The Unfinished Election
Trymaine Lee: It's early in the morning on Thursday, November 5th. America is still waiting to find out who has won the race for president. We had no idea how it would go just a few days ago when I was saying good-bye to my family in Brooklyn, about to leave them for the first time in seven months.
Lee: All right, my love, I will see you when I get back. I love you, sweetie pie. Oh, I love you. I will, baby. (CHILD CRYING) Here you go, sweetie. You be good for Mommy, okay. I have to leave, baby. I gotta do this. I love you sweetie. And I will see you when I get back.
Lee's Wife: Love you.
Lee: Love you, too.
Lee's Wife: Safe travels.
Lee: Thank you.
Lee (archival): I'm Trymaine Lee. This is Into America.
Lee: All right, everything is loaded up.
Navigation Voice: In 1.7 miles turn left on Columbia Street.
Lee (archival): And on this episode, for the first time since coronavirus hit...
Lee: Saturday morning, 11:50 a.m., and I'm headed to North Carolina with a stop in between in Falls Church, Virginia, where I'll stay the night.
Lee (archival): I'm leaving New York and really going into America.
Lee: Usually gettin' out of New York is, like, the hardest part. But right now, it's pretty smooth.
Lee (archival): Why North Carolina? The stakes were so high, and the race was so tight. Just days before the election, Donald Trump and Joe Biden were nearly tied in the polls. And the state's 15 electoral votes were still up for grabs.
Lee: And it's crazy, this whole routine now. I, before COVID, I was traveling maybe every other week, I was on the road a lot. I was in and out of rental cars, in and out of airplanes and hotels. And to be back on the road after nine months just feels, like, odd. (LAUGH)
I'm a little nervous. And I'm excited. The Black turnout is going to be crucial, right. It's going to be interesting to see how things actually shape up in North Carolina. Where I'm headed is poised to be critical in this, right, you know, that's why we're....
Navigation Voice: Red light camera reported ahead.
Lee: So got into Virginia about ten minutes ago. And the sign says, "Virginia is for lovers." That's was a little weird. But okay, I see you, Virginia. All right, let's get this show on the road. Four and a half hours to Greensboro. And it is a pretty nasty day out here. It's wet and rainy and just nasty.
Lee (archival): I finally made it to Greensboro. It stopped pouring. And my first destination on Monday was a proud HBCU, the biggest historically Black university in America, North Carolina A&T. I wanted to talk to young voters here. So here we go.
Lee: All righty, it's Monday. Hang on, what time is it? It's Monday, November 2nd, 10:16. It's hard to believe we're so close to the election.
Navigation Voice: Let's get started. Drive safely.
Lee: Excuse me, sir. How you doin'? I'm lookin' for the Greensboro Four statue.
Archival Recording: What you need to do. Before you get to Market Street, make a right. Go through the first light, and....
Lee: All right. Just pullin' into the North Carolina A&T campus. The Greensboro Four is this, like, kinda legendary group of young men who were part of these protests to desegregate lunch counters. And there was this famous kind of standoff at a downtown Woolworth's. And so often it was young people who led the way. Benbow Hall. Ah, there we go. I see it. Perfect. And the parkin' spot is pretty close too. I'll just take a walk around and see what's goin' on out here.
I don't know if it's 'cause I'm in the South or what it is, but this air just smells nice. (LAUGH) This air just feels cool and crisp. And here we are. I see this amazing statue outside of Dudley Hall. It's four young men standin' tall, literally above campus. Yeah, it's beautiful.
Lee (archival): Under the shadow of those four black men, I spoke to four black women.
Lee: What makes North Carolina A&T special? What is it about this campus?
Voices: Pride. Pride. (OVERLAPPING SPEAKERS) We don't got no time. We don't got no time.
Ryan Gray: It's just the ring in our name. When you hear North Carolina A&T, like, we're the ones who are really seeking the change in the system. We are the leaders of tomorrow.
Lee: Ryan Gray, Sidney Joyner, Brittney Isokpunwu, and Anuquet Mangum are A&T students and organizers with the Black Girls Vote.
Gray: Right now we have over 50 active members of Black Girls Vote. We're a national non-partisan organization. So what we do, we encourage African American women to utilize their voice in the political process and seek change in the system.
