Michael Dickerson, the avuncular, mustachioed 67-year-old who’s overseen elections in Mecklenburg County since 1998, vigorously defends his and his staff’s work. He does it when citizens complain or accuse him of some vague corruption. He does it, unprompted, with me when we speak in his office in late July, about six weeks before the primary.
“I’ve had people call up and get angry,” he tells me. “But my job is just to explain: ‘Here’s what we’re doing. I’m not doing anything nefarious. I don’t care about who wins or loses. I just want the one who wins to be the one who gets the most votes. It’s all I’m doing.’”
Not long ago, the officials who run elections in states and counties did not need to express that. It was a given. Until recently, people like Dickerson did their jobs in healthy near-anonymity. They set up the systems that allowed people to vote, and they tallied the results. Not so much anymore. The vast majority still believes elections and their results are legitimate, but a small segment of the population doesn’t, and it’s disproportionately loud and sometimes worse. He hasn’t been the subject of a harassment campaign, but some of his peers have. The atmosphere around elections has changed since 2016.
“It upsets me as a professional,” Dickerson says. “People don’t understand what goes on behind the scenes to make everything work—the training, the programming, the things we have to do for the election.” Just because you vote or read something online about voting, he says, does not make you an expert on elections: “I put gas in my car before I came into the office this morning. That doesn’t make me a petroleum engineer.”
What he’s done in recent years, though, is something he never had to do before—speak to community groups and generally make himself more visible. He emphasizes that most people he encounters are sane and appreciative, not adherents to what he calls “the January 6th stuff.” But if putting a face on the county Board of Elections will help, he’ll do it. He hopes most residents, at least, understand that precinct workers and staff aren’t cogs in a malevolent machine.
“These are your neighbors,” Dickerson says. “These are the same people you go to church with. These are your co-workers.” And he’s a guy from Greensboro who moved back to his home state from Washington, D.C., 25 years ago because the capital was getting too big and expensive for him. He likes to garden, do the occasional woodworking project—“something that doesn’t talk back to me”—and follow German soccer, of all things. He’s made his home here, and though he’s reached retirement age, he plans to keep doing his job. He takes pride in having earned the trust of the elections board and county commissioners, no matter which party is in control.
“Both sides have confidence in me to do my job,” he says. “And that, to me, is golden.”
Election Day is Nov. 7. It’s an off-year election, when voters will cast ballots in municipal and school board races and on a $2.5 billion school bond referendum. Dickerson expects low turnout compared to high-volume presidential election years. But early voting starts this month, and Dickerson and his staff of 29 have spent months training a team of nearly 3,000 precinct workers to accommodate a new requirement: photo ID.
The General Assembly approved the requirement in 2018, but only in April did a freshly Republican-dominated N.C. Supreme Court clear the way for its implementation statewide. Dickerson’s main message to volunteers and voters: Even if you lack a proper photo ID, you’ll still be allowed to cast a ballot. It’ll just be thrown out if you can’t come back later with an official ID or a “reasonable impediment” explanation for why you don’t have one. But no one’s going to keep you from voting: “That’s the No. 1 thing I want people to realize.”
His interest in the mechanisms of democracy started when he was a teenager handing out fliers for former Governor and eventual U.S. Senator Terry Sanford’s 1972 presidential campaign. He eventually decided he’d rather work on elections than campaigns, and he spent 14 years working for the Federal Election Commission in D.C. Dickerson started as a temporary records clerk and worked his way up to deputy assistant in the Public Disclosure Office, overseeing campaign finance laws and policies.
By 1998, he and his wife, Lynn, had moved from the city to a Virginia suburb, and the commute both in and out took an hour and 20 minutes. A reporter mentioned to him that the elections director position in Charlotte was open, and he applied. The elections board chose him from a group of 134 candidates.
“I think you’ve got a great deal,” Kent Cooper, one of Dickerson’s bosses at the FEC, said at the time. “He has a heavy emphasis on educating the public and working with the media to get information out on the candidates and campaigns so that you have a fair and even election system.”
The elections board had more than a casual reason to hire someone with those qualities. On Dickerson’s first day, July 7, 1998, a federal grand jury indicted his retired predecessor, Bill Culp, on charges that he accepted more than $134,000 in kickbacks and bribes from a voting-machine company executive and a company repairman. (Culp, who died last year, eventually spent 20 months in federal prison.) No election results were cast into suspicion. But Dickerson recalls how unnerving the transition was, from obscurity to TV cameras in his face on his first day.
Since then, the act of voting has transformed. Election Day has turned into, effectively, Election Weeks. People can still vote at their designated polling places on the official day. But early voting, which began in North Carolina with the 2000 election, has become a near-default for voters, and the COVID restrictions of 2020—which led to record levels of absentee voting—only accelerated the trend.
“The biggest change I’ve seen in my 25 years is early voting,” Dickerson says. “I go back to 2000—we had about 60,000 people vote early. In the last presidential (election), 2020, 365,000 people voted early, and another 120,000 voted by mail. The numbers were off the charts. Ever since President Obama’s first campaign (in 2008), early voting has outdone Election Day voting.”
Among other things, it means extra preparation to secure early voting sites and longer hours over more days. “We’re handling elections for 17 straight days,” he says. “But that’s OK. We’re here to help people vote.” Even with the changes, some people still want to cast their ballots the old-fashioned way, at their polling places on Election Day. To them, voting isn’t a duty so much as a treasured community event.
That Dickerson can understand. Since his arrival, Charlotte has taken massive steps toward becoming the kind of traffic-choked megalopolis he fled in 1998. But it still beats D.C. His commute takes 25 minutes, and he and Lynn are empty nesters now that their daughters, Margaret and Sarah, are grown. As a child, Margaret passed one of her passions, soccer, to her dad. Dickerson can talk your ear off about it, especially Bundesliga, the primary German soccer league. When we talk in July, I ask him about a fraying mousepad on his desk that bears the logo of Hertha BSC, a second-tier Bundesliga squad.
This seems curious to me. How, I ask him, did an elections director in his 60s, born and raised in Greensboro, develop a passion for German soccer? And if you’re going to follow European professional soccer, why not the far more famous and prestigious English Premier League? He responds that Premier League is a little too flashy, and the players make a little too much money. The Bundesliga players, he says, “seem like they try harder.”
GREG LACOUR is the editor.