On a rainy Saturday morning in the rural town of Hillsborough, North Carolina, John Gaither arrived at the Orange County GOP headquarters for the party's 2022 Election Integrity Operation Training for poll observers on September 10. Under the watchful eye of a life-sized cardboard cutout of former President Donald Trump, the chairman of the North Carolina Orange County Republicans arranged a semicircle of chairs and assembled a modest spread of pastries and coffee while a handful of canvassers armed with fliers and lawn signs slipped in and out of the otherwise quiet office space.

Nestled in the center of a highly competitive swing state, Orange County is a compelling case study of shifting local politics in the South. Home to progressive university hubs in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, 75.1 percent of voters here cast their ballots for Biden in 2020, compared with 48.6 percent statewide. 

The county's 51,374 registered Democrats far outnumber its 13,815 registered Republicans, according to the North Carolina State Board of Elections. But what could be seen as a regional liberal bubble is offset by conservative rural areas like Hillsborough, home to a small but fiery Republican party, where 2020's election was split by precinct—in contrast to solid blue pockets in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. 

While Orange County might remain an uphill battle for Republicans, North Carolina as a whole is a political toss-up. In 2008, the state voted for Obama, but flipped red for Trump in 2016 and 2020—even while electing Democratic governor Roy Cooper in the same years. And with a hotly contested Senate race between Democrat Cheri Beasley and Republican Ted Budd, North Carolina midterms are anyone's game. 

On Scalawag's As The South Votes podcast, we talk about what's working, what's not, and what lessons Southern organizers have learned in their efforts to make the region we love a more just place.

At the Republican headquarters, Election Integrity Operation Trainings are meant to prepare poll observers—individuals appointed by their respective political parties to monitor activity at voting sites—to be on the lookout for "general issues" that might appear on Election Day. At the Orange County Democrats' office, Voter Protection Trainings aim to do the same. 

They each train their observers to watch for similar red flags—logistical problems like long lines or inadequate parking spaces—as well as improper assistance to voters, including unauthorized individuals filling out ballots or precinct officials providing partisan information. 

But with echoes of Donald Trump's false claims of 2020 election fraud and local past allegations of voter intimidation looming large, both parties are on edge as they watch for one particular threat at the polls—each other.

In Orange County, the clash of local conservatives' distrust in election security and local Democrats' message of voter expansion offers a window into the nuances of the struggle for the future of a red-state-turned-purple in recent years.

Eyes and ears on Orange County elections

Local Republicans are championing one major slogan this election: "Easy to vote, hard to cheat." 

The phrase, printed on several of the training materials the day of the event, hearkens to doubts in election security held by conservatives nationwide following the frenzy of online misinformation and false claims about voter fraud following the 2020 general election.

"Trump is working hard to prove Voter Fraud," Gaither wrote on his personal Facebook page on November 12, 2020. "Don't lose heart." 

On January 6, 2021, Gaither posted video footage of his own attendance at the Capitol riots. Just two months later, he announced his new job as chairman of the Orange County GOP on March 20, 2021. 

In his role as chair and facilitator of September's Election Integrity Operation Training, Gaither asserted that no evidence of "cheating" has been found in Orange County elections. Voter intimidation, however, is a more contested topic.

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During early voting for the general election in October 2020, then-Orange County GOP Chairman Waddy Davis alleged that an instance of voter intimidation occurred at the Carrboro Town Hall polling location. 

In a letter published on October 29, 2020, Davis recalled the incident, writing: "The breakdown of civility we see on the left on a daily basis creates instability, and we need leaders to lead by example and put civility ahead of partisanship." 

The alleged intimidation in Carrboro: Four Black Lives Matter flags seen flying at the front of the voting site.

The flags, which were unanimously authorized by the town council that summer, technically fell within the state's authorized polling place buffer zone in which political election-related activity is prohibited. Davis told The News & Observer that he received approximately 18 written complaints about them.

"Election laws need to apply equally to all people, and the law clearly states that campaigning or political activity within the buffer zone around a voting location is illegal," Davis continued in the letter. 

In the statement, Davis called on Karen Bell, executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, for further action. After receiving his and several other complaints from voters, Bell issued a formal request to council members and the mayor to remove the flags, claiming they might be interpreted as an official endorsement for the movement by the board of elections.

"It is not hyperbole to say that there is a war on democracy in this state and this country. Above all, you should feel a sense of gravity and weight around participating right now."

Bell said that her asking the town to honor the request for the removal of the Black Lives Matter flags was one of the ways she believed she was doing her part in preventing voter intimidation in Orange County. But despite the letter addressed to Mayor Lydia Lavelle and the Carrboro Town Council, the Town of Carrboro declined to remove them. 

