GREENSBORO, N.C.— On the eve of what could turn out to be the most expensive senate race in U.S. history, a handful of unpaid volunteers huddled around a table piled with voter information guides and know your rights pamphlets.
"Ferguson’s issues are everywhere’s issue"'
For months they’d gathered in that upstairs room at the Beloved Community Center near downtown Greensboro and talked over the tedious work of knocking on doors and follow-up phone calls with newly registered voters. They picked up pile after pile of the voter guides, of which they say they’ve handed out about 20,000.
The effort comes as a host of new voting laws has made it more difficult for North Carolinians to vote and added a fog of confusion over the voting process.
Now, with Election Day about 12 hours away, they’re planning one last surge of phone calls and canvassing to make sure everyone is prepared when they get to the polls.
“Everything is at stake,” said Irving Allen, a field director with Ignite NC, a youth led voting rights group. “Not only the fight for new ground but a fight for all the ground we’ve won. Voting rights are at stake, early childhood education and healthcare are all at stake. There’s a lot on the line.”
When North Carolina voters head to the polls on Tuesday and cast their ballots they do so with the balance of power in Washington likely at their fingertips. Control of the Senate is expected to come down to a handful of expectedly close races in mostly southern states, including North Carolina, where the Koch brother-supported conservative Republican Thom Tillis is challenging incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan.
The race has broad, national implications. North Carolina in recent years has passed some of the most stringent voting laws in the country, including provisions that have ended early voting and same day registration, moved polling places off college campuses and the elimination of out-of-precinct voting. But perhaps the most controversial new voting law passed by the state’s Republican-led legislature is a voter ID law which requires voters to show photo identification at the voting booth. The voter ID requirement, one of many aspects of the new laws still being challenged in court, doesn’t kick in until 2015. Voting and civil rights groups say the laws collectively suppress the rights of African-Americans, young voters and the elderly, all of whom are key Democratic voting blocs.
Experts and analysts say Tuesday’s election between Hagan and Tillis may very well come down to black voter turnout, which could be impacted by confusion over the voting process under the new laws.
One key sticking point, voting rights groups say, is that while people don’t need to show an ID to vote this year, poll workers are still allowed to ask for identification which may fuel more confusion.
“Part of this new laws implementation is that voters can be challenged at the polls,” said Bryan Perlmutter, director of Ignite NC. “So we’ll have poll watchers and poll observers looking out for trends that we see, where the long liens are, where there are broken voting machines, etc.”
Already there have been early reports of glitchy electronic voting machines across the state, in which voters say they’ve voted for Hagan but the machine registered a vote for Tillis.
Perlmutter’s group, as part of a coalition of other voting groups in the state, have conducted nearly two-dozen trainings of nearly 400 volunteers across the state to monitor 140 precincts in 40 counties across North Carolina, particularly around college campuses.
"Some people don’t want to participate in politics at all. They just don’t see how it will benefit their lives and think none of it matters anyway, especially with wealthy, multi-billionaires involved"'
In recent days, polling numbers show Hagan slightly edging out Tillis in what has been essentially a dead heat for weeks. It is likely that the race may very well hinge on African-American turnout.
Early voting numbers suggest high black voter engagement, a sign that might signify higher black turnout than the traditionally low showing in midterm elections.
Black voters accounted for an impressive 27% of all early votes cast in the state, according to numbers analyzed by The New York Times. When looking at the final Sunday of early voting before Election Day, that figure surges to an impressive 53%. Those numbers are up 45% from 2010.
The Moral Monday protests lead by North Carolina NAACP president Rev. William Barber seem to have galvanized a cross section of voters, black and otherwise. But politicians have also zeroed in on lightening rod issues locally and nationally to fire up black voters.
On local African-American oriented radio stations, political ads featuring first lady Michelle Obama urging voters to vote for Hagan are followed by ads invoking the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri following the killing of an unarmed black teen Michael Brown Jr. here by a police officer in August.
“Ferguson’s issues are everywhere’s issues,” Allen said on Monday afternoon, between coordinating volunteers for the last minute push into Election Day.
Allen said there are about 10 cases of alleged police brutality that civil rights groups in North Carolina are seeking justice, including the killing of Jonathan Ferrell earlier this year by police after he was in a bad car crash and sought help from a nearby home.
“The work we do can be discouraging,” said volunteer Marc Silvey, 20, a fellow at the Beloved Community Center. “Some people don’t want to participate in politics at all. They just don’t see how it will benefit their lives and think none of it matters anyway, especially with wealthy, multi-billionaires involved."
“But I tell them when you have a collection of people engaged together, you can make a difference and have your voice heard,” he said.
Sitting around that table at the Beloved Community Center were a handful of African-American youth mostly, who in one way or another have become engaged in politics in recent years. Some were energized by the early campaigns of Barack Obama for president or by issues closer to home.
King Justice Wray, 26, another volunteer, said he became caught up in the criminal justice system and hopes to enlighten fellow felons on the political process.
“With me coming from where I’m coming from, I just want to give others information that they need, that just because you’re a felon doesn’t mean you can’t vote,” Wray said. “I give them one of our guides and I say you don’t have to vote but learn about the process and the politicians in your community. I just figure if they’ll follow me doing negative things, they’ll follow me doing the positive, too.”