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What's drawing Black voters in Charlotte to the polls — and what's deterring them

Charlotte native Kenneth Manago holds a voter guide in his hands as he heads to a polling station on West Boulevard.
Elvis Menayese
/
WFAE
Charlotte native Kenneth Manago holds a voter guide in his hand as he heads to a polling station on West Boulevard.

Mary Kelly, 25, headed into the library on West Boulevard last week, ahead of the Super Tuesday primary. It's an early voting site, and campaign signs lined the curb. A campaigner handed her a flyer and asked her to vote in the primary.

But Kelly wasn’t there to vote; she was there to study for a course at Central Piedmont Community College. Kelly is not a registered voter and was unaware the primary election is underway. She said she’s interested in the local races, but not the presidential.

“In all honesty, I don’t worry too much about the presidential election,” Kelly said. “I feel like there’s not much they do to impact me personally because I feel like when it comes down to the president, they are more worried about American debt and stuff overseas.”

Kelly said she didn’t hear much about civic engagement growing up.

“We never talked about voting or what any of this meant to us. So, we wake up every day, getting food on the table or trying to get a better education for ourselves so we can buy a home,” Kelly said.

Mary Kelly, 25, a student at Central Piedmont Community College, walks toward West Boulevard Library to study.
Elvis Menayese
/
WFAE
Mary Kelly, 25, a student at Central Piedmont Community College, walks toward West Boulevard Library to study.

But there are several groups aiming to convey the importance of voting. The percentage of Black voters casting ballots in North Carolina has fallen in recent years, as it has across the country. Getting Black voters to turn out is critical for any Democrat to win a statewide race here. Local and national groups are trying to convince them to come to the polls and vote.

The Charlotte Black Voter Project was started last year to educate and empower people to vote. The nonpartisan group has held candidate forums and canvassed primarily Black communities like those along West Boulevard.

Colette Forrest, the group's leader, briefly stopped people going into the library, handing them flyers listing all the candidates on the ballots, and saying "I want you to educate yourself."

Forrest says there’s a need to reinvigorate Black voters.

“They do not feel like the people that are elected represent their best interests, represent what’s important to them and aren’t listening to them, so they’ve checked out,” Forrest said.

Forty-two percent of Black registered voters in North Carolina cast a ballot in the 2022 midterm elections, according to an analysis by Democracy North Carolina, which found that was the lowest turnout of Black voters since 2010, two years after Barack Obama’s campaign spent heavily on mobilizing voters in North Carolina.

Colette Forrest, founder of the Charlotte Black Voter Project, hands out voter guides to people in the community.
Elvis Menayese
/
WFAE
Colette Forrest, founder of the Charlotte Black Voter Project, hands out voter guides to people in the community.

In Mecklenburg County, the analysis showed Black voter turnout dropped by nine percentage points between the midterms in 2018 and 2022, even with a Black candidate at the top of the ballot.

“At the end of the day, we can’t simply run folks based off their race and hope that’s going to gin up turnout without going out and talking to people,” said Drew Kromer, who was elected chair of Mecklenburg County’s Democratic Party last year. “You can’t just run a Black candidate and not go talk to Black voters. You have to talk to people. You have to be in the community. You have to be listening.”

But the race and age of candidates do matter, says Jocelyn Nolley, chair of the Black Political Caucus of Charlotte-Mecklenburg. She’s especially concerned about engaging young people with Biden and Trump at the top of the ballot.

“I think that was some of Obama's appeal, that he was young and had a young family. People find it very hard to continuously relate to older, white men being in charge and older, white, rich men being in charge,” Nolley said. “Who looks like us? What’s in it for us? It’s pretty much like people feel like they’re just going to have the same old thing.”

The presidential race is what Carol White had on her mind as she cast her ballot at the library.

“I don’t think Trump should be president again. I don’t like the attitude and the energy he’s putting into the country,” White said. “It is promoting a lot of backward mentality where people aren’t equal and treated well and respected.”

White likes what she calls Biden’s "middle-line approach" to issues like the U.S.-Mexico border.

Some Black voters have drifted to the Republican Party in recent years. For Davyoneda Mackey, it’s been the other way around. She’s a registered Democrat but has not always voted that way.

“I feel myself more of a moderate to conservative Democrat, and I kind of resonated with the more moderate Republican side. I would often vote cross-party lines, but I don’t feel like I can trust that anymore,” Mackey said.

“I find that (Biden) is credible, I find he is truthful, and I find that he at least shows he cares and has compassion, not only for us here in America but other places as well,” Mackey said.

Over the coming months, local and national groups will continue efforts to get Black voters to the polls.

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Elvis Menayese is a Report for America corps member covering issues involving race and equity for WFAE. He previously was a member of the Queens University News Service. Major support for WFAE's Race & Equity Team comes from Novant Health and Wells Fargo.