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In Davidson County, North Carolina, Welcoming Voters Was Unwelcome

Slate logo Slate 11/25/2020 Kassaundra Shanette Lockhart
a group of people standing in a room: Voters check in at a different North Carolina precinct on Election Day in Lumberton. Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images © Provided by Slate Voters check in at a different North Carolina precinct on Election Day in Lumberton. Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images

For me, Halloween 2020, in my hometown of Lexington, North Carolina, was scheduled to be a day filled with a plethora of emotions: joy, optimism, enthusiasm, peace, love, invigoration. It was the final day of early voting, and I was spearheading the local portion of a statewide effort, by the organization Women AdvaNCe, to help voters feel secure and welcome at polling sites.

What I expected is what I received. Initially. Then the day took a turn and uncovered the rooted oppressive and suppressive systems that have stood between this country’s politics and genuine democracy for centuries.

Lexington is situated in the heart of Davidson County. You may have heard of us. We’re well known for our pit-cooked pork delicacy called barbecue, featured nationally on television shows and in magazines. We’re as serious about our Lexington-style barbecue as kids are about showing you their newest pair of shoes.

You also may have heard of us last year, when our county made national news after students at South Davidson High School in Denton were recorded spray-painting a racial slur onto a rock at their campus. Or maybe you heard about our county in the ’90s, when our then sheriff, who would later be charged with embezzlement and convicted of obstruction of justice, was infamous for his TV show, Inside Cell Block F, featuring local inmates. Or maybe you heard about the protests that occurred in the heart of Lexington for four months, this summer and early fall, as the city and county tug-of-warred regarding the removal of the Confederate statue here.

Regardless of why you may know about us or even if this is your first time, the stark contrast of progression between Lexington and the county are as evident now as they’ve ever been. As a member of the Writer’s Collective for Women AdvaNCe, a statewide organization “dedicated to improving the lives of North Carolina’s women and families,” I was asked to put together an event outside Lexington’s early voting site.

In a year that’s been engulfed in a pandemic, civil unrest, and a revolution centered around inequality, criminal justice reform, voter suppression, police brutality, economic disparities, and the dismantling of a system built upon white supremacy, many voters were apprehensive. So, we chose the theme “Because Voting Should Not Be Scary” and used the acronym PPE—power, protection, and encouragement—to promote safety for all voters, offer giveaways, and create a congenial atmosphere.

Before entrenching myself in planning, I contacted the Davidson County Board of Elections. Although I knew we would be operating within our First Amendment rights to be on site that day, I wanted to speak with the director to ensure we followed the guidelines they had in place, since our setup would include additional components. Our conversation was brief; I tried to explain our plans, and she repeatedly told me that we needed to stay 50 feet away from the building where the polling was taking place, which we planned to do.

Believing I needed to be thorough in informing her of our purpose, I visited the office nine days before the team and I would be there. I knew the staff would be occupied with voters, therefore I prepared a document describing our intentions in detail and providing my contact information. I left a copy at the BOE office for the director.

I never heard back from the BOE about any concerns. On Friday, Oct. 30, at 3:14 p.m.—less than 18 hours before the event—the Davidson County manager sent me an email. I wouldn’t realize he’d sent it until the next day.  The email was CC’d to the county attorney and one board member of the Davidson County BOE, but neither the chairman nor any other members of the board were included.

In the email, the county manager claimed he had just become informed about our activities that would be taking place the next day. He said that his office is typically made aware of events taking place on county property. He wrote that he had no issue with citizens exercising their First Amendment right to pass out nonpartisan voting literature (something we didn’t do). However, he stated he had concerns about the other activities as he believed they could cause issues with parking and safety. He also noted that they couldn’t provide county staff to monitor the activities. “My recommendation is to just pass out literature with no added events,” he wrote in conclusion.

On Oct. 31, we began to set up at 7:15 a.m. I had been out to the polling location multiple times in advance, to scout out an area where we wouldn’t be in the way of those coming to vote. Next to the office is a parking lot with approximately 80 spaces, and beyond that is undeveloped land, most of which has trees on it. I chose to set up on a grassy area there, because it was more than 200 feet away from the building, it had more than enough room, and it would allow us to engage with many voters as they arrived or departed.

With my team in place, we were ready for a day aimed at ensuring voters didn’t experience intimidation and had access to information they needed before voting (power); had personal protective equipment, packaged food, and water to endure lengthy waits (protection); and enjoyed music, entertainment, and kids’ activities (encouragement).

As we dispensed doughnuts, candy, hot dogs, chips, masks, hand sanitizer, stickers, and ice cream, it became evident that our presence was creating a difference. We were thanked, fist-bumped, and greeted with head nods as voters, who often ventured over wearing paraphernalia supporting various candidates, expressed their appreciation.

Everything was flowing smoothly until it wasn’t.

At approximately 1:15 p.m., I was talking with a teammate when I saw an emergency vehicle enter the parking lot. Noting no signs of an emergency, I turned my attention back to our visitors.

Soon, I saw the driver of the emergency vehicle standing near our tables. As I started to greet him and offer him a giveaway, he informed me that he was there on behalf of the county manager and that we couldn’t be on the property.

I was stunned. Not knowing about the county manager’s email—which had been phrased as a recommendation, not a directive—I inquired as to why we were being asked to vacate the premises. The person told me it was because I hadn’t received permission from the Davidson County Board of Commissioners.

Rather than explaining further, the representative abruptly left and headed toward the BOE building. Unsure of what to do, I didn’t instruct my team to begin breaking down our setup. Instead, I called one of our Women AdvaNCe co-leads to explain to her what had just occurred. While we were discussing the situation, a sheriff’s deputy arrived.

Since I was still on the call, the first person he spoke with was a member of our team. Knowing I needed to be present for the conversation, I ended my call and approached the deputy. As I was doing so, the county manager’s representative quickly returned to the meeting spot. After introducing himself, the deputy calmly stated that we could be on the property if we removed the tent that was over the hot dog vendor’s cart, and if the musician, who was singing softly while playing his acoustic guitar, stopped playing. Ready to compromise, I said to him, “OK, so if we do that, we can still give out the food, water, candy, and PPE?”

Before the deputy could answer, the county representative interrupted and said, “No, you can’t do any of that.” Sensing myself growing irritated at the handling of the situation, I turned to the representative and said, “So, we can’t even hand out PPE during a pandemic?” His response was that they had plenty of PPE inside. As I began to explain to him that I had already spoken with the BOE director about our plans, and the director had raised no objections, he told me that the director didn’t “work for the county.”

The county Board of Elections director doesn’t work for the county? OK. Got it.

His additional reason for stating we had to leave included the fact that the county manager had found out about what we were doing via an article in our hometown newspaper that was published six days prior to the event. Six days. That would be five days before the county manager sent the afternoon email.

As a person who doesn’t shy away from good trouble, especially when I’m right, I was prepared to stand firm in my decision to stay, until I felt an urge to look toward the voting line. And what I saw changed my stance. I saw at least 15 people looking in our direction. Their nervousness was reflected in their body language because I knew what they saw.

Two black women. Two white men with one being a law enforcement officer. And another deputy who had arrived at the location and was parked in his truck at the back of the lot. In that moment, I knew what I had to do for the sake of protecting our valiant efforts, my team, and Women AdvaNCe.

Seeing the bigger picture, I knew that if we stayed, our activation would become a source of uneasiness, hostility, and frustration. It would begin to bring about the opposite results of why we were there in the first place. I refused to let that happen. We got to work taking down our setup. After the deputy left, the musician played “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke. We were done.

While I would love to say I was surprised by the county manager’s approach that day, I have to tell the truth. And reality is that every day after my initial conversation with the BOE director, I was shocked when I didn’t receive a call or email about our plans. Ironically, I had found myself becoming less tense around noon, when we still hadn’t been approached to leave the grounds.

So, what happened next?

Right after my team and I packed our belongings, I started a personal investigation. I spoke with a member of the BOE staff who informed me that they had no issues with our event, as we were well beyond the 50-foot boundary that’s required by law. I was contacted by a member of Blueprint NC, the organization that supplied Women AdvaNCe the grant to host the safe site as well as an attorney with a statewide voter suppression organization.

While I’m aware that each of the state’s 100 counties is governed differently, it should make your spidey senses tingle knowing that Women AdvaNCe also activated sites in five other counties on Halloween—Rowan, Mecklenburg, Alamance, Robeson, and Guilford. All operated with the same purpose in mind, had similar activities, and didn’t experience the opposition to their presence that we eventually encountered at our site. Nor were they instructed to leave the property.

Well, isn’t that interesting?

Isn’t that noteworthy?

Isn’t that typical?

Isn’t that Davidson County?

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