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Election journal 2006: The sweeping panorama and the warty close-up

by Jordan Green

With steady rain and bleak gray clouds blighting the sky, voters steadily made their way through the polls in Greensboro on Election Day with lines accumulating due in part to unfamiliarity with a handful of statewide judicial candidates and the tedium of plodding through 11 bond items.

Kathy Gumblatt, chief election judge for Precinct G12 at First Baptist Church, said 25 percent of registered voters had cast their ballots before 11 a.m. National projections held that 30 percent of registered voters would make it to the polls before the end of the day and she expected her precinct to exceed that bar by noon.

When the polls closed voter turnout would stand at 34.02 percent. The number of voters who cast ballots in the presidential election of 2004 was roughly twice the number who came to the polls in this blue-moon mid-term election with no statewide marquee race. Turnout was 46.03 percent in 2002 when voters elected Republican Elizabeth Dole over Democrat Erskine Bowles to the US Senate.

Democratic tide

The national tidal surge of anger at the Bush administration and its handling of the Iraq war seeped into the Guilford County electorate. Energized Democrats turned out in force to repudiate Bush and the war, and elected officials and candidates from their party seem to have benefited from those passions even while they staked varying positions on the launch, execution and continuation of the ill-fated Iraqi adventure. At the same time the splintered Republicans voted less enthusiastically, many apparently demoralized over the Bush administration’s moderate stance on immigration, disillusioned with the ballooning federal budget or disappointed with the loss of momentum in the social conservative movement.

The three safely gerrymandered congressional districts in Guilford County ensured that the challengers posed no threat to the incumbents, in contrast to western North Carolina’s District 11, where Democrat Heath Shuler unseated Republican Charles Taylor, or the lower Piedmont’s District 8, where the outcome of the race between Democrat Larry Kissell and Republican Robin Hayes hangs on a recount on Friday.

Hayes, who bent to the persuasion of the Bush administration and cast the deciding vote to pass the Central American Free Trade Agreement in 2005, may have made himself vulnerable by supporting a trade pact seen by many constituents as further undermining the long-failing textile industry.

Southerners and Midwesterners hit hard by manufacturing losses have widely turned away from globalization, said David Brooks, a self-described conservative who spoke at Guilford College the day after the election. Democrat Sherrod Brown used globalization as a campaign issue to snatch a Senate seat in Ohio from Republican Mike DeWine, Brooks said, also citing possible presidential candidate and former North Carolina Senator John Edwards as an exemplar of the newly dominant position of economic populism.

“There is a growing group of Democrats who consider themselves fair traders,” Brooks said. “The basic belief is that globalization has hollowed out the middle class and destroyed manufacturing. There will be no free trade agreements any time soon.”

The groundswell of Democratic passion on the national level failed to offset the popularity of Guilford County’s Republican sheriff, BJ Barnes, who prevailed over Democrat Berkley Blanks 60.6 to 39.4 percent – a slight improvement over the challenger’s 33.0 percent showing four years earlier.

Rep. Howard Coble, who has been calling for an exit strategy for Iraq for almost two years, carried 70.8 percent of the vote in District 6 against anti-war Democrat Rory Blake – a slight drop from the popular Republican congressman’s standings two years ago. Democrat Mel Watt, who voted against the war and chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, bested challenger Ada Fisher in a rematch that featured almost the same 2-1 ratio of victory. In District 13, Democratic incumbent Brad Miller defended his seat against Republican Vernon Robinson, 63.6 to 36.4 percent. Despite a well-financed campaign, attack ads that gained national attention and capitalization of anger against undocumented immigrants, Robinson’s campaign failed to gain enough traction to win. Guilford County voters rejected Robinson by an even wider margin than their counterparts across the district, favoring Miller by 70.5 percent.

