How one new group is Stacey Abrams-ing North Carolina

How one new group is Stacey Abrams-ing North Carolina
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A new local nonprofit aims to mobilize voters in North Carolina the way that Stacey Abrams did in Georgia.

What’s happening: The New North Carolina Project, started last spring by former Charlotte teacher and principal Aimy Steele, has a goal of registering 100,000 voters between now and November 2022.

Why it matters: North Carolina is a fast-growing purple state whose upcoming Senate race next year will be one of the most-watched contests in the nation. Shifts in voter turnout could have a huge impact in political outcomes.

  • Georgia, a state with a population that’s swelled 30% over the last two decades, voted for Joe Biden last year. It marked the first time Georgia went blue in a presidential race since 1992, per Reuters.

“Voting isn’t magic, voting is medicine,” Abrams, who lost a close race for Georgia governor in 2018, said during a visit in Charlotte this month, as Qcitymetro reported. “We’ve got to treat the ills of society over and over again, and that means we have to constantly vote to keep the medicine flowing.”

Of note: Abrams announced this week that she’s running for governor of Georgia in 2022. She would be the first Black female governor in the U.S.

Between the lines: The on-the-ground work Steele’s organization does includes a lot of knocking on doors, she tells Axios. That means regular check-ins with folks who may not necessarily normally engage politically to see what they care about, she adds.

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  • A large portion of voters who have not registered are those who are 18-24 years old, per Steele, as well as those 65+ and middle-aged men.
  • Additionally, says Steele, North Carolina has a large share of Black and Latino people who have not registered to vote.

What’s more, there were about 675,000 registered voters of color who did not vote in the 2020 general election in North Carolina, according to an analysis from the N.C. State Board of Elections that was provided to Axios.

  • That figure includes Hispanic, Asian, Black, American Indian, two or more races, other, or Pacific Islander voters, per NCSBOE.

Aimy Steele, former educator and founder of the New North Carolina Project. Courtesy of Aimy Steele

Of note: The New North Carolina Project is registering as many potential voters as possible regardless of political affiliation — not just Democrats.

Steele and her team say they try to understand what would-be voters care most about. That includes day-to-day issues like lack of access to health care and affordable housing.

“They’re concerned about whatever is impacting them in their own homes right now. Our job is to … figure out what it is that’s going to move that person to vote and become a voter for life,” she says.

Political power throughout the state is too concentrated in the hands of an elite few, Steele says. And that should change as the state changes.

  • “New people … should influence how our state is run because they now call this state home,” Steele says. “This is not the same North Carolina that it was 10 years ago — let alone 20, 30, 40, 50 (years ago). So the changing demographics absolutely add to the necessity of changing (for example), how we do business and how we socialize and how we treat our school system.”

By the numbers: North Carolina’s population swelled to nearly 10.5 million in 2020, the latest census data show. That’s up 10%, from roughly 9.5 million in 2010.

It’s hard to make sweeping generalizations about the political leanings of newcomers. But they often are unaffiliated voters, says Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.

“They do tend to be on average a little more liberal, a little more likely to vote with the Democratic party despite the fact that they’re not members of the Democratic party,” Cooper says.

Yes, but: Statewide, voter turnout in 2020 was higher by almost every metric than it has been in decades, Cooper notes.

  • “To mobilize even more voters we would be increasing even from a high voter mark. The challenge is to maintain mobilization moving forward,” he says.

According to the NC Policy Watch, however, voter turnout was still relatively low among Black voters ages 18-40.

Flashback: Steele, a Democrat, decided to run for office after the North Carolina legislature passed a bill changing the size of classrooms statewide. In 2018 and 2020, she ran in close races for NC House District 82, heavily favored for Republicans, but came up short both times.

Steele credits the fact that she knocked on thousands of doors and connected with tens of thousands of voters as reasons for her close races.

“We are poised to go even higher (with voter registration) if we pay attention to the signs. And all signs point to engaging people of color consistently authentically and from a trustworthy space,” Steele says.

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