Archival Recording: They were so excited to see us in front of the student center and get out and vote. So we got a lotta students to get out and vote. And they were excited. So I was excited.
Lee: That's amazin' to havin' excitement around an election. That's not normally the thing that a lotta young people on college campus are concerned about.
Archival Recording: That's what we're all about. We're all about breakin' those barriers and killin' those status quos and just bridgin' those generational gaps. But yes.
Archival Recording: Carrying on what our ancestors started. Like, we're tryin' to build for the next generation.
Lee: What does that mean to be on this campus, especially, right now, when we look over, we see that beautiful statue of the Greensboro Four and what they meant for civil rights and for America, right? What does it mean to be on this campus, your feet on this ground and pushing? What does it mean?
Archival Recording: We're definitely walking on hallowed ground. It's like we are the spitting image of our ancestors. So the sit-ins that they've done, we've done marches to the polls. We were also downtown leading the Black Lives Matter Movement.
Archival Recording: Just seein' the statue, I think it empowers me to move everyday and noticin' that our ancestor did do the same thing we do. And, like, we have to hold their legacy.
Lee: We know we're Black folks. Especially we've been fighting for the right to vote. There have been voter suppression efforts since the beginning, right? And North Carolina has a special history. You know, the state has acted with surgical precision targeting Black voters for disenfranchisement. How much of that do you think is still goin' on? Is it still an issue?
Archival Recording: Wow. That is still a issue today. I was actually speaking with my friend. She was saying her mom had to go to a surrounding neighborhood where she only had to wait about 20 minutes to vote. Where here, our lines was down the street. You had to wait hours to vote. But we can't let that fear us. We can't let them put the fear in our heart and say like, "Who's to say their vote is more important than my vote?"
Lee: 'Cause that does work, right? You see the long lines. And you say you know the system isn't gonna be getting us anywhere. So what can we do, right?
Gray: What can we do? We can vote. We can vote. We can tell our friends to vote. We could tell our mama to vote. We could tell Big Mama to vote. We could tell everybody we know to vote. Just as quick as word can get around of a celebrity or something like that, we need to take the same things as serious in our system instead of just complaining about it.
Lee: Well, thank you all very much for your time. I really appreciate it. It's been inspiring. I'm excited now. Thank you very much.
Voices: Any time. Yeah. Any time. (OVERLAPPING SPEAKERS) Bye.
Lee: So you mighta heard me referring to a phrase surgical precision when it comes to voter suppression and Black voters here in North Carolina. Back in 2013, North Carolina passed a whole bunch of changes to its election rules, led mostly by the Republican-led legislature.
And the really big one was requiring photo ID at the polls. Okay, the supposed reason for voter ID was to combat voter fraud. But that actually almost never, ever happens. And so there was a big court fight. And ultimately the voter ID law was struck down.
And that's where this term "surgical precision," that's where it comes from. The appeals court said the laws was intentionally designed to discriminate against Black people by targeting African Americans with, quote, "almost surgical precision."
Julian Woods: For Black people everything is on the line.
Lee: Also on campus, I met Julian Woods who's a sophomore at A&T.
Woods: Everything that we've seen in this year since January from COVID and how it's disproportionately hit the Black community, Black workers are more likely to be essential workers. I am the son of a essential worker myself. So I know that from the economic standpoint that's a big issue.
From the health care standpoint and the pandemic, from the social justice with George Floyd and the police brutality, and even the videos that we've seen since George Floyd. And so I think that it's important for us to make our voices heard so we can push back on these crisis so that we don't have to live in a state of constant fear.
Lee: What does it mean to be kind of emerging in this moment as young Black voters? Is it a sense of power or powerlessness?
Woods: I think I would say it's a sense of power. Because, I mean, we know that just to occupy space in America as a Black person is inherently political. So the fact that we are still doing it and still thriving in spite of the challenges that Donald Trump and so many others have put in our way is so important. So I think that's what the election is really about, for Black voters and young Black voters saying that, "We can face the biggest, baddest, darkest person and his entire infrastructure. And we can still beat him."
