Why North Carolina Struggles With Voter Efforts When Georgia Succeeded

Nearly two years ago, Aimy Steele started the New North Carolina Project, a group modeled on Georgia Democrat Stacey Abram’s voter registration work and the New Georgia Project — efforts that helped transform the state into a purple swing state.

The goal was simple: register thousands of potential voters of color ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.

But earlier this year, the decision was made to lay off the entire 20-strong New North Carolina Project staff, including herself. Now, a team of five volunteers work on the organization.

The main reason for the layoffs? finance.

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“When you’re raising money and also spending money and trying to keep people busy as small business owners, that’s a challenge,” Steele said.

North Carolina is trending toward becoming a purple state, but hasn’t achieved the same status that Georgia has in faltering congressional and presidential elections. Efforts like the New North Carolina Project hope to change that. But without the money to pay employees, work becomes limited.

Fundraising hampers voter retention work

Steele said the organization started in 2022 with less than $1 million in the bank.

By the end of the election cycle, the group had knocked on more than 60,000 doors, made 136,000 phone calls and sent 2.2 million text message numbers.

But without continued funding, the New North Carolina Project had to make a difficult decision about layoffs.

“With the way that political infrastructure is funded these days, it really only matters for certain funders that they fund just before an election, and that’s unsustainable,” Steele said.

Unlike Georgia, North Carolina doesn’t have its own Atlanta — a metropolitan area that’s home to high-income black and brown residents who can invest in voting work.

According to the 2020 census, Charlotte is the largest urban area in North Carolina with a population of more than 1.35 million. White residents make up almost 40% of the population, Black residents make up 35% of the city, followed by Hispanics at 15% and Asian Americans at 6.5%.

In comparison, the Atlanta metro area has more than 6.1 million residents and is the ninth largest metropolitan area in the United States. White residents make up more than 38% of the population, Black residents make up 36%, followed by Hispanics at 13% and Asian Americans at 8%.

Colored voters need more engagement

Democrat Cheri Beasley narrowly lost her bid for the North Carolina Senate by less than 4 percentage points to Republican Ted Budd last year.

A poll by HIT Strategies and Black to the Future Action Fund last month found that 22% of black North Carolinians did not vote in the past year. If they had, it could have swayed the election in Beasley’s favour.

Voters said a key reason for not voting was that they did not know enough about the candidates.

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Beasley told USA TODAY that during the campaign, people told her they didn’t vote because the candidates didn’t come into their communities or respond to their needs.

But Beasley also said the other reason Black and Brown voters have not voted is legislation restricting ballot access, such as voter identification laws and attempts to shorten early voting days.

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“All of that is important to think about why voters need information, but also that voting and voter laws and voting rules need to be transparent,” Beasley said. “We need transparency in voter access and information. And transparency does not lead to fraud. It leads to greater voter participation.”

Because of this, Beasley is pushing against gerrymandering and laws restricting voting.

RALEIGH, NC - MAY 17: North Carolina Democratic Senate nominee Cheri Beasley addresses a crowd during an election night event on May 17, 2022 in Raleigh, North Carolina.  Beasley, a former chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, won the Democratic primary and will be running against Republican primary winner Rep. Ted Budd.  (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775813245 ORIG FILE ID: 1240734903

Political parties have failed voters of color in North Carolina

Kay Brown, a former New North Carolina Project staffer and current Greensboro NAACP president, said more lawmakers need to demonstrate their commitment to voters to help change North Carolina’s political landscape.

“People need to see that they are fighting for them. So it’s not just that blacks and browns just don’t show up because they don’t care,” Brown said. “For those people, there was also a story where both parties failed them.”

The North Carolina Supreme Court is locked in a lawsuit over whether the state’s voter ID law is racially discriminatory. The Supreme Court ruled in December that the 2018 law was racially discriminatory, but in February the Republican-majority court decided to try the case again.

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Expansion of Medicaid

One major win that advocates have pointed to is something that is helping people of color in North Carolina: the expansion of Medicaid.

After Republicans abandoned decades of opposition, North Carolina last month became the 40th state to expand Medicaid. The expansion will help hundreds of thousands of low-income residents, but it took years of organization before the expansion could take place.

People of color face disproportionately high rates of poverty in North Carolina. A study published in 2020 showed that Native Americans had a 26% poverty rate, while Black Americans and Hispanics/Latinos both had a 22% poverty rate. White residents had a poverty rate of 9% and Asian Americans were at 8%.

“This Medicaid expansion win is an example of investing in a long game and understanding it’s not going to happen in one cycle,” said Dreama Caldwell, executive co-director of Down Home North Carolina, a civic engagement group. which focuses on rural voters. Proponents have worked for years to combat opposition to this issue in the state.

“Communities of color don’t want you to parachute in and out of elections,” she said. “That’s why building relationships is important to our work.”

Change doesn’t happen overnight

Brown points out that the work Abrams did in Georgia took years of organization before it garnered national media attention.

“It wasn’t just the organization that came along one day and then there was a Stacey Abrams and that was it,” Brown said. “There were years of work and years of building. There were years of the infrastructure that was there.”

The same amount of time to develop organizing is needed in North Carolina, proponents said.

“Cycle after cycle, we’re making good progress,” said Todd Zimmer, executive co-director of Down Home North Carolina. “We must continue to expand the work of organizations like ours like Down Home to bridge this gap. But there really is phenomenal and growing and increasingly sophisticated infrastructure in this state, much of it Black Lead.”