Here at Prism, we’re not just journalists—we’re citizens. Like the rest of the country, we’re living, writing, and voting in this election with a mix of anxiousness, impatience, hope, and awe at the work of volunteers, advocates, organizers, activists, and ordinary people who have brought the United States to this moment. Now with Election Day in full swing, members of the Prism team around the country are reporting on what’s happening where they are, in both swing states and decidedly red or blue states alike. Read on for dispatches from California, Illinois, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia for a glimpse of the reality on the ground.
by Carolyn Copeland
As a lifelong Californian, presidential elections don’t carry much excitement when it comes to which candidate will take the state’s 55 electoral votes. California hasn’t voted for a Republican president since George H.W. Bush in 1988, and that isn’t expected to change this election. It’s also likely the president knows this, which is why he has made so few visits to California.
Similar to other states, California is expected to have a strong turnout this election, and we already saw longer-than-normal voting lines in the early hours of the morning. Before Election Day, Californians had already sent in 11.2 million mail-in ballots, compared to 8.4 million in 2016. Even with this high turnout however, there is still some skepticism from voters about the fairness of the electoral process after more than 100,000 botched mail-in ballots were tossed during the primaries. Republican influence could also play a role in the outcome of California’s election. The California Republican Party has admitted to purposely committing election fraud by installing unofficial ballot drop-off boxes and refusing to take them down.
California has many conservative pockets, but in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live, I can’t even remember the last time I saw a MAGA sign—not because Trump supporters don’t exist all around, but because of the negative reactions they often receive from locals if they make themselves known. For this reason, it’s easy for residents to forget that election outcomes are never guaranteed and that there are plenty of Californians who are ready and willing to vote against their cause.
Since California has a reputation as one of the country’s deep blue progressive states, it’s fairly common for residents to feel their vote in the presidential election isn’t impactful—whether that’s because they’re a conservative who believes the Democratic candidate will win regardless of how they vote, or whether they’re a progressive who believes the state will likely go blue again and that their vote won’t make a difference. When election time rolls around, attitudes like this can make it challenging to convince people of their political power. So while Californians may have a general idea of where our votes will go this presidential election, I’m relieved to see that voters haven’t become complacent and am heartened by the high turnout and energy.
by Michi Trota
Illinois has been solidly blue during presidential elections since 1992, but that doesn’t actually give much of an accurate picture of the state. When broken down by county, there’s a stark contrast between urban areas like Chicagoland and Urbana, which vote Democrat, and the rest of the state, which votes Republican; it’s a split that’s held true through the last several elections. However, while it looks like the majority of Illinois is Republican, the fact is that Cook County (which includes Chicago) and the six collar counties hold 65% of the entire state’s population. Hillary Clinton won a decisive 83% of the vote in 2016, and it’s a fairly reasonable assumption that Joe Biden will carry Illinois’ 20 electoral votes.
Looking inward however, Illinois’ state and local elections are no less important than the presidential election. There’s Marie Newman, a U.S. House of Representatives candidate for the 3rd Congressional District, who just managed to unseat Dan Lipinski—a longtime legacy politician and anti-abortion Democrat—in the primary earlier this year, and thankfully her GOP challenger will not be reputed Nazi sympathizer Arthur Jones (although it almost was). Illinois residents have the chance to change the state Constitution and pass the Illinois Fair Tax, which would change our flat tax rate of 4.95% regardless of income level, to a graduated income tax rate where higher income brackets would pay higher income tax rates. There are over 60 judges up for reappointment on the Chicago ballot alone, and who fills those seats will have a great deal of influence over the Chicago courts, and the policies set by the next Metropolitan Water Reclamation Board will affect not just Chicago, but areas along the Mississippi River, all the way down to the Gulf.
I recognize that I am watching this election unfold from a relative place of privilege. I live on the north side of Chicago in a white-dominated wealthy neighborhood. I’m fully employed, housed, able-bodied, in a stable, safe, and supportive relationship, and in relatively good health for middle age. And still as a Filipina American whose parents immigrated from the Philippines and became naturalized U.S. citizens during the Marcos regime, this election cycle has just heightened my sense of anxiety over the last four years. There’s still the 11% in my ward who voted for Donald Trump in 2016. I live in a neighborhood that purports itself to be committed to diversity but still has a record of making BIPOC, trans, and other non-cis queer folk feeling unwelcomed and unsafe. We have a mayor who denounces the president’s actions and policies but embraces and defends the use of forceful tactics employed by one of the most corrupt police departments in the country, and ICE wants to open a “citizens academy” in Chicago.
And yet. I see friends in my city and downstate taking action by becoming first-time poll workers, volunteering with mutual aid initiatives, offering rides to voting stations, sharing reputable voter guides and resources, encouraging those in their own families and social circles to find ways to be involved safely despite the pandemic. Illinois is one of the states where people with felony convictions are re-enfranchised upon release from incarceration, and many of those people are throwing their energy into getting out the vote and ensuring voter access for others like themselves. Voters ages 25-34 are the largest voting group in the city so far, and my city looks on track to turn in 1.1 to 1.2 million ballots cast, which may put voter turnout at 57-70%. Nationally, seeing the rising number of Asian American voters participating in this election is a refreshing counter to the lie that Asian Americans “don’t care much about politics.”
