A long-standing Guilford County election tradition is not dead yet, but Tuesday night it looked like it was close.
In the past candidates, campaign staff, families, friends and media all crowded into the Commissioners Meeting Room at the Old Guilford County Court House to watch the election returns posted.
Years ago it was required if you wanted to see the returns as soon as they came in. Television and radio would report the returns as they were posted, but there was no way to sit at home and watch the actual returns as they came in. At that time a lot of the people in the room would be on the phone reporting the results to candidates, campaign managers and interested folks who were not there, yet. Eventually, win or lose, most people involved in a campaign showed up.
Now, of course, you can be anywhere with a smart phone or internet connection and watch the returns at the same time they are posted at the court house. But even though there is no advantage to being at the courthouse, the tradition has continued.
Election night at the Old Court House was truly a community building event. It was not unusual to see folks in T-shirts of rival candidates standing side by side or sitting together discussing the returns, and perhaps placing small wagers on what the percentages would be the next time new precinct results were posted. People who know exactly where every precinct in the county is located would run downstairs and find out which precincts had reported and which were still out. They’d come running upstairs breathless and announce, “G20, 21 and 23 are still out, and you know what that means.” I for one never knew what that meant, but some people did.
Particularly when computer technology was in its childhood, there always seemed to be problems. Sometimes the screen could only be seen from certain spots in the room and people would crowd into those areas, leaving much of the room empty. When former Mayor Carolyn Allen was a candidate, she brought her bird watching binoculars so she could stand in the back of the room and still read the results.
The tradition has lasted longer in Guilford County than in most counties. Board of Elections Director Charlie Collicutt said a couple of elections ago that Guilford County was one of the few counties left in the state that continued to have a courthouse event on election night. He also said that as long as people continued to come, the elections office would accommodate them.
Because fewer people have been attending, the event has been moved from the commissioners meeting room that was once full to overflowing on election night to the much smaller Blue Room on the first floor.
On Tuesday night, only three candidates showed up in the Blue Room – County Commissioner Skip Alston, Board of Education member Deena Hayes and Guilford County sheriff’s candidate James Zimmerman. Alston and Hayes both won, but Zimmerman finished third out of three in the Democratic sheriff’s primary. Still, two out of three winners is not a bad percentage.
Tuesday night there were never more than 15 people in the room, and that included two photographers and three reporters, so a third of those were media.
The tradition is not be dead yet, and it might be that because of the extremely low voter turnout – 11 percent – and the fact that there was only one close race that people chose not to make a public appearance. Also, primaries rarely attract as much interest from the public as general elections.
Last fall, all the winning candidates in the Greensboro City Council race were at the Old Court House, and quite a few of those who lost. So this might be a temporary lull.
Before the tradition is pronounced dead, we’ll have to wait and see what happens in November when the ballot is full.
As noted, all the candidates who showed up in the Blue Room on Tuesday night were Democrats, and it appears that something that had been completely nonpartisan has become partisan. Democratic candidates are far more likely to be found at the courthouse than Republicans. In that vein, it’s worth noting that not a single Republican won a City Council race last fall, which may explain why all the winners were there even though the races are nonpartisan.
It appears that one of the reasons fewer people are showing up at the courthouse is because politics has become so partisan. But doesn’t it seem like for one night people could put aside their partisanship and enjoy watching election returns together?