The most accurate way I can think to describe my experience monitoring the polls during the NC primary is boredom punctuated by conspiracy theorizing and aggressive inquiry. Last week Wake the Vote was able to partner with Democracy North Carolina, a nonpartisan election watchdog group, to work as poll monitors during the NC primary. My expectations for the day were high; we spent hours in training learning about all of the stipulations attached to the new voter ID law in North Carolina and how these changes potentially negatively affect voters. I was prepared to implement all the strategies for recognizing and combating voter suppression. I was disappointed but not surprised that the NC legislature passed what is known as one of the most restrictive laws in the country. I’ve lived in North Carolina my entire life, and I was ashamed that we are one of many states that passed laws that infringe on the right to vote. John Lewis once called the right to vote the most powerful, non-violent tool that we have in a democratic society. I was eager to serve the voters of Forsyth County by ensuring that any impediments to them exercising their right to vote were swiftly corrected. I had heard the horror stories, and I was prepared to face the worst on primary day.
Fortunately, my expectations of how poll monitoring would go were not at all a reflection of how the day actually went. While boredom typically carries a negative connotation, in this instance it was actually an indicator that things were going well. My partner Grace and I actually found that most voters had a positive experience at the polls. Amid fears that the new voter ID laws would cause confusion and long lines at the polls, we worked in a precinct where the line was never longer than a 10 minute wait. Voters that responded to our survey expressed optimism that their political voices were heard and that their vote would be effective. The best part of working the polls in North Carolina was the boredom. Nothing going on signified that the Voter ID law was not having the detrimental impact I was expecting. None of this is an attempt to invalidate any of the highly subjective and individualized experiences of voters across the state, rather it is an isolated commentary on what I witnessed at this one specific precinct. I still find the effort by state legislatures across the country to repress the voices of certain types of voters to be disgusting and fundamentally contradictory to the spirit of American democracy.
While the absence of any significant impediments to ballot access was a promising sign, our day spent at the polls was not made up in its entirety of completely mundane or innocuous interactions. I had the rare and quite bizarre experience of meeting a lovely woman who essentially performed a neo-conservative version of “mansplaining” to me. With a presumptuous arrogance that initially caught me off guard, she proceeded to inform me of my own political leanings based on a cursory glance at my physical appearance. As a young, Black, woman her immediate assumption was that I voted Democrat. “Did you vote for Ben? That man really is something,” she derided, apparently referring to Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders. I declined to divulge any personal information, repeating the rehearsed phrase that I was at the polling location as a partner with a nonpartisan organization that has a goal of ensuring that every voter is accommodated and that their ballots count. She absolutely was having none of my placating or evasiveness. She continued her attack on Senator Sanders’ credibility and platform. She launched an affront on the entire public education system, decrying our erasure of “true history” and lamenting how young people are taught the “politically correct” version of events. She continued attacking Senator Sanders and as I nodded agreeably and tried to extract myself from the situation she redoubled her efforts. She leaned in and began to speak in hushed tones emphatically about how Bill and Hillary Clinton stole furniture when they moved out of the White House and she shared as fact rather salacious rumors that Bill Clinton flies to a private island to engage in lewd acts with minors. While these tidbits of “information” were interesting to listen to if not laugh at how ludicrous I believed them to be, there came a breaking point where the conversation became so overwhelmingly uncomfortable that I had to make an abrupt exit. In continuing with her signature style, the woman began informing me of my own ignorance of President Obama. As a disclaimer I should mention that I originally became interested in politics when I was entering middle school during the 2008 election because in Barack Obama I saw a high profile mainstream candidate in which there was a reflection of myself. So naturally, her attacks on President Obama hit a little too close to home, seeing as he is in fact my best friend and political aspiration. She described to me how the President is involved in an elaborate plot to destroy the country by means of engineering fake crises and then rushing in to solve them. The entire premise struck me as a little too conspiracy-theory-film ready to be believed, but in reflecting on that conversation, I am actually grateful to that woman. She reminded me just how far from home I’ve been while we have been travelling with Wake the Vote. She made me acknowledge that voters are diverse in their backgrounds and beliefs, but the passion is just the same. The furor that she feels at the idea of “that woman” back in the White House is comparable to the level of energy that Hillary Clinton supporters have for seeing “that woman” back in the White House. Thank you North Carolina voters for being unapologetically you in what you believe, even if what you believe is something that I find to be abhorrent or silly. Thank you for reminding me where I come from, and for contributing to the loud, messy, cacophony of voices in this election. It’s good to be home.