Lee: It's Monday, November 2nd. It's about 7:30 p.m. And I'm finally back at the hotel. It's been a pretty long day today. And in some ways, it was a great day. You know, that's a reminder sometimes that, you know what, maybe we will actually be okay. (LAUGH)
Like, maybe, just maybe, the future is in good hands. And I think about Black people in this country who fought so hard to hold America to be what it says it's been. And we know that so much of what America is is based on hypocrisy, right. But there is I think somewhere in its core that it wants to be what it says it is.
And normally at a time like this, I'd be sittin' back at the end of a long day with some whiskey, some bourbon. (LAUGH) But instead I am drinking hot chamomile tea. I just want my immune system to be kinda, you know, tough.
I've been outside. I've been around more people than I've been around in a very long time. And so I'm just getting ready for what could be a very, very long day. And we will see what happens. We will see what happens. So we'll see what happens after a quick break.
Lee: It's Tuesday, November 3rd, Election Day. And I hate when people liken politics to, like, sports. Because it's not a game at all, right. It's like life and death. But this does kinda feel like the Super Bowl. I'll be headed to a few spots here in North Carolina. I'll be going to a polling location in Durham. I'm just gettin' dressed and gettin' ready, goin' over some last minute prep. And then I'll be, you know, hittin' the streets. So there we go.
So walkin' up to the Durham County main library now. And there aren't a whole bunch of people out here. But you do see folks with little tables set up. Again the big question is with so many people who voted early, how many will be doing same-day voting? And that will be a key question, especially when it comes to Black turnout. We'll see.
Lee (archival): In front of the library, I met Robert and Reva Page.
Lee: So you all, did you vote today? Or did you vote early?
Robert Page: October 15th. The first day of early voting. With this COVID going around, I didn't know I was I was gonna be around today. (LAUGH) Just I wounded up voting early just in case somethin' happened, you know. And I'm gonna try to talk everything else.
Lee: Yeah, of course.
Page: There is COVID going around. I want to make sure my vote is in there early just in case.
Lee: Have y'all been lifelong North Carolina residents?
Page: I was born and reared here.
Lee (archival): They had already voted, but came out to the polls to help a family member who was having some trouble walking. Now while the students I talked to on Monday were confident in a Biden victory, these two were more cautious.
Lee: Do you think that, you know, North Carolina will go to Biden or Trump this time around? What do you think?
Page: Well, my knees are red from prayin'. (LAUGH) My knees are rough. But from what I see through all the rallies, I'm not too confident. I didn't see that excitement when Biden and Kamala Harris came. The mood wasn't enough, the oomph wasn't there. I see more oomph on the other side.
Lee: Ma'am, what do you think? Do you think Biden has a chance here? Or you think it's...
Reva Page: It's gonna be a battle. And I just hope it turns out the way we expect it to turn out.
Page: I can't take four more years of this guy, period. You know, I'm almost, what, I'm 68 years old next birthday. I don't know how many more years I have left. I cannot live in this kind of stress. I won't do it.
Lee: Well, how important is it given the history of how much fighting and blood shed and pushing for the right to vote, how important is it, do you think, Black folks exercise their right? Because we saw from 2012 and 2016, there was a big drop-off once Obama wasn't on. And we see what happened.
Page: People lost their lives for us to have the right to vote. Why would you not vote? We couldn't sit down and eat at Roses department store when I grew up here. And we fought the voter suppression. So I'm a part of that history. You know, the last election, one of my sons didn't vote because he wanted Bernie Sanders. He didn't vote at all.
Page: I'm like, "Oh, my God, you know, you have to vote."
Lee (archival): I turned my mic off. And then I asked the Pages one more question. Did their son, who stayed home in 2016, vote this time around? They told me they don't know. They're afraid to ask.
Lee: So it's Election Day around 4:30. And I'm headed back to Greensboro from Durham. So just as kinda more context, Obama won North Carolina in 2008. And it was the first GOP loss since 1976. But second time around in 2012, he lost to Mitt Romney. And then Trump won in 2016.
So Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are trying to regain some of that blue magic that Obama experienced. So it's 7:00 on election night. But outside this old courthouse in Greensboro, they'll be counting all of Guilford County's ballots. So I'm hopin' to get a chance to get in there. But again...
Lee (archival): Less than an hour later, they let me inside.