We all know this election period isn’t the end; it’s just the end of one leg in a very long journey. I’m encouraged by how Chicago’s long history of activism, particularly in Black and other invisibilized communities, has created strong foundations and networks of resources and information that are being utilized to their utmost potential. This is a city with a long history of racism, police violence, and political corruption, but one that also strikes for teachers and union workers, protests police violence and ICE’s presence, and ran President Donald Trump out of town in the 2016 election. Throughout the state, activists and ordinary people are continuing the work rather than taking Illinois’ “liberal” reputation for granted. The work of strengthening supports and protections for at-risk and marginalized communities in Illinois is that much more important, especially as state, county, and local governments can often be a necessary bulwark against a less than ideal administration in the White House.
by Tamar Sarai Davis
For me, and presumably many other New Yorkers, Election Day is marked by a slightly heightened energy but the certainty that, as always, the state will vote overwhelmingly blue. Living in such a reliably Democratic state can at times feel as if less is at stake with your singular vote and that the tension that looms across the political divide is less present than in other regions of the country. However, this year has felt different and marked by hints of rising agitation. During a recent drive out of New Jersey and into upper Manhattan, I spotted a jarring billboard reading “Law & Order” in block letters, Trump and Pence’s names hanging above at opposing sides of the advertisement in the style of a movie trailer. It was an unequivocal warning of what would be to come if this current presidency were granted a sequel. It also seemed to be a harbinger of this Sunday’s “MAGA Drag rally,” a motorcade of Trump supporters that cruised through parts of Brooklyn, Bronx, and Staten Island. The group frequently used violence against counter-demonstrators and received support from the NYPD.
Perhaps it’s been the realization that New York is not immune to the kind of threats witnessed elsewhere in the nation coupled with the pandemic that has led New Yorkers to participate in early voting in droves. On the first day of early voting, a brisk Saturday in late October, voters in my hometown of New York City waited outside from anywhere from four to six hours just to cast their ballots. By the last day of early voting, an estimated two million New Yorkers had voted in person.
The landscape of much of New York City, particularly Harlem where I live, doesn’t lend itself to the lawn signs that dot so many suburban front yards and give passersby a sense of who residents are voting for or which party a neighborhood generally swings toward. However, over this election season, there have been visible public markers of the neighborhood’s politics, but these have focused less on the presidential race and more on local candidates and broader issues like the stickers on the post office drop box on my block advocating for defunding the NYPD or the fliers in the subway about canceling rent and freezing evictions. These speak to the idea that as crucial as today’s election is and despite the gravity of what’s at stake in the presidential race, there are a host of other issues that won’t be wholly eradicated regardless of who wins—and those issues are the ones that will most impact the material conditions of people’s lives. Today, as I took a few loops around 125th Street, I saw more than a handful of “I Voted” stickers and face masks admonishing onlookers to “VOTE!” but I also noticed a substantial line at the food pantry at Mount Olivet Baptist Church, a line that will continue to be there long after the polls close.
by Tina Vasquez
Hello from the purple state of North Carolina, “the nation’s most evenly divided electorate.” We’ve got 15 electoral votes to give and three of our counties—Union, Wake, and Robeson—are “battlegrounds within battlegrounds,” meaning they are three of just 20 counties nationwide that may decide the fate of the presidential election.
To say that things have been contentious in North Carolina would be an understatement. The white, right-wing residents of our state—people who claim to be the real patriots—struggled mightily with stay-at-home orders during the early months of the pandemic. So much in fact that they formed Reopen NC, a militant group that carried out armed protests against Gov. Roy Cooper, who is up for reelection. An anti-government militia movement was established as an offshoot of Reopen NC and in September, a North Carolina member of the militia was charged with federal terrorism counts for attempting to work with Hamas to overthrow the government, destroy monuments, and target North Carolina politicians and members of the media.
More recently, early voters in the state have faced intimidation and threats. Chatham County residents who showed up for the first day of early voting in October were greeted by “dozens of Confederate flags and Trump banners,” Triad City Beat reported. Also present were members of League of the South, a neo-Confederate group that wants to establish a white ethno-state. In Guilford County, Republican poll observers engaged in “aggressive conduct” against early voters. Alamance County also recently made nationwide headlines after law enforcement officials pepper sprayed voters as they marched to the polls. Prism recently reported on Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson, a notorious racist who works closely with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Within the last several hours, an armed man was arrested at a polling place in North Mecklenburg County.
It’s not all bad, of course. Powerful organizing continues to emerge across the state: A coalition of organizations calling themselves Forward Motion Alamance has spent months uplifting BIPOC voices in rural North Carolina and organizing against Graham, North Carolina’s Confederate monument and Johnson’s work with ICE. Over the last several weeks, members of the immigrant justice organization Siembra NC participated in the Vota Jota campaign to mobilize and protect LGBTQ+ Latinx voters.
