Steve Curlee didn't plan to vote when he arrived at Cary Towne Center to meet friends for lunch. A poll worker wearing a blue vest and carrying a clipboard approached his car. "She said, 'I see you have a handicapped sticker on your car. Would you like to vote curbside?' I didn't even know it was going on today."
Inside, the line was long, with waits up to 90 minutes on the second day of one-stop early voting. Wake County's two shopping mall polling places, in Cary and at Triangle Town Center in North Raleigh, are by far the most popular early voting sites, with more than 4,000 ballots cast on the first day. Curlee's experience shows how effectively the location's convenience can increase turnout.
But convenience isn't everything.
Conspicuously absent from the mall voting experience were political candidates, their supporters and party volunteers, who normally greet voters and hand out campaign literature. Security officers have ousted politicians and their supporters attempting to campaign, including one who was warned that his car would be towed. Confusion surrounding mall voting rules has allegedly prompted at least one election worker to enforce policies that contradict election law. Outcry over the policy prompted picketing and a boycott effort by critics who say it violates the First Amendment.
This year marks North Carolina's first experiment with mall voting. As officials ponder whether that experiment is successful, they should also consider whether the promise of higher turnout trumps the right of voters to receive information—and the right of candidates to provide it.
Last year, the state legislature voted to allow non-public buildings to serve as early voting sites—a move Wake County election officials clamored for. The goal was to make early voting more convenient and get more voters to the polls, especially in areas where there are few public buildings that can absorb thousands of voters over the course of two weeks.
Wake County Board of Elections Director Cherie Poucher said, controversy aside, the results so far show the mall voting experiment is accomplishing exactly what the board intended. "Our goal is to get as many people voting as possible," she said.
The same state law that designates a 50-foot buffer zone around the polling place to protect people's right to vote without distraction also clearly lays out the rights of people to "engage in election-related activity" under the First Amendment.
The malls, which are owned by a common parent company, CBL & Associates Properties, won't allow electioneering anywhere on the premises. Mall officials say soliciting votes violates their code of conduct, which also prohibits playing musical instruments and "unnecessary staring." The Wake County Board of Elections agreed unanimously to those terms when it leased the space back in June, after requesting an exemption to the law from the state board. Non-voting representatives of each of the major parties were present at that meeting.
Curlee said he was glad not to run a gauntlet of flyers and handshakes.
"I don't like all the political ads to begin with," he said. But he admitted he may not have been fully prepared to vote. There were 28 contested races on his ballot. "I didn't know half the people I voted for," he said. "I said, 'Who's this guy? Who's that guy?'"
That lack of awareness is the parties' biggest concern.
Wake County's Democratic and Republican parties are presenting a united front in pressuring the malls to change their policies. They've sent press releases, picketed and asked the public to call mall management in protest. Some Wake politicos are organizing a boycott of the shopping centers if they refuse to compromise, though party representatives said they are not participating in a boycott.
"It should be a win, win, win," said David Robinson, chair of the Wake County Republican Party. "The board of elections gets lots of parking spaces, making it easy for voters to vote. The malls get people to go to lunch and shop after they vote. The only win that doesn't currently exist is, we have uninformed voters because they're not allowed to meet the candidates they're voting for, and they're not allowed to obtain voter guides and last-minute information. That's the frustration."
Mall managers said they won't cave. "We were up front with [the Board of Elections] to begin with that we were very apprehensive about that type of thing," said Jack Love, general manager of Triangle Town Center, of the ongoing requests for a compromise on campaigning. "We wouldn't have made the agreement had that not been the condition, and we're not going to change that position now."
Electioneering is often restricted at polling places on church and retail properties out of respect to private property owners' wishes. In fact, if local election boards didn't have the option to negotiate that point, their ability to find polling places would be severely restricted—in some precincts, there are no public buildings. But the sheer size of the malls and their quasi-public nature present new quandaries.
Al Swanstrom is a retired IBM executive challenging Republican incumbent Rep. Nelson Dollar to represent the Cary-Apex District 36 in the state House. Swanstrom has never been interviewed by a radio or TV reporter and said he doesn't have the money for broadcast campaign ads. Like many candidates for down-ballot races, he intends to stand behind the 50-foot "buffer zone" at polling places and introduce himself.
"I absolutely do not want to bother anybody who doesn't want to talk to me," Swanstrom said. "I just want to give folks who are interested and would like to meet a candidate an opportunity to meet me, and if they have a question, I want to give them the opportunity to ask it."
On the morning early voting began, Swanstrom drove his wife's SUV to Cary Towne Center. He said a mall security guard approached his car and told him, because of the campaign signs on its doors, his car would be towed if he stayed longer than it took him "to shop or vote." Swanstrom put his campaign sign on a crowded patch of grass that mall management had designated. As he did so, another mall vehicle pulled up and someone told him he was not permitted to put his sign there—it was the Republican patch of grass. Bewildered, Swanstrom moved his sign.
What happened next is even more perplexing. As he approached the mall entrance, a poll worker told him he would not be permitted to enter the mall wearing his T-shirt, which bore the words "Al Swanstrom for N.C. House," because it violated the mall's policy.
This instruction directly contradicts the Board of Elections' policy.
Don Wright, general counsel for the State Board of Elections, has explicitly been trying to debunk a rumor circulating via e-mail that voters will be turned away from polling places for wearing campaign paraphernalia. "Not in North Carolina," Wright told the Independent. "We've taken the position that merely wearing a T-shirt, button or cap is not electioneering."
When told of Swanstrom's experience, Wright said he could not comment because no complaint had been filed on the matter.
Swanstrom said he returned to his car and changed shirts, then entered the mall, stood beyond the 50-foot buffer sign and thanked people in line for voting. An election official told him he would be removed by security if he continued, so he left.
A few days before early voting commenced, John Gilbert, chairman of the Wake elections board, tried to broker a compromise. "I was surprised and disappointed that mall management refused to accept," he said.
But how this happened is less important than the lessons election officials will take from it.
"Before any county proceeds with mall voting in the future, they need to include provisions allowing for freedom of expression at the mall," said Rep. Deborah Ross, majority whip of the N.C. House. She said she hopes the State Board of Elections will step in to provide standards and guidelines for any future leasing contracts. "The county boards could just say, 'Look, if you're not going to allow freedom of expression, we're not going to sign the contract with you. You don't get the money and you don't get the shoppers—goodbye!'"