RALEIGH, N.C. – The Rev. Anthony Spearman was standing in line for early voting with 25 to 50 black parishioners recently in Greensboro when he says a white man started shoving through them. “Hillary for Prison,” he shouted. “Get out of my way.”
Spearman’s experience wasn’t unique. A swastika and the words “KKK” and “White Power” appeared on an African American church leading early voting efforts in Pittsboro, the NAACP said. In Forsyth County, a Trump supporter has been reported driving near polling places in a white van bearing the sign “Everything God Hates, Hillary is For It,” and shouting discriminatory statements. The NAACP said Trump supporters have been recording and heckling “Souls to the Polls” marches.
“I haven’t seen anything this extreme,” Spearman said.
African American early voters in the battleground state of North Carolina are discovering the vitriol is not limited to the candidates. Local leaders and voting rights groups say they’ve seen more cases of intimidation than in any election in recent memory.
“Is this more than we’ve seen in the past? Yes.” said Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, who has been working with North Carolina elections since 1988. “I can’t remember this kind of intimidating behavior happening during early voting in a past. That was always a quiet period.”
In a conference call Tuesday, leaders of North Carolina voting rights groups stressed they were preparing adequately to handle the election. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Democracy North Carolina are preparing over 8,000 election observers to monitor elections, educate voters abouto their rights and check that polling places are following the correct procedures.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has called on his supporters to monitor polling sites for voter fraud. The calls sparked fears of voter intimidation as Trump directed people to watch heavily black cities such as St. Louis and Philadelphia.
At a recent NAACP “Souls to the Polls” event in the small town of Graham, a black field organizer for Democracy North Carolina recounted the story of Bloody Sunday, when hundreds of marchers were attacked and one civil rights activist killed in a 1965 protest for voting rights in Selma, Alabama.
“This is our Selma,” Quinton Harper said, encouraging the crowd to vote for the issues they believe in. Their march to the polls went off without a hitch and the local NAACP chapter President Barrett Brown said he’s seen no harassment through a week of early voting.
But at the North Carolina NAACP convention, the Rev Anthony Davis said several people videotaped a “Souls to the Polls” march he led, and when they arrived at the polling place, a man wearing a Make America Great Again T-shirt told them, “I bet every single one of you ain’t registered to vote and you’re all part of that rigged election.”
Intimidation and public threats may be among the reasons – along with President Barack Obama’s absence from the ballot – far fewer black voters have voted early in North Carolina in 2016 than in 2012.
This year, the share of early North Carolina early voters who are black has fallen from almost 30 percent in 2012 percent to just over 20 percent, according to a New York Times analysis.
“With the issues that we would categorize as voter intimidation to date, we think they’ve been relatively isolated, we haven’t seen any pattern of coordination,” said Allison Riggs, senior staff attorney, Voting Rights, Southern Coalition for Social Justice said. ‘But we’ve always been most concerned about Election Day.”