Lee: So I'm inside the old courthouse outside of a room. It looks like a old school kind of conference room. It's called the blue room. And inside there are about seven elections officials, all kind of in a semicircle, half moon, waiting for the results to just come in and start being tabulated. Some are on their cell phones. One guy is reading a book. This is how democracy happens in these very small ways.
Lee (archival): That's where I met Charlie Collicut. He's in charge of making sure the process works.
Charlie Collicut: Director of the Guilford County Board of Elections.
Lee: Okay. So this is, you know, the big day.
Collicut: It is. It is. We're almost there. Come on down here with me, down here to the basement. So what we're gonna through is all the cars tonight.
Lee: So they're actually bringing in all the tabulations from....
Collicut: All their tabulated results, all their ballots, provisional ballots, all their signed paperwork where everybody's checked in and voted.
Lee: You see how the--
Collicut: He's got a handful of results right there.
Lee: So they're actually comin' in here.
Collicut: Yeah. (BACKGROUND NOISES) You see them comin' in over there.
Collicut: We guide them around, through the top.
Lee (archival): This is like a whole operation. Let me get out of your way. (LAUGH) Pardon me. Wow, this is great. So how long will this be goin' on for?
Collicut: Until the last one comes through. (BACKGROUND VOICES) Hopefully about 10:00. You know, I don't know. 10:00. I don't really know.
Lee: We're down here, like, in the basement level. All right, thank you. We're here in the basement level. There are a bunch of cars comin' in. Again these are vehicles comin' in from all across the county with the actual ballot results. And so you see people poppin' their trunks, loading zip bags into big trash cans on wheels.
This is what we don't typically see. We tune into the television, right, and we see the results streaming in. But this is how it happens. All across the country, this is what's goin' on. And again, upstairs, the scene is completely different, right. They're quiet. But down here, there's actually action happening.
Archival Recording: Over there. Over there.
Lee: So how many of these have you experienced?
Collicut: I've been doin' elections here in Guilford County for 17 years.
Collicut: My first presidential was 2004. Yeah. And everyone has been different. This has been tough. It's been a tough election. Tryin' to coordinate just normal presidential stuff on top of pandemic is hard. You know, we're havin' to deal with supply chains and logistics and hand sanitizer quantities when we're still tryin' to plan on how many ballots we need, precinct official training and all that. And it's just a lot. It's just a lot. And early voting here in North Carolina is 17 days. And we went non-stop.
Lee: That's just amazing. Do you start to get nervous Election Day? Like, is there, like, a whole routine that you go through?
Collicut: Yeah, Election Day, I do get nervous. I mean, I can't even hardly sit down at my desk, you know. I have this nervous energy that just goes the whole time. And, you know, probably too much caffeine and all that. But, you know, I used to not sleep at all the night before an election. But now I'm just so exhausted from everything that I do. My wife will be ready for me to take some time off.
Lee: So what happens next for you? Obviously you still get a ten-day period, right, where things... the canvassing period.
Collicut: Yeah, we have a ten-day period here where we're gonna keep takin' ballots that get received, postmarked by Election Day. And we're gonna be processing them, processing provisionals. We do a ton of audits, you know, auditing, auditing, auditing. And that's what we'll do for the next ten days.
Lee: So it's 10:54. The election in North Carolina, the tally is still too close to call. Like, I'm outside now. I had to take a breather. That's the longest I've been inside a building with people (LAUGH) in a very long time. So I decided to come out and get some fresh air.
And this is nerve-wracking. I guess it is. I even allowed myself to kinda steep in all these possibilities and implications of Election 2020. I guess just kinda surprising. But try to stay at arm's length just so I can just kinda focus and the the story.
But it's gonna be interesting how tomorrow and the next day and the rest of this week actually turns out, and what it will say about who we are and who we want to be. And I've said it before, and probably it's like a broken record. But what does a second term, Donald Trump president, say about us? I don't know if I'll sleep tonight. It's already 11:00. We'll see. And my battery's just about dead. So (LAUGH) this might be good night.
So it's Wednesday, November 4th, 7:15 a.m. I didn't go to bed last night until about 2:30. I was layin' there and in between consciousness and unconsciousness. And for a moment there I just felt completely at peace, like, blissfully so. I haven't turned on a TV. I haven't opened up my email. I have no idea what might have happened politically between the time I went to bed just a few hours ago and right now.