Brooks said immigration did not play a strong role in the election despite the decibel level of debate, which ratcheted up in Guilford County in the spring when Latino immigrants held mass protests in Greensboro and across the state, and shortly afterwards the Minuteman Project made a caravan stop to rally support for their campaign to halt non-citizens from crossing the border and working in the United States.

“We had a clear lesson: The hard-core anti-immigration position is not a political winner,” Brooks said. He noted that JD Hayworth, a Republican incumbent from Arizona who campaigned as an outspoken foe of illegal immigration, and Randy Graf, a Republican candidate from Arizona who is a member of the Minuteman Project, lost their respective races.

With the Democrats now in control of both houses of Congress, support for workers affected by globalization and an increase in the minimum wage for the poorest of laborers may take political priority, while immigration may be pushed aside. The effect of the election on the Iraq war, which is thought to have fed the groundswell of anti-Republican turnout, remains less clear. If there is a struggle within the Democratic Party to determine the direction of the war, Brooks said he expects the hawks to prevail.

“The majority don’t want to get out,” he said. “The Democrats do not want to be seen as cutting funding for the war.”

Like Guilford County’s three congressional contests, the races for NC General Assembly rewarded incumbents without exception. Although embattled House Speaker Jim Black barely hung on to his Charlotte district his scandals did not prove to be a liability for Democratic members of the House in Guilford County. Neither Black’s liabilities nor national political currents appeared to alter the equation for the four Democrats from the Guilford County delegation.

Pricey Harrison, who distanced herself from Black by calling on him to step down, increased her share of the vote to 63.0 from 56.6 percent in her 2004 race. Alma Adams repeated a 2-1 victory in a rematch with Olga Morgan Wright. Likewise, Maggie Jeffus corralled 59.5 percent of the vote, a slight increase from her last contest with Jim Rumley. Earl Jones, one of Black’s most vocal defenders commanded 60.0 percent of the vote after running unopposed two years previously. Two Republican House representatives, Laura Wiley and John Blust, ran unopposed this year.

Three of four incumbents who represent Guilford County in the NC Senate – Democrats Katie Dorsett and Kay Hagan, and Republican Stan Bingham – ran unopposed. Republican Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger garnered 62.35 percent of the vote, fending off a Democratic challenger who called for a statewide living wage and alternative energy investment.

Three of the five Guilford County commissioners running for reelection easily held onto their seats. Democrat Bruce Davis and Republican Steve Arnold ran unopposed. Republican Linda Shaw, a member of the Republican National Committee beat Democratic challenger Ray Riffe, a union shop steward, 64.4 percent to 35.6 percent. Democrat Kay Cashion, who was appointed to her seat two years ago to replace Jeff Thigpen when he was elected register of deeds, carried two thirds of the vote against Republican Lonnie Albright, and Chairwoman Carolyn Coleman, a Democrat, took nearly three quarters of the vote against Pinecroft-Sedgefield Fire Chief Vernon Ward.

Democrats and incumbents took the key offices of the Guilford County Courthouse, with Doug Henderson holding onto the job of district attorney, David Churchill continuing as clerk of court, and Stuart Albright winning a hard-fought contest with Susan Bray for superior court judgeship.

Democrat-backed candidates won four out of six statewide judicial races. Incumbent Supreme Court Chief Justice Sarah Parker handily won reelection by two thirds of the vote and incumbent Associate Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson carried 58.9 percent. Both candidates with the endorsement of the NC Democratic Party enjoyed even wider margins of support among Guilford County voters. The one Republican-backed candidate who won reelection was Mark D. Martin, whose Democratic rival was shunned by her party for making comments against congressional candidate Vernon Robinson that were perceived as racist.

Voters narrowly chose Democrat-backed Robin Hudson by less than one percentage point over Republican-backed Ann Marie Calabria. Despite Hudson’s claim as an alumna of Page High School, Guilford County voters narrowly favored Calabria by about a tenth of a percent.

