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With midterms on the horizon, Wilmingtonians discuss the history and importance of voting

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Grace Vitaglione
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WHQR
Reverend Kojo Nantambu speaks at the Poor People's Campaign event held in Wilmington Aug. 27.

Activists and community members are trying to reach groups that were historically pushed out of politics during this voting season.

When Shinita Taylor was in her early twenties and attending college in Raleigh, she wasn’t a voter.

“It slipped through the cracks for me,” she said.

Voting wasn’t talked about in her home or school, so Taylor said she didn’t know its importance. But as she grew up and returned to Wilmington, she learned about the history of voter suppression in North Carolina, especially laws targeting Black voters. That changed her mind.

“A lot of people think it doesn't matter. And I tell them: if it doesn't matter, why are they trying so hard to suppress our votes?” Taylor said.

These days, Taylor is a community activist in Wilmington, focusing on mobilizing voters in local elections. She often runs into the same issue: many people don’t believe it matters. Taylor said that stems from a lack of education about the impact of voting.

North Carolina has a long history of voter suppression, particularly towards the Black community. Jim Crow-era laws required literacy tests and poll taxes aimed at hindering Black votes.

A more recent 2013 law required voter ID. That law was struck down by a federal appeals court for being racially discriminatory. Also, legal battles over claims of racial gerrymandering in NC heated up from 2011 to 2020.

Natalie Murdock, a state senator (D) for Durham, said the battle for equitable voting access in North Carolina going forward will be combating discriminatory policies like voter ID and proposals for requiring signature matches or decreasing early voting periods.

“There will always be forces that will try to challenge the right for Black and Brown people to vote in North Carolina,” she said. “So we just have to remain vigilant and we'll keep fighting.”

Reaching low-income voters

Reverend William Barber is chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, a national movement to achieve economic justice for poor people. He gave a speech in Wilmington Aug. 27 about mobilizing low-income voters ahead of the midterms this year.

In an interview with WHQR, he said many of these voters feel ignored by politicians.

“Too often, poor or low wealth voters, regardless of race, creed, or color, do not hear politicians, regardless of their party, articulating specifically how they're going to touch the lives of poor and low wealth voters,” Barber said.

Barber defines low-wealth voters as anyone making less than twice the federal poverty line, and said that group makes up a key chunk of the electorate in North Carolina. He said that those voters are no longer detached from politics.

“People are starting to rise up, people are realizing that they have to be engaged, because the policy affects their daily lives,” he said.

That awakening seems to be slower in reaching Wilmington. A significant portion of the region’s population is low-income, but most of that group doesn’t vote, according to Reverend Kojo Nantambu, a representative of the Poor People’s Campaign in Wilmington.

“We do understand and know that if only 10% or 15% of them did vote, they could change the outcome of every election,” he said.

Senator Murdock said it’s true that some politicians are out of touch with what their voters need, especially those from marginalized communities.

“I think we have to have more elected officials that have lived experiences that voters can connect to,” she said. “I think that we need more representation that looks like people. And I think you'll also learn what voters want by talking to voters.”

Unlocking the vote

Daquan Peters is another Wilmington resident who said he never cared about voting until he learned about voter suppression.

Now, he’s the Second Chance Alliance Coordinator in New Hanover County, a statewide organization that addresses barriers to reentry for people with criminal records. He also works with the Unlock Our Vote campaign to help formerly incarcerated people register to vote. Recent changes to state law have opened the ballot box to people who have been released from prison but are still on supervised release or probation. People like this weren’t formerly allowed to vote — and getting the word out has been difficult, and confusing because of the complicated court process.

Related: Three-judge panel hears challenge to North Carolina's felon voting rights law: Carolina Public Press's Jordan Wilkie

Peters said many people don’t know that once they’re out of confinement, their rights to vote are automatically restored, even if they’re still under probation. He said in New Hanover County, almost 1800 people fall under that category.

“If I can get 30% of the 1700 to 1800, that's enough right there to overthrow an election,” he said.

This particularly affects Black people, who are disproportionately incarcerated. Peters said that elected officials now have to consider people who were formerly incarcerated in their platforms, as well as educate themselves on the harms caused to this community by former policies.

“The same individuals that dehumanized us, demonized us, outcast us; they’ve got to deal with us now. They got to face us, and they got to pay the price,” he said.

Looking to November

Now a couple months away from the election, New Hanover County GOP Chair Will Knecht said he’s seen much higher interest in the upcoming midterms than he has in any other non-presidential election. This is largely because of the engagement from parents in the Board of Education election, he said.

For those who are still hesitant to vote, Knecht said they need to take the time to learn about the candidates.

But some may have trouble accessing accurate information. Roberta Penn, a community activist in Wilmington, said it can be hard to find trustworthy information about candidates, especially as many independent media have dissolved in recent years.

Shinita Taylor said she will be voting this year; she and her mother regularly vote at the church they attend in Wilmington. As usual, she said she’ll be giving out rides to polling places and information to whoever needs it.

“My vote is important,” she said. “It’s my right and my duty, and it’s also my right and my duty to get anybody else that I can get to go to the polls.”

Grace Vitaglione is a multimedia journalist, recently graduated from American University. I’m attracted to issues of inequity and my reporting has spanned racial disparities in healthcare, immigration detention and college culture. In the past, I’ve investigated ICE detainee deaths at the Investigative Reporting Workshop, worked on an award-winning investigative podcast and produced student-led video stories.