In the war of attrition that was the 2016 election cycle, it was sometimes unclear whether the candidates were battling one other or the psyche of the American voter.
The year-long campaign that was often short on facts but always big on talk began to slow last Wednesday night with the third presidential debate between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump. The next morning, North Carolina voters, including many in Johnston County, took to the polls to begin two weeks of early voting.
On Thursday, Johnston County opened just one early-voting polling place, in the First Baptist Church Ministry Center in Smithfield. Even as a toxic cloud from a chemical fire on Interstate 95 caused county offices to open late and take away two hours of voting, it was clear this election is a big one.
On the first day of early voting, 1,105 voters cast a ballot in Johnston County. For perspective, just 3,675 Johnston voters cast a ballot in last year’s municipal elections.
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“I was surprised to see this many people out voting on the first day,” said Carol Hall of Smithfield. “It tells me that everybody’s interested, and that’s the way it should be.”
The presidential race drove many to the polls, but even so, some were lukewarm about their choices. Leon Lewis of Clayton said he was happy to get the election over with.
“It’s always the economy, where we’re going, the debt,” Lewis said of his concerns for this election. “But this has just been a messed-up election. I just want to get it over with. Let me vote, let me get it over with, because I’ve got to vote for somebody.”
Other voters were specific, yet general. Holmes Hansel of Selma, a former Republican who considers himself an independent, said he voted for every Democrat he could. He cited languishing judicial appointments at the federal level and House Bill 2 at the state level as weighing on his vote.
“I can’t stand what the Republicans have done to this state,” Hansel said. “I’m so hurt by HB2; it’s just an abomination. And it doesn’t affect me personally.”
On the national stage, Hansel, 73, said he’s never seen anything like the 2016 race, calling the series of debates “less than informative.”
“My mother was an actress, so I know about theater,” Hansel said of Donald Trump.
Others wanted a new direction and felt it was less a matter of party affiliation than style. Lisa Wainwright of Clayton said the country needed to try something besides another Clinton.
“We have to look at how bad off the country is,” Wainwright said. “We’re never going to get out of this. We’ve got to try something different, because it isn’t getting any better.”
Anthony Saunders of Smithfield sees possibility in Trump’s plan to cut taxes at all income levels, but with the highest earners benefiting the most. But Saunders, who is African-American, said Trump was a non-starter because of racist statements.
“What he’s saying about the taxes, that stuff sounds good, but if you don’t respect me as a man, how can I give you my vote?” Saunders said. “How can you say you’re smart for not paying taxes, while I’m out here working 60 hours a week?”
One Smithfield voter had local elections on the brain, specifically the school board race and the future direction of Smithfield and Selma schools.
“I’m concerned, extremely concerned,” Andy Holland said about local schools. “There’s nobody from Smithfield on the current board.”
In the tumult of the national election, races close to home can be overshadowed. With longtime legislators leaving office and a majority of school board seats up for grabs, this could prove to be a game-changing election for Johnston County.
“All politics begins at home,” Holland said.
Drew Jackson; 919-836-5758; @jdrewjackson