Problems for a blind voter

Counties across the nation tried out new voting technologies -‘ sometimes with reports of difficulties and delays -‘ and Guilford County was no exception as its board of elections oversaw the first election using Electronic Systems & Software direct-record electronic voting machines retrofitted with a paper spools and headphones to comply with the 2002 Help America Vote Act.

Dorothy M. Neely, a legally blind woman with limited eyesight who has come into conflict with the board of elections in the past, found the headphones of no use when she arrived at her polling place at the Lindley Park Recreation Center. She had to vote the old-fashioned way: by scanning the electronic ballot and touching the screen, in her case without being able to see the choices clearly.

“When I walked into the polling place, I signed in and got my credentials to vote,” she said. “I said, ‘I will need the new voting machines. I will need the headphone.’ They said, ‘Good luck you would do better to just have us read it to you.'”

Neely said at first poll workers couldn’t locate the headphones. Then they couldn’t figure out where to plug them into the voting machines, she continued, and further they didn’t know how to set up the auditory ballot.

When she got the headphones working Neely said the automated voice instructed her that she only had one choice: straight ticket. When Neely, who is not registered with any party, tried to continue she said she was told she could not do so

Joann Davis, chief election judge for Precinct G48, said she reported the problem to the Guilford County Board of Elections.

“The report I received is that it was incomprehensible,” said George Gilbert, the county’s election director. “It is working’…. She had to simply hit the down button and she could have proceeded. I think she simply misunderstood.

He added: “It’s not as clear as I would like it to be. [Disabled voters] probably need to come in and practice before the next election. We would be glad to accommodate that.”

In the meantime the director wouldn’t be sending anybody out to the precinct to fix the machine or provide training on a busy Election Day.

Neely said one of the poll workers offered to cancel her ballot and read the choices to her. She declined, citing her right to privacy.

“I ended up asking them to please cancel the ballot and enter a ballot like it would be for a regular voter,” she said. “I just put my nose and eyes close to the screen and voted with the regular touch-screen.”

Neely said she knew of no other visually impaired people in the county who had experienced similar difficulties, but many of them have been discouraged from trying to vote.

“A lot of the visually impaired people in this community knew that the DRE machines were not going to work for them,” she said. “They thought they didn’t even want to bother with it because it was not a reliable choice.”

Neely has publicly criticized the election board’s use of direct-record electronic voting machines in the past, expressing a preference for optical scan machines.

Busted machine

By 8:30 p.m. on election night about 15 percent of precincts in Guilford County had reported, and the bare outlines of many races’ outcomes were already evident. At around 10, the results for about half the precincts were reported on the screen in the county commission chambers where a crowd gathered to watch the results come in while election workers downstairs carted sealed pouches in from the precincts so each machine’s tallies could be added to the total.

About 11 p.m. the results from all but one precinct, G70 at Washington Elementary in east Greensboro, had been reported, and only a few bond items hung in the balance.

As employee Wanda Jeffries worked the phone, election director George Gilbert explained: “She’s got to recover the results from one machine that fell and had its screen shattered. It broke in the precinct and fell on its face late in the day.”

His office was required to e-mail Electronic Systems & Software to get a program to retrieve the votes, he said.

Gilbert also acknowledged that the paper rolls used to back up the electronic record of votes were not long enough to accommodate a full day of voting and in some cases had to be replaced while the polls were open, causing bottlenecks.

“One precinct had all five machines run out of paper at the same time, he said. “They’ve already identified the problem,” he said. “By 2008 hopefully that will be less of a problem.”

Some employees set up a new machine in a stand inside the election office.

Jeffries placed a couple more calls to the manufacturer. The company’s response time was apparently less prompt than desired as the midnight hour approached on a national election night.

“ES&S is pretty slack anyway,” Jeffries said.

Another employee slipped the memory board of the busted machine into a new surrogate machine and tightened the screws to secure a panel.

“All pieces in place and none left over,” he said. “That’s good.”

By 11:52 all the votes had been retrieved and were being uploaded to the results page of the election board’s website.

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com

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