On Halloween night, Chapel Hill residents opened their doors to some of the usual characters—ghosts, princesses, dinosaurs in costume. But to undecided voters, some door-knockers may have been even spookier than the usual mash of monsters.
“You don’t look like a trick-or-treater,” said one woman, gripping a pumpkin-shaped bucket full of chocolate when Theodore Nollert appeared at her door.
“I’m not. I’m a town council candidate!” Nollert said. “I’m just swinging by to give you some info and see if you have any questions or know who you’re voting for?” said Nollert.
“Don’t know yet,” said another resident on Nollert’s tour. “But thank you for this!”
It’s the week before the election and early voting ended on Saturday. This Tuesday, November 7, is Election Day.
With a recent poll finding a majority of Chapel Hill voters still undecided on who to elect for town council and mayor, Nollert and the other candidates have been pounding the pavement and camping out at early voting sites to try to get residents’ attention. In this hyperlocal race, “every vote matters!” isn’t just a feel-good affirmation—recent town council races have been decided by as few as 24 votes. The close proximity between opposing sides, both physically and in the numbers of the poll, has caused disagreements over the accuracy of campaign literature and reports of aggressive electioneering.
Nollert estimates his team has knocked on 4,000 doors this election season. He wrapped up around 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, and went home to greet trick-or-treaters. If he’d stuck around for a few more minutes, he would’ve crossed paths with town council candidate Melissa McCullough, who was bundled up against the suddenly-cold weather as she traced a nearly identical trail along Colony Woods Drive around 5:45 p.m.
“You’re the second one to come by,” a resident said to McCullough when she introduced herself as a candidate. He offered her a Twix, but didn’t say who he was voting for.
All politics is local, especially in a university town like Chapel Hill. Nollert recognized names from his department at UNC-Chapel Hill on his canvassing list, and McCullough realized she was knocking on the door of a former boss. At one stop, McCullough sandwiched her own campaign flier between the welcome mat, a Nollert flier, and a Jess Anderson for Mayor sheet.
On Wednesday, the town library was open for early voting from 8 a.m to 6 p.m. Electioneering isn’t allowed within about 50 feet of the entrance to the polling place, so candidates and their supporters did their best to reach voters as they walked from the parking lot.
“Most people come in for books but they’re not aware that early voting is going on,” said council candidate Breckany Eckhardt as she greeted people in the cold afternoon shadow of the building.
Eckhardt is running on a slate of candidates, headed by mayoral candidate Adam Searing, that’s hoping to gain a new majority on the council. Eckhardt says the slate’s campaigns have collectively canvassed over 5,800 households.
Eckhardt briefly braved the cold and unzipped her jacket to reveal a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “new vision, new leaders.” As she greeted voters, a black Toyota with a large “Jess Anderson for Mayor” sticker on the side pulled up, and Anderson got out to check in with her own team of greeters.
Anderson and Searing are both Democrats. So are most of the candidates for town council. The Orange County Democratic Party has not endorsed anyone in the local races, writing in bold font in an email to members that they support “all Democratic candidates running for office.” They also have tables set up at each early voting site to distribute literature for all Democratic candidates.
Through the week, candidates’ proxies clashed at polling sites as they competed for voters on the patches of pavement between parking lots and the red and white “NO ELECTIONEERING BEYOND THIS POINT” signs.
“We have received reports on aggressive poll greeters on both sides,” says Cassie Rice, chair of the Orange County Democrats, referring to supporters of both mayoral candidates. She also says some poll greeters at the Democrats’ tables have been doing “inappropriate things,” like promoting specific candidates.
“I feel very strongly that we do not do that, so we immediately take steps to make sure that doesn’t happen again,” says Rice.
Candidates have also complained, to the party and voters, about each other’s fliers.
“WARNING,” Searing wrote in an October 27 newsletter. “Unfortunately, there is a misleading sheet about endorsements being circulated by other candidates in the race – you might be handed it when you go to vote.”
Searing was referring to a handout produced by Jess Anderson for Mayor. The bottom row of the chart says that Searing and his slate have been endorsed by CHALT’s Chapel Hill Leadership PAC.
The campaign flier produced by Jess Anderson for Mayor, which says Searing and his slate have been endorsed by CHALT
Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town (CHALT) has not “endorsed” anyone in this race, nor has its associated PAC, the Chapel Hill Leadership Political Action Committee.
Instead, CHALT has sent emails with messages like “Chapel Hill Needs These Five Candidates,” with images of Searing and his slate. On Saturday, the same graphic from the email appeared in a sponsored tweet from the Daily Tar Heel. The PAC has also funded signs at polling sites using the same design, and sent mailers with more images of Searing and his slate.
Still, some voters seemed to be unclear on the difference between “endorsing” candidates and simply promoting candidates through mass emails and paid materials like signs, fliers, and mailers.
An email from email@example.com says “Chapel Hill Needs These Five Candidates,” with photos of Searing and his slate.
“I saw that you have been endorsed by CHALT,” a voter said to Searing outside the Chapel of the Cross polling site on Wednesday afternoon. “It’s on the charts that are going around everywhere,” the voter said.
“That’s wrong, that’s not correct,” responded Searing. “That’s just completely a lie.”
One reason CHALT declined to “endorse” any candidates this year was because of its negative reputation around town. The poll, which found many voters were still undecided, also found that 32 percent of respondents had an unfavorable view of CHALT, compared to only 20 percent who saw it favorably.
“The organization has been basically misrepresented and slandered, and we felt that we did not want to harm any candidates,” says Linda Brown, CHALT steering committee member, as she greets people outside of the Seymour Senior Center polling site on Wednesday.
Anderson’s sheet states that it only includes organizations that “opened their endorsement process to all candidates.” But Eckhardt says that the sheet deliberately excludes endorsements for Searing’s slate, including from the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund.
Perrin de Jong, a representative for the center’s action fund, confirmed that he did not speak to candidates who weren’t recommended by Searing. He says it wasn’t necessary, because Searing has “an impeccable record” on issues like fully remediating the coal ash site beneath the police station on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
“I’m not going to reach out to candidates who have betrayed our interests in the past and who have refused to stand up for environmental justice,” says de Jong.
Anderson has also complained about the fliers produced by Searing’s campaign. That sheet lists Anderson as “absent” from three votes on affordable housing and land preservation.
A “voting report card” produced by Adam Searing for Mayor shows Anderson absent from three votes
“I was sick one night when multiple votes were taken and they are presenting as if it’s more than once,” Anderson said in a text message to INDY. Anderson was absent from the April 27, 2022 meeting, when the Trinity Court and Jay Street projects came up for votes. Both Anderson and Searing voted in favor of the town’s affordable development plan and investment strategy when it came to council for a vote this fall.
Orange County Democrats have not allowed either sheet on their tables. Rice says this is because both feature candidates who are not Democrats.
Many voters on Halloween night said they were undecided. But as the decorations come down, the Orange County early voting numbers may tell a different story.
“Orange County early voting Friday 1,352 votes cast, up 20 percent from the same day in 2021. Cumulative total 7,053, up 27 percent from same point in 2021,” tweeted an elections official.
Support independent local journalism.
Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.