Siembra NC’s Laura Garduño García told me today that no matter what the results of the presidential election are, she and other activists will continue organizing against ICE and Johnson, who will be up for reelection in two years. Many of Siembra NC’s members are actually in Alamance County and whether or not they can vote, they are committed to fighting against Johnson’s work with ICE and his recent targeting of Black voters.
It heartens me to hear how committed communities are to fighting back, but I’ve still spent much of the day anxiety-ridden because I know what’s at stake in this election. After hearing from a poll worker this morning that “an abnormal number of people” in a predominantly Latinx neighborhood in my community were “not in the book” at their polling place—meaning not listed as being in that precinct or in some cases not listed as registered at all—I began to worry. I spent the afternoon with my fiancé visiting polling places in underserved communities in Forsyth County and checking in with my people across the state. Before I spend the rest of the night parked in front of the television, I want to end this dispatch with a message of hope I received today from Alicia Bell, a Charlotte, North Carolina, resident and the organizing manager at the Free Press. I wanted to hear what Alicia would focus on moving forward, and what they said left me in tears.
“Regardless of what happens today,” Alicia said, “we have to be committed to building the relationships, skills, infrastructure, alignment, and collective dreams and visions we need to pivot and move into alternative systems and practices that get each of us closer to liberation and the ability to thrive across all aspects of our communities.”
Let us make it so.
by Ashton Lattimore
As a resident of what may be this election cycle’s swingiest swing state—the “tipping point” for the Electoral College—the weight of uncertainty is heavy today. Even here in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, a relatively left-leaning suburb about 15 minutes outside Philadelphia, lawn signage paints a decidedly mixed picture, with some patches of grass at homes and even schools bearing pro-Biden and pro-Trump signs both. The line outside my polling place was longer than I’ve seen before, snaking past the nearby library, but whether that was owing to voter enthusiasm or social distancing remains to be seen. And as critical as Pennsylvania may be to the ultimate outcome of the presidential election, it’s an open question whether we’ll get a fair count of all votes cast.
The Republican-led state legislature has successfully prevented any of the nearly 2.5 million mail-in ballots cast this election from being opened or counted before 7 a.m. this morning, with some counties even planning to wait until Wednesday. As a result—and likely by design, to sow confusion and reinforce an Election Night “red mirage” of Republican victory—the final tally may not be known until the end of this week. Meanwhile, legal battles over ballots continue to be teed up even after the Supreme Court—at least temporarily—refused to order that timely postmarked mail-in ballots that arrive after Nov. 3 should be thrown out; today in Montgomery County, where I live, Republicans challenged Democrats’ efforts to notify voters whose mail-in ballots were deficient—“naked” or unsigned—so that they’d still have time to cast a proper ballot in time.
With so much on the line, it’s been heartening to see the energy of organizers and voters in Philadelphia and around the state, working to protect and get out the vote among Black folks and other communities of color, and finding joy and dancing in the midst of an electoral and public health crisis unlike anything we’ve seen before. Still, that such herculean efforts are necessary throws the inequity of the U.S. election system into stark relief, highlighting the critical work that remains to be done to fight the legislative, in-court, and on-site suppression we’re seeing today.
by Caitlin Gaffin
Growing up in the rural coalfields of Southern West Virginia, the majority of families I knew held a long history of being proud union members and voting blue. The state of West Virginia, too, was among the most reliably Democratic states from the 1930s until the 2020 election. In 2016, although our state’s presidential pick was Republican, we still elected a Democrat as governor and I had hoped that my home state’s blue affinity hadn’t been completely lost, but maybe only muddled. In 2017, less than a year into his gubernatorial term, however, Gov. Jim Justice announced at a Trump rally he had rejoined the Republican Party, and any hope I was holding out for a return to blue was diminished.
Living and voting in a state like West Virginia, with only five allotted electoral votes and a two-decade streak of turning red, it’s easy to feel as though your individual vote doesn’t matter on a national level. Still, I cast my vote by mail in October, joining over 30% of registered West Virginia voters in absentee or early voting. Unlike in previous elections, I find myself looking to the results of today’s election with anxiety and worry no matter the outcome.
For distraction and hope, I am trying to focus on the “wins” of an election which may not always be apparent. For example, in the 2018 election, while West Virginia was one of just two states across the U.S. that saw a decrease in women representation in state legislatures that year, we actually saw an increase in women of color winning state delegate seats. This year, too, has already brought us the first openly transgender elected official in West Virginia history, when Rosemary Ketchum was elected to city council in Wheeling this past June. Other firsts this year include Tina Russell, who became the first Black woman to win a Democratic primary in Mercer County; Cory Roman, who became the youngest and first Black city council member elected in Martinsburg; and Delegate Danielle Walker, a Black woman from Morgantown, who was the top primary vote getter among the state’s House of Delegates candidates. And in a state first, all challenging U.S. House candidates on West Virginia ballots this general election are women. So even if today’s election results appear dire, I’m finding comfort in the fact that West Virginians are still organizing and gaining wins by electing folks more reflective of our communities.