And there's something so (LAUGH) blissful in that ignorant state. Because now it's about to end. There is no anxiety, no weight, no stress, no nothin', just (SIGH) savoring the last minutes before I gotta open my eyes, let the light in, literally and figuratively, and see what's going on. But that's about to end. 'Cause I have to get myself together. (SIGH) All right.
Lee (archival): Well, those moments of bliss didn't last long. A lot is still unfolding. Both Biden and Trump addressed America during the night with very different messages.
Joe Biden: We believe we're on track to win this election. We're gonna have to be patient until the hard work over tallying the votes is finished. And it ain't over till every vote is counted, every ballot is counted. (HORNS, APPLAUSE)
Donald Trump: This is a fraud on the American public. (BACKGROUND VOICES) This is an embarrassment to our country. We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election. (APPLAUSE)
Lee: With millions of votes still to be counted, Trump's claim to victory just isn't true. On Wednesday at 10:15 a.m. as I record this, first in the Electoral College, 270 votes are needed to win. Joe Biden stands at 238; Donald Trump, 213. But what really matters most at this point: seven key states, including North Carolina, are still counting votes. They're up for grabs. And it could days, maybe weeks to know the results.
So it's still a razor thin race. The margin between Joe Biden and Donald Trump is still super slim. And I wanted to catch back up with Ryan Gray. Y'all might remember her. She was one of the young students I met at North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro. She was super excited. She was organizing her classmates with the group Black Girls Vote. So I had to see how she was feeling.
Gray: Wow. Right, now our feelings are so overwhelmed. And I feel like that's important that we all need to realize that when you keep that level balance. Like, whoo, a lot of students are going crazy. So I definitely feel like emotions are skyrocketing. 'Cause everyone's just anticipating. Like, we're just waiting for the biggest news of our lives right now.
Lee: So are you prepared? I mean, this is generally a red state. If Biden pulls it off, you see how close it is now. Are you ready for, you know, North Carolina maybe going Trump?
Gray: I think what we can be ready for is next election. So now we've learned. I feel like more awareness was brought to the whole electoral process and how to vote. So I definitely say that was a shocker. And it made me realize that we need everyone on deck. Like, every vote matters. And we see it's so close.
Lee: Tell me about you were watching the returns comin' in?
Gray: Ooh. When I was watchin' the returns, I was makin' taco Tuesdays. I was in there, "Oh, no," screaming. And then while I was cuttin' the onions, I was cryin'. (BACKGROUND VOICE) I mean, it's the onions. But I am upset though. I was going through so many emotions during those elections. I definitely had the ups and downs.
Lee: But right now, you know, in this limbo are you feelin' more hopeful or more, like, anxious and worried?
Gray: I'd see I'm getting a little 50/50. I'm feeling hopeful. And I'm feeling, but I wouldn't say the job is done. But I'm feeling like, whoo, a weight is lifted off my shoulder a little bit. As long as we know that we really showed up and showed out and did all we can do.
And I feel like our generation, it's our time. It's our time. And I want to be able to make my mom proud, my dad proud, make the Lord proud. So I feel like it's our time to really just step up to the plate and start swingin'. Even if we miss, we gotta keep swingin'.
Lee: It's Wednesday, about 8:00 p.m., the day after the election. And we still don't have a clear winner. But it's lookin' most probable that Joe Biden will be elected the next president of the United States. But here in North Carolina which is still in play, the margin between Joe Biden and Donald Trump is just tens of thousands.
Yet elections officials tell us that, "We won't know a true count from North Carolina for at least another week." But North Carolina might not end up being as important to the election as it had been just two days ago. Joe Biden has won Wisconsin, and he's won Michigan.
And now Arizona is leaning Biden. Nevada is leaning Biden. We might not know tonight. But by the time you're listening if he clinches Arizona and Nevada, that's a wrap, folks. So we'll see. Here we are in North Carolina. And soon I will be back in New York. But I've enjoyed comin' out into America. (LAUGH) You like how I did that? (LAUGH) Be well.
Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. a special shout-out and thank you this week to producer Mary Flume. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back next Thursday.