Have African-American Voters Lost Their Enthusiasm?

Nov 2, 2016

The battle for votes is in full swing this last week of early voting across North Carolina. Social justice and voting rights groups have been working especially hard to get African Americans to the polls. They say the demographic group holds the key to who wins on November 8th.

Even President Barack Obama will campaign in the state this week and so will Congressman John Lewis (D-Georgia) to try and excite a group of voters who have seemed to lose their enthusiasm.

Related: Obama Visits Greensboro To Help Secure African-American Voters For Clinton

Only about 20 North Carolina counties allow residents to cast their early votes on Sundays. So many churches participate in what’s known as “Souls to the Polls.”  As soon as church lets out, parishioners head to the nearest polling place. Last Sunday, at New Light Missionary Baptist Church in Greensboro, dozens of people walked to the polls.  

“We need something with a little more upbeat. We need a little pick me up!" said L.J. Pettyjohn, 70, after marchers finished singing the popular civil rights marching song, "We Shall Overcome."

Members of the New Light Missionary Baptist Church walked 7 blocks from their home church to the voting location at Barber Park in Greensboro, NC.
Credit Katie Stephens / WUNC

Michelle Foxx was another participant. Like many others, Foxx’s husband drove the one-and-a-half miles to the Barber Park voting site. But she walked, in style.

"I have never walked to the polls and I have never walked in heels this far," said Foxx, 42, pointing to her four inch-high wedge heels. "It was so important for me to send a message not only to myself, but to my children.”

Civil rights leader the Reverend Jesse Jackson helped kick-off the walk with his friend the Rev. Cardes Brown, pastor of New Light Missionary Baptist Church.

“If it were not for being forced, we wouldn’t have this privilege, so we are marching because we have this right to vote and we want to make sure every individual [has] that," said Brown.     

Right now, early voting turnout in North Carolina for African Americans is lower than it was in 2012. And that’s got a lot of folks worried, especially Democrats.

Marcus Bass is the statewide campaign director for Democracy North Carolina, a non-partisan organization that advocates for voter participation.

“I am definitely worried, he said. "I think there’s been a lot of things in North Carolina since 2008 that will predict the youth turnout or more importantly, the minority youth turnout being very low."

A woman from the New Light Missionary Baptist Church flashes a Hillary/Kaine 2016 pin as the rest of the congregation marches behind her to the polling location in Greensboro, NC.
Credit Katie Stephens / WUNC

Bass says young African-American voters are not hearing a message that includes them.

“I think the 2008 election was an election about making history. This election is about safety and security and sustainability in a real way," said Bass.

Another reason why some voting rights advocates say African American turnout is down this year is because of how limited early voting opportunities were in the first week of early voting. Lines were so long, people just left. Some counties like Guilford only had one early voting site open at the start of early voting this year, surprising for its size. In 2012, more than a dozen polling places were open there.

Some would call that voter suppression.

Whether it’s voter suppression or depression, longtime voters like L.J. Pettyjohn said he’s optimistic, as he walked the last hill to the nearest polling place Sunday.

"I am hoping they would be inspired by it and if they hadn’t come on out and do it," Pettyjohn said pointing at houses he walked by. "Just may lift up a lot of people who’s looking at us doing this and say, 'It’s time for me to get off my dusty and get out here and vote'.”

Early voting in North Carolina ends Saturday.

Note: The photos in this gallery are part of a collaboration with students and faculty at the School of Media and Journalism at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman took his congregation at St. Phillips A.M.E. Zion Church to vote Sunday morning for Souls to the Polls. Dr. Spearman is the 3rd Vice President of the NC NAACP.
Credit Katie Stephens / WUNC

Campaign signs appear outside of the voting location in Barber Park where nearly 300 African-Americans gathered following their church services Sunday morning.
Credit Katie Stephens / WUNC

Voters line up outside of the polling location in Greensboro, NC as part of an initiative called Soul to the Polls that aims to increase African-American voter turnout.
Credit Katie Stephens / WUNC

Members of the New Light Missionary Baptist Church of Greensboro, NC Tina Love and Minister Constance Rudd proudly wait in line to cast their vote in the 2016 general election after the 10:45 service Sunday morning.
Credit Katie Stephens / WUNC

New Light Missionary Baptist Reverend Bradley Hunt from Greensboro, NC led about 100 members of the congregation to the polls Sunday morning to vote in the 2016 General Election.
Credit Katie Stephens / WUNC

Participants of the Souls to the Polls event pose in front of the polling location at Barber Park Sunday morning in Greensboro, NC. These participants marched from various church locations to the polls to increase African-American voter turnout.
Credit Katie Stephens / WUNC