Charlotte, United States – Lines were long and excitement high as people queued in unusually hot fall weather on the first day of early voting in North Carolina.
Some 162,000 people cast their ballots on Thursday, according to numbers given by the state’s Board of Elections.
The voting season follows months of legal wrangling over polling schedules and other voting regulations that rights advocates and a federal court said disproportionately affected African Americans – a demographic that generally support the Democrats.
“We’re going blue,” said Bill Jones, a 69-year-old African American, referring to the colour of the Democratic Party. He waited for two hours outside the University City Regional Library to vote.
In 2008, Barack Obama reversed decades of Republican election wins in North Carolina. But in 2012, the state flipped Republican again.
In an average of state polls, Democrat Hillary Clinton is now ahead of Republican Donald Trump at 45.8 to 43.3 percent.
For many African Americans in North Carolina, voting is an emotional affair as the southern state was at the epicentre of a decades-long struggle against segregation and for equal voting rights.
“You can’t go backwards. This is a new day and a different era and this is the result,” Jones said, nodding to a line of voters that stretched around the library parking lot.
The 2016 elections are the first polls since the US Supreme Court in 2013 ruled that two provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, one of the most comprehensive civil rights laws in American history, were outdated.
The decision meant that North Carolina and eight other states with a history of racial discrimination no longer needed federal approval before changing voting laws and practices.
Two months later, Republicans in the North Carolina General Assembly passed a law that cut early voting from 17 to 10 days, eliminated out-of-precinct voting and same-day registration, and required photo IDs at the polls.
These issues tend to impact the poor and working class the most because of complex job and family schedules, and limited access to transportation and identification such as driver’s licenses.
“A lot of African Americans work long hours. Sometimes we’re working two and three jobs, especially here in North Carolina where the living wage is not a living wage,” said Corine Mack, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) in Charlotte.
According to data by the US Census Bureau, the nation’s poverty rate is highest among African Americans at 24.1 percent, compared to 9.1 percent among whites.
North Carolina’s minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, and according to a study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a living wage would start at $10.53 an hour.
In July this year, the United States Fourth Court of Appeals overturned the early voting restrictions, stating that they targeted the state’s African Americans “with almost surgical precision”. The Supreme Court upheld the ruling.
But then came another twist. In August, North Carolina Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse sent an email to Republican board of elections appointees, urging them to make “party line changes to early voting” by limiting hours, Sunday voting, and available polling stations in precincts known to vote Democrat.
Woodhouse’s office did not return repeated calls for comment, but Daniel Ashley, chairman for the Orange County Republican Party, told Al Jazeera that the generous early voting hours initially planned were “a waste of resources”.
“If you can’t find some time between the 30 days of absentee ballot voting and ten days [of early voting] then it’s not your priority,” he said.
The governor’s party controls the state’s election board, and North Carolina’s governor is a Republican. Ashley acknowledged that any party in power would shape the rules in its favour.
“That’s part of being the party in control,” he said, noting that Democrats have previously made voting rules that upset Republicans.
Woodhouse’s memos leaked to the press, prompting hundreds of state residents to petition county election boards to make early voting more accessible, especially to minorities and students.
The State Board of Elections agreed that more hours should be added, and most counties did extend their evening and weekend voting hours, including to Sundays which are popular with churchgoers.
Regardless, civil rights and voting advocacy groups like Democracy North Carolina and the NAACP worked to educate voters about their rights and responsibilities, train poll monitors in the event of fraud or intimidation, and help churches, schools and civic groups organise rides and marches to the polls.
Democracy North Carolina Communications Director Jen Jones was blown away by the results, saying this kind of civic engagement and the large turnout on the first day of voting was very unusual.
“This was a huge victory for community activists who were aware of potential cuts to county early voting plans that could have disproportionately impacted student voters and voters of colour,” she said.
While early voting got under way smoothly, there were, however, a few incidents of violence and vandalism in the past week.
On Sunday, vandals firebombed the Republican Party’s headquarters, burning everything inside and scrawling graffiti on nearby walls, accusing the party of racism.
A few kilometres away in Carrboro, the Democratic Party’s headquarters was also sprayed with graffiti with accusations of the party selling out to capitalism.
Neither party blamed the other, nor did they think the acts were committed by locals.
“We’ve had bouts in the county with people making slurs, calling us racists when we’re doing events but nothing of this magnitude,” said Ashley, who arrived at his offices shortly after they were firebombed.
“I certainly hope the elections will be peaceful and that people will keep their passions in check,” added his counterpart, Orange County Democratic Chairman Matt Hughes.
He said his constituents were feeling cautiously optimistic about visiting the polling stations and noted that many had already sent in absentee ballots.
Absentee voting is more common among educated voters and less popular among the busy working class, noted Vanessa Jackson, who was standing in line at the University City Regional Library voting centre.
“A lot of people don’t understand how it works,” she said. She does, but said she wanted to come in person to show support for early voting and cast her ballot before starting a new job on Monday.
Jackson had come with snacks and a portable chair, but remained standing as she engaged in discussions with voters of all ethnicities who agreed the polls were one way to influence society, whether making choices about the president, justices or local leaders.
“We’re fellowshipping,” she said, as she and other voters discussed how to heal a community and a nation embroiled in political polarisation and racial tension.
In September, Charlotte became one of the cities at the centre of a national outcry over police shootings of African-American men after the killing of 43-year-old Keith Lamont Scott. Protests became violent to the point that the government sent in the US National Guard.
Sylvester Pitt, a 69-year-old African American and Vietnam veteran, said he is even scared of going out because he fears being stopped by police.
“I go to the gym at 10:00, home by 11:45 and stay in all day…That’s the fear I have in me,” he said.
“Everybody’s concerned about the violence,” Brenda Blackwell, a white, retired Navy commander, chimed in.
Working at a local hospital, she decided to show support for early voting by taking time off work to cast her ballot on the first day.
“No matter what the lines, what the wait, I felt it was important for me to be here,” she said.
Elaine Crawford, an African American, welcomed the impromptu discussion with Jackson, Pitt, and Blackwell and expressed a wish that communities would come together more to get to know each other.
“My hope is that after this election – and I hope Hillary wins – that things have calmed down and people continue to talk. As uncomfortable, painful and tense as it is”, she said, “you gotta actually talk”.