Complaints soar against candidates at Wake County voting sites

Voters line up at the Cary Senior Center early voting site in Cary, North Carolina, Friday, Oct. 28, 2022.

Voters line up at the Cary Senior Center early voting site in Cary, North Carolina, Friday, Oct. 28, 2022.

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Early voting sites in Wake County have turned into battlegrounds where election officials say police have been called in to keep the peace between political campaigns.

Gary Sims, director of the Wake County Board of Elections, said complaints about unruly behavior by candidates at the polls had reached levels never seen before. Sims said he’s gotten close enough in some incidents to have him ask police to make arrests at polling places.

“These activists, I swear to God, have been like adult daycare,” Sims said in an interview Friday. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.”

Early voting began Oct. 20 and continues through Saturday. More than 176,000 people had voted at Wake County’s 15 early voting sites through Thursday.

“Temperaments on edge”

This year’s midterm elections will decide control of Congress, the state legislature, the state Supreme Court, county and local governments, and school boards.

“We’ve seen spirits run high during this campaign cycle,” David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College in Raleigh, said in an interview Friday. “What we hear about in Wake County reflects the national mood. The candidates and their surrogates are only part of the political environment now.”

Sims said political party observers did not cause any problems. The same cannot be said for individual campaigns, he said.

The Sims did not identify the campaigns that prompted complaints. But he said they had problems with candidates from all parties, as well as in nonpartisan races.

Most of the complaints come from early voting sites in South and Southwest Wake, according to Sims.

“It’s really just activists acting like adult children yelling at each other, yelling at other people,” Sims said.

For example, Sims said one campaign calls another an insurgent in front of voters, causing the other campaign to yell at them. Or he said an activist is arguing because another campaign is putting a sign in front of his sign and the police need to be called before it gets physical.

Sims estimated that half of his 16-hour days are spent dealing with complaints about candidates at polling stations. There have been so many “minor violations” that they don’t report them to the State Board of Elections.

It’s been especially difficult for supervisors at early voting sites, Sims said. They have been met with foul language and rude behavior as they try to troubleshoot issues on their sites.

“I feel sorry for my early voting supervisors,” Sims said. “They were treated unfairly by this petty behavior.”

Registration at polling stations

One of the areas of complaints concerns the people registered in the polling stations.

Sims said there was little they could do about people recording video if it happened outside the voting area. For example, he pointed out the way people take selfies and the way journalists stand at polling sites.

Sims said registration is illegal if it can be seen as voter intimidation. But he said it was hard to prove.

At least one candidate, Steve Bergstrom, wore a body camera at the polls. Bergstrom is running against Wake County School Board President Lindsay Mahaffey for the seat of District 8 which represents Southwest Wake.

Wake County School Board candidate Steve Bergstrom talks to people lining up outside an early voting site in Holly Springs, North Carolina, Friday, Nov. 4, 2022. Kaitlin McKeown [email protected]

Laura Macklem, Bergstrom’s campaign manager, said the body camera was for her protection against the North Carolina Teachers’ Association, which endorsed Mahaffey.

Bergstrom said he only turns on the body camera if someone verbally or physically assaults him. He says it’s actually NCAE volunteers causing trouble at the polls that lead to calling the police.

The “NCAE agitators” have become desperate because they fear Mahaffey will lose, according to Bergstrom.

“He’s there for my personal protection,” Bergstrom said in an interview Friday. “I don’t record unless someone is trying to assault me.”

But some people went on social media complain about Bergstrom wearing a body camera at the polls.

“What? Steve Bergstrom wears a body camera and yelled at at least one voter? Chantelle Miles tweeted on Thursday. “Say it’s not. There is a law against voter intimidation. My friends, our social standards are rapidly deteriorating.

Take “extra precautions”

Faced with the growing number of complaints, Sims said the Board of Elections had taken “extra precautions”. He said they have spoken with Wake County emergency services, including the sheriff’s office, to provide additional resources at polling places.

Sims hopes things will go more smoothly on Election Day on Tuesday, as campaigners will be spread across 200 sites instead of being concentrated in just 15 early voting locations.

McLennan, the professor, said it reflected the political climate.

“We’re seeing a lack of civility and inappropriate behavior at school board meetings that now trickles down to actual voting,” McLennan said. “The question is will real violence break out?

“Seeing the police called to the polls is not something we’ve seen in North Carolina since the 1800s during Reconstruction.”

This story was originally published November 4, 2022 7:19 p.m.

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T. Keung Hui has been covering K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. Its primary focus is Wake County, but it also covers statewide education issues.

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