The humdrum work of democracy unfolded in the gymnasium of Cochrane Collegiate Academy.
There, on the east side of Charlotte, voters who live in Mecklenburg County’s Precinct 3 cast their ballots last week for public offices ranging from the presidency to the local soil and water conservation board.
About ten poll workers — all of them African-American, all of them at least middle-aged, and most of them women — set up the gym the previous night and arrived before dawn on Election Day.
A check-in table. Then four more stations, each staffed with a poll worker to instruct voters. A trouble-shooting desk. Four voting machines. And one ballot box.
Before the balloting started, the poll workers gathered together and took an oath promising to faithfully discharge their duties as the front-line workers in our republic. They then took their seats in folding chairs at folding tables.
By 6 a.m., everyone and everything was in place.
It was dark outside and the doors were yet to open when the first voters arrived. A small line formed.
At precisely 6:30 a.m., one of the precinct workers announced, “The polling place is now open!” Voters began to cast their ballots.
There was nothing flashy about the place where hundreds of Charlotteans would come to do their duty. It was just a high school gym.
Fluorescent lights mounted from a high ceiling and hovering over a wooden floor, six basketball hoops, cinder-block walls painted a soft, institutional yellow, and the hum of an HVAC unit that echoed across the cavernous room.
Risers pushed against the wall. Green pennants hung to commemorate when the school’s Mighty Colts won this or that sports championship. An American flag.
A scoreboard looking down on everyone. “Guest.” “Home.” “Period.” And a Pepsi ad. An old, analog clock — its hands stopped at 12:40 — covered by a cage to prevent basketballs or volleyballs from smashing it.
Coach Boles’s office, right off the basketball court. A boy’s locker room at one end of the gym, a girl’s locker room at the other.
To remind us we were at a school, an announcement came over the P.A. at midday asking Mr. Smith to report to the principal’s office.
Along with the usual paraphernalia of a voting place — laptops, poll books, three-ring binders stuffed with different policies and procedures and forms — were the indicia of the pandemic: hand sanitizer, plexiglass barriers, face masks and shields, and, instead of “I Voted” stickers, commemorative pens.
The citizens trickling through the gym were overwhelmingly Black and neither young nor old. (With only 244 total voters coming to Precinct 3 on Election Day, there was never more than a steady trickle.)
Most people voted without issue. They provided their names when they arrived, confirmed their identities and addresses at a second table, and cast their votes, which they did by inserting ballots into a scanner, creating both an electronic and paper record.
A few couldn’t vote because they wrongly thought they could register on Election Day. The poll workers apologized and sent them away.
Others came to the wrong polling place and were directed elsewhere.
And still others thought they were registered, insisted they were registered, but didn’t show up in the poll books. They were given provisional ballots so they could cast votes that would be tallied if the county board of elections could later confirm their registrations. If not, their ballots would be disregarded.
The atmosphere among the poll workers at Precinct 3 was that of a family reunion, with one new addition: me, who they welcomed like a long-lost cousin.
I was there as a poll observer for the North Carolina Democratic Party, looking for any signs that voters were being wrongfully turned away. (Over more than thirteen hours of observation, everything appeared to be in order.)
Prior to the pandemic, the poll workers explained, the food on offer wasn’t limited to individual bags of chips and sealed salami and cheese sticks, but a big potluck spread with chicken and sides and rolls and anything else you might want or need to get you through the long day — just like a family reunion. I should come back to check it out next time, they said.
As we approached the closing of the polls, the precinct workers started to pack up (without, of course, doing anything to suggest to any voters who might come along in the final minutes that they could not cast ballots).
When the clock struck 7:30 p.m., the same worker who announced the poll’s opening before the sun came up made another announcement after the sun had gone down: “The polling place is now closed!”
With that, polling books were collected, voting machines were taken down, and the first tally recorded. Voters at Precinct 3 broke about 3-1 for Joe Biden, Cal Cunningham, and Roy Cooper. Only one of the precinct’s preferred candidates would win in North Carolina, though a second would win the nation.
The poll workers transmitted the results to the county’s board of elections, just as workers did in all of Mecklenburg County’s 195 precincts, North Carolina’s 2,662 precincts, and America’s tens of thousands of precincts.
There was no glitz and no glamour in the work of Precinct 3. Certainly nothing to match the baseless, if dramatic, accusations of voter fraud and stolen elections now emanating from a losing candidate and his enablers — accusations that, to be true, would require a vast conspiracy among countless everyday, ordinary citizens like those who labored honorably last week at Cochrane Collegiate Academy.