Davis also alleged that Republicans at the voting station had been "cursed out, had materials stolen, been subjected to obscene gestures, and threatened on an almost daily basis from intolerant liberals." (When asked, Director of Elections for Orange County Rachel Raper confirmed that Carrboro Town Hall had Black Lives Matter flags, but could not confirm Davis' other allegations.)

The flag complaint stands in eerie contrast with a more extreme case of voter intimidation just across the county line in neighboring Alamance just two days after Davis' original statement was released. Voters and peaceful demonstrators in the city of Graham were attacked by law enforcement on their way to place their ballots on the last day of early voting during the "I Am Change March to the Polls" in the City of Graham.

At the event, law enforcement pepper-sprayed participants and arrested at least eight people. After the attack, many of the 200 rally participants were not able to make it to the polling location. 

After the event, Down Home North Carolina co-founder Brigid Flaherty told Scalawag that the interference with the group of voters served a singular purpose.

"We know that the status quo wants to keep things as they are," Flaherty said. "and disenfranchisement of Black, brown, and poor voters has always been the name of the game."

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This year, Bell and the rest of the North Carolina State Board of Elections held their own statewide election trainings every other week to prepare for the November elections. During these training sessions, community members learned how to operate polls during early voting and on Election Day by processing ballots, assisting voters with special needs, and securing the voting site at the end of the day. 

In August, Bell said she wrapped up a conference that included segments with law enforcement officials and de-escalation training to address potential instances of intimidation or disruptions at polling sites. She feels confident they are prepared for this year's midterm elections.  

Orange County Democrats: Voter protection, not suppression

The Orange County Democratic Party office in Carrboro is just a short walk from the site of the 2020 flag incident. Just over 20 minutes south of Hillsborough and the Orange County GOP headquarters, the town has a very different progressive lean—and wears it proudly on its sleeve. Neighboring the academic hub of Chapel Hill, home to the "Public Ivy" University of North Carolina, Carrboro's indie music venues, organic grocery stores, and artsy coffee shops visibly boast pride flags, Black Lives Matter murals, and "coexist" stickers. 

The Orange County Democratic Party took a slightly different approach to election prep at its "Voter Protection Training" on August 27 of this year.

Jonah Garson, the Orange County Democrats chair, said the training session was part of a larger Democratic Party mission to remove barriers to voting and increase participation in elections.  

"We believe in healthy, functioning democracy," Garson explained. "Healthy, functioning democracy entails people being empowered to participate."

He said the party aims to remove barriers to participation for voters of all political backgrounds, and that that most often, the barriers poll observers might encounter are mundane—like mistakenly locked doors, long lines, or a lack of parking. 

"Those are often instances not of malignant intent," he said, "But problems with nuts-and-bolts administration." 

But not always. Previously, while serving in a former role as Voter Protection Director of North Carolina, Garson worked to address a case of widespread voter fraud in Bladen and Robeson counties where, after the 2018 9th congressional district election, Republican Mark Harris' staff was exposed for involvement in an absentee ballot-harvesting scheme. The ploy was orchestrated by political operative Leslie McCrae Dowless, who paid workers to illegally collect absentee ballots, in some cases forging signatures and completing ballots. The scandal was one of the highest-documented cases in an American election.

As a result, the North Carolina State Board of Elections ordered the congressional election be completely redone. Working on the remedial special election in 2019, Garson said he encountered the community's deep loss of trust in local electoral institutions. Still, he remains enthusiastic about the mission behind Orange County Democrats' recent voter protection efforts.

Facing the odds 

For the Orange County GOP, "the numbers are kind of against us," Gaither said, noting that the far greater tally of Democrats in the county makes it difficult for the local Republican party to find candidates to run and maintain party morale. 

At the Democrats' August voter integrity training, 14 people attended. On September 10 at the Hillsborough headquarters, Gaither's chairs remained empty, and donuts uneaten—nobody showed. 

Despite the odds, Davis urges Orange County Republicans to be resilient. 

"Recognize that we do have a voice," he said. "We're part of a larger voice." 

And while the numbers look optimistic for Orange County Democrats, Garson insists that involvement in the upcoming elections is just as critical for every citizen. 

"It is not hyperbole to say that there is a war on democracy in this state and this country," he said. "Above all, you should feel a sense of gravity and weight around participating right now."

This season on As The South Votes, Scalawag and Anoa Changa are teaming back up to talk about what's working, what's not, and what lessons Southern organizers have learned in their efforts to make the region we love a more just place.

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Kamryn Hailey is a senior journalism student enrolled in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media. At UNC, she uses her position as the president of the Carolina Association of Black Journalists to share her stories with those within her community and beyond.

Sinclair Holian is a journalist and student at UNC Chapel Hill committed to empathetic storytelling with a social justice focus. She currently covers politics and identity in the South.