratic precinct in the state.

At 10 a.m., four Democratic female elected officials — Congresswoman Alma Adams, Charlotte mayor Vi Lyles, state senator Natasha Marcus, and city councilwoman Renee Perkins Johnson — talked about turning out to vote for Biden. As the event was wrapping up, I was talking to Marcus when she said, “OK, we need to leave; there’s someone with a gun here.”

By then it was too late to go. At that moment a 36-year-old man with a red beard and a Trump hat walked across the parking lot with a firearm on his hip. Nobody stopped him. They couldn’t, really. The Shriners club is a private club and North Carolina’s an open-carry state. Voter intimidation is a crime, but as he walked to the polling place, nobody acted.

The congresswoman was taken away quickly. The mayor moved shortly after that. The rest of us stayed and watched. The man didn’t verbally threaten anyone, but several poll workers said it was voter intimidation. When he came back later, CMPD arrested him for trespassing.

It was the first time in a decade that most people working this precinct had ever seen something like it.

But Democratic poll watcher Tim Carmichael, who served in the Navy and is Black, had a pretty clear stance on what he’d seen: “If they saw a Black man with a gun they would have emptied the whole damn precinct.”

Lisa Jillani and George Cowles
Lisa Jillani and George Cowles were handing our Republican voter information in Mint Hill.

I’ve spent some time the past few months traveling around talking to voters from all parts of the county, and all parts of the state. In a single day I’ve gone from a Trump Flotilla to a Black Lives Matter protest.

When you step outside of the most active and vocal protesters, though, the one thing folks can all agree on is that they’re concerned.

The source of concern differs, of course. For the Republicans, it’s an anxiety, fueled by the president’s words, of what would happen if things changed. And for the Democrats, it’s an anxiety, fueled by the president’s actions, of what would happen if things stay the same.

I went around the 485 loop after that, to Mint Hill, where Lisa Jillani was worried about the future of the country, too.

She was wearing a bright-red T-shirt for Dan Forest, the Republican gubernatorial candidate. She said most of her concerns were with statewide races, because they affect her directly. She’s long been an advocate for healthcare freedom, she says. She leads an organization called PAVE, or People Advocating Vaccine Education, which advocates against vaccines for kids.

Lisa says she can’t remember a time like this.

“I started voting when Carter was president, and I think that this is probably the most contentious and serious one since I’ve been voting,” she told me.

Standing with her was a man named George Cowles, who also lives in Mint Hill. George grew up in Boone, then served in the Navy from 1959 to 1964. He was wearing a Navy hat and a mask. When I asked if he’d be joining the Republican social gathering that evening, he said he wouldn’t. His wife didn’t want him to take the risk of being at a party with the virus.

But George had other concerns, standing there at midday on Election Day.

sunset from the Matheson Avenue bridge on Tuesday
Sunset from the Matheson Avenue bridge on Tuesday.

“If Biden were to get elected and of course he wouldn’t serve more than a couple of months and Harris would take over — it would change the whole fabric of our country,” he said. “It can’t immediately turn into Venezuela, but we’d be headed down that street. And that’s a street that I don’t want my grandsons to have to go down.

“Just look at what capitalism has built — look what it’s built. My god. We’re the envy of the entire world.”

Back in Charlotte, Jean Little celebrated her 93rd birthday on Tuesday.

I called her in the late afternoon, to wish her a happy one, and to talk.

Jean eats Zen Asian Fusion on her birthday every year. But when her daughter called her this year to plan the reservation, Jean told her to just wait until the weekend. She had other plans. First, she’d take an afternoon nap to rest up. Then, she wanted to watch the election.

Jean has worries, too. She has a rare form of cancer, she says, and her daughter’s a nurse. So Jean doesn’t go out much with the pandemic. “They don’t let me,” she says of her daughter, laughing.

Few people want to get out as much as Jean. She’s been home, mostly, since March. She lives in a condo on Marsh Road and still drives around once a week or so, just to make sure the car’s running right. She likes to drive into the city, to be part of the action. She loves Charlotte. She loved it as a girl, when it had fewer than 200,000 people. And she loves it now, with something like a million. She loves how it’s changing. Loves the energy young professionals bring.

“I would love to live on the Square in a condo,” she said.

Her first memory of politics is of sitting around the radio with her parents listening to Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats.

She can’t remember another election like this one, can’t remember another time like this one. She can’t remember another leader like the president.

“I don’t like a lot of conflict,” she says. “He’s just such a rabble-rouser.”

Jean’s more into love stories. She took the last name Little several decades ago. She’d known a boy named Johnny back when she was in grade school. But they’d gone off and married other people and lived those lives for most of their adulthood. Then Johnny’s wife died, and Jean found herself single again, too. By then Johnny owned the Little Hardware on Mint Street. They got married and didn’t separate again until Johnny passed on 18 years ago.

So how was this romantic going to spend her Tuesday night?

“I’ve got my fingers crossed,” she told me. “But I think it might be my boy Joe.

“That’s my birthday wish,” she went on. “That’s all I want for my birthday. That way I’ll be happy and it’ll save the country.”

I told her I’d text her later in the night after we got a result.

Pat Cotham feeding homeless on election day
Pat Cotham talks to a man on a quiet Tryon Street on Election Day 2020.

Then the 93-year-old told me it was nice talking to me, and that once we got through “all this,” I should, “come on by sometime and let’s have a beer.”

I like Jean’s style.

Just then it got dark, and I went uptown to meet the first Charlotte politician I met when I moved here almost eight years ago.

I found her this time in the parking lot of Woodie’s, the auto repair shop. She had the back hatch of her vehicle open, and sandwiches and sodas and handwarmers stocked up.

Pat Cotham was one of the few politicians in the city — one of the few people in the country — who wasn’t watching results on Tuesday night. She knew she’d won her seat on the local board. Besides, she has a tradition of her own.

Each Election Night, she hands out food to her homeless neighbors. She does it on her birthday, too. And several nights of the year. But always, birthday and election. Last night it carried a little more meaning.

A mentally ill woman had come to Cotham’s door the night before. The woman had showed up at Cotham’s home several times back in 2017. This time, the woman was trespassing and harassing Cotham while Cotham’s grandkids were in the house. She’s not sure why — she’s not even in a competitive race — but still she spent most of Tuesday trying to explain to them why something like that might happen.

Handing out food grounds her, she says. For all the belly-aching and boasting and bluster from politicians all over the world Tuesday, Cotham thought her time was better spent talking to people who had real worries.

As I went around with her, I realized that on Election Day I’d spent a lot of time seeking out conversations with people who knew this city far better than I do. And it occurred to me that after all the time I’ve spent these past few months trying to understand what the people from all the places outside of Charlotte are thinking, from the flotillas to the giant rallies, I wound up right back here on a silent city night, having talked to the grandson of a trailblazing Black woman politician, having talked to a 93-year-old birthday girl about her memories on the west side, and having walked through Uptown with a politician handing out sandwiches.

“I just want them to know that someone’s thinking about them on a big night,” Cotham said.

For all the time and money we spend arguing over national politics, Charlotte would be wise to continue to worry about its own issues, if you ask Cotham.

“Can I have two?” a woman who went by Treasure asked Cotham.

“Two?” Cotham said.

“Yeah, one for me and one for my daughter,” Treasure said, and she pointed to a stroller across the street. “She’s 3 years old.”

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