FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. – The Fayetteville State University marching band played on as NBA players Chris Paul and Dennis Smith Jr. led several hundred students Wednesday afternoon in a march from the university across the street to the early-voting site at Smith Recreation Center.
Paul, a 10-time NBA All Star who grew up in Winston-Salem and plays for the Oklahoma City Thunder, and Smith, who grew up in Fayetteville and plays for the New York Knicks, delivered their messages for the students and faculty: Get out and vote, and don’t think your vote doesn’t matter.
Paul has been making his get-out-the-early-vote appeal at historically Black colleges in North Carolina and is also part of a coalition that says it is fighting attempts at voter suppression.
Paul said the best way for one's vote to be counted is to cast an early vote in person.
Paul spent the day on the FSU campus meeting with faculty members and then went to the basketball court at Felton J. Capel Arena, where athletes sat in the stands to hear him. He joined Smith, who attended North Carolina State University, to encourage students to vote early in this election.
Paul said close national elections can be won or lost by a couple of thousand votes, which isn’t much.
He said that if a skeptical person argues that one vote doesn’t matter and then convinces 15 or 20 people that he is right, the number of nonvoters grows and that affects the outcome of an election.
“If you don’t vote, don’t be arguing about what is going on,” Paul said, adding that the choice to not vote is, in a way, like voting.
Smith, speaking in an interview before going into the gym, said the high number of people voting early this year has been “almost revolutionary to see.”
“It’s something that hasn’t really been super-emphasized, and I feel like this year it has been emphasized," Smith said. "And there have been more people going to vote now physically. We just found out that North Carolina was one of top states that had our votes rejected through the mail, so it is important for people to come out and (vote early) and light that fire. And it’s been great to see it grow.”
Students at the rally said they plan to vote early this year — some for the first time ever.
Dakota McLendon, who plays on FSU’s football team, was among the first-time voters. He said he was planning to join his teammates to vote Thursday.
“Each vote matters,” McLendon said.
FSU football player Shane Booth said he also planned to join the team in voting Thursday morning at Smith Recreation Center instead of doing it Wednesday with other students who marched across the street.
“It is my first time eligible to vote,” he said.
He said he is pleased with the record-breaking early-voting numbers.
"Young people seem to care and are getting involved,” Booth said.
The votes cast by students Wednesday are just a small fraction of early votes that are shattering records, not just in Cumberland County but nationwide.
Many political science experts say early voting is benefiting Democrats.
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Through Tuesday, 76,752 people had voted at 12 one-stop, early-voting sites in Cumberland County. Early voting is scheduled to end at 3 p.m. Saturday.
The current number of people in the county who have voted early — with four days left — is nearing the total number of people who early voted in the presidential election in 2016.
Then, between 86,000 to 87,000 early voted, said Terri Robertson, director of the Cumberland County Board of Elections, on Wednesday morning.
Robertson said she hopes this year ends up shattering the early-voting record and noted that she is pleased with the turnout.
“I think it’s going really well,” she said. “I expected there would be a heavier turnout than last time. And it seems like it’s going to be.”
Even though voters aren’t required to wear masks, they are being asked to social distance at the polls.
“Go vote. Wear your masks,” Robertson said Wednesday, urging people not to wait until Election Day.
The more people who vote in early voting, the smoother it is for voting on Election Day she said.
“We’re hoping that it will reduce the numbers enough that we can do good social distancing (on Election Day) and still not have lines,” Robertson said.
The high early-voting turnout is not just happening in Cumberland County but across the country.
In North Carolina, the number of votes cast through early voting and absentee ballots has already exceeded the total number in 2016. According to the U.S. Elections Project website, at least 64.7 million people have already cast their ballots.
Statewide, as of Wednesday morning, more than 3.6 million people had cast their ballots either by mail-in or early voting.
According to the state Board of Elections website, there were 7.3 million registered voters in the state as of Wednesday morning. Through Wednesday morning, more than 2.8 million people cast ballots through one-stop early, and 819,363 absentee ballots had been counted out of the more than 1.4 million requested.
Grace Collins, who recently graduated from Terry Sanford High School, was voting for the first time Wednesday morning at Kiwanis Recreation Center. Collins said she and her mother were first in line and they got in and out quickly.
“I think especially right now with COVID, crowding one place at once would be dangerous. So I think it’s good that people are early voting and getting it out of the way,” Collins said.
Follow Fayetteville Observer reporter John Henderson on Twitter: @pcnhjohn.
This article originally appeared on The Fayetteville Observer: NBA's Chris Paul, Dennis Smith urge N. Carolina students to vote early