Life on the line: Early voters wait 'as long as it takes'

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In this Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020, photo voters line up at Mallard Creek High School during the first day of in-person voting ahead of the Nov. 3 elections in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Laurie Kellman)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Americans are accustomed to standing in line. They queue up for airport security, the latest iPhone, COVID tests, concerts or food. But the line of voters building before sunrise outside Mallard Creek High School in a distant suburb of Charlotte, North Carolina, on Thursday was different.

It was a living chain of hundreds of people who stepped into place — around the building, down some stairs and past a fleet of idled yellow school buses — determined to be counted in the elemental civic ritual of voting, which seems even more consequential in the bitterly fought 2020 presidential election.

“If you want the United States to remain united, you need to vote,” said Monique Sutton, 52 and a nurse practitioner. “Because if we get any further away from each other, I don’t know that we’ll ever be able to come back.”

The rush to vote early is a phenomenon that has shattered early turnout records across critical Mecklenburg County, battleground North Carolina and the nation, driven both by Democratic enthusiasm and a pandemic that has claimed more than 217,000 American lives.

President Donald Trump captured North Carolina by 3 percentage points in 2016 and almost certainly must win the state again to defeat his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden. Hillary Clinton overwhelmingly won Mecklenburg, the county that's home to Charlotte. But Trump took the neighboring counties by roughly similar margins.

Biden's formula for winning the state relies on robust turnout by Black voters and suburban women. Trump will need to again deliver enormous margins among whites in rural areas.

The pandemic is the dismal overlay of the campaign, but it has inspired record levels of early voting.

By the end of Thursday, North Carolina had accepted 333,466 in-person ballots, up from 166,000 on the first day of in-person voting in 2016. In Mecklenburg County, the number was 35,015, compared with about 14,000 on opening day four years earlier, according to the State Board of Elections.