North Carolina Groups Work Together to Mobilize Black and Latino Voters as Early Voting Begins

The year got off to a great start for Poder NC Action, a new group reaching out to Latino voters in North Carolina. They expected 30 Latino youths to show up at their first in-person event on Martin Luther King Jr. day in January.

They got 130.

The plan was to begin with census and voter registration work before door-to-door canvassing kicked off in March.

Then the pandemic hit.

Electoral work took a backseat, and the group launched Mi Para Ti, or Me For You, a program for those in the community who weren't going to receive a stimulus check. People could donate directly to a family in need through CashApp, helping to pay for food, rent, a car payment, or diapers.

Now, those efforