CHARLOTTE, N.C. — North Carolina is feeling pretty excited these days. If you’re a political junkie or just going out for a walk, it’s hard to miss the array of top-tier political figures and celebrities eager to tell you how important your vote is. The state is not quite Florida yet, in terms of its role in the president-electing business, but it’s getting there.
North Carolina’s 15 electoral votes are crucial for Republican Donald Trump’s chances and could provide a firewall for Democrat Hillary Clinton as her poll numbers soften in the Midwest and other states that seemed sure things. And then there are downballot races, including a contentious gubernatorial contest and a U.S. Senate race that could determine which party gets to control that often gridlocked group of lawmakers.
But being under the microscope could also prove to be a curse if the vote totals are as close as Florida’s in 2000. All that scrutiny exposes the flaws, and North Carolina’s voting process has more than its share.
Who wants to be the new Florida when it comes to defining voting dysfunction?
Court challenges to a voter purge and questions that remain about the state’s on-again, off-again, continually confusing voting restrictions provide ingredients for election night nightmares. A federal judge is considering an NAACP suit that challenges the removal of close to 7,000 voters from the rolls by the state and mostly at the behest of individuals from the Voter Integrity Project, which says it fights voter fraud but which the NAACP says primarily goes after minorities.
The judge’s skepticism, evident in comments and questions, is not unfounded considering North Carolina’s history — past and recent. A federal court this summer threw out much of the state’s restrictive voting bill, and said the law — enacted after the Supreme Court invalidated key sections of the Voting Rights Act — targeted African-Americans with almost “surgical precision.” The provisions included requiring specific kinds of identification that African-Americans disproportionately lacked, trimming a week of early voting and eliminating same-day registration.
However, election boards were still able to manipulate venues and times of early voting, and limit the number of sites, which may be a reason, in addition to passion or the lack of it for any particular candidate, why totals are down from higher 2008 and 2012 numbers for African-American voters.
Expect every controversy to come into play if North Carolina is the key come election night. Trump’s charge of “rigged” elections cuts both ways, especially if enough voters feel as disenfranchised as Grace Bell Hardison, a 100-year-old African-American woman in Beaufort County, whose registration was challenged.
For now, though, many in North Carolina are giddy at being in the middle of the political universe, the state increasingly on every pundit’s “Need to Watch” list. This week alone, President Barack Obama is visiting twice. More than 16,000 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill heard him say on Wednesday: “The fate of the world is teetering, and you, North Carolina, are going to have to make sure that we push it in the right direction.” His opening act, musician and onetime Carolinian James Taylor, sang “Carolina in My Mind” to drive home the point. Obama returns to the state on Friday.
The candidates themselves compete in different parts of the state on Thursday. Clinton, with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and musician Pharrell Williams at her side, is making clear appeals to the former Sanders supporters, millennials and African-American voters she needs to rally to the polls. Clinton definitely leads in the celebrity category, with North Carolina visits from Academy Award nominee Angela Bassett and Emmy nominee Lena Dunham, plus a Jon Bon Jovi concert planned for Sunday. Both candidates have family members on board in the state, Bill and Chelsea for Clinton; for Trump, daughter-in-law (and Wilmington, N.C., native) Lara and daughter Ivanka, a rock star in her own right.
But in wanting the result margin to be substantial enough to avoid any challenges, both candidate’s supporters are showing some nervousness as polls indicate the state could go down to the wire.
At a Charlotte get-out-the-vote event on Tuesday headlined by Vice President Joe Biden, Judy Mudd, a teacher’s assistant from Concord, called Trump “an embarrassment,” and said she was feeling anxious about the results. But she was also hopeful. “Wouldn’t it be amazing to have the first African-American president followed by the first woman president?” she said. Barbara Ray, a 48-year-old health care professional, also from Concord, worried about all the tension and harsh rhetoric the 2016 campaign has brought to the surface. No matter the results, she asked, “How are we going to have a conversation?”
At the Ivanka Trump appearance at GOP headquarters in Charlotte on Wednesday, 42-year-old Matt Burton was more a fan of the daughter than the father. She autographed a picture he carried; he got a photo with her. Burton, of Fort Mill, South Carolina, who works in insurance, said Donald Trump was not “the best,” but said, “the Clintons are so corrupt, so powerful,” he had to vote for the Republican. After she heard Ivanka thank volunteers, saying their “efforts are bearing fruit,” Cathi Theodora, 55, an interior designer from Indian Land, South Carolina, said making all the phone calls to North Carolina voters was worth it, since it’s such a battleground and her home state is reliably red. “Donald Trump is our only hope to get America back,” she said.
North Carolina is getting a reminder on the importance of the vote on Thursday from someone who can speak with moral authority on this issue in particular — Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia. While he plans a Charlotte visit to campaign for Clinton, the civil rights pioneer, by marching to an early voting site, is recreating a journey from not that long ago. The onetime chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and a speaker at the March on Washington helped organize the 1965 march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where he shed blood in the struggle for full citizenship for all Americans, with the right to vote at the top of the list.
That’s nothing to play games with or hold hostage for partisan gain in what has been a fraught election season. That’s a message North Carolina needs to hear and carefully consider as it savors its role as president-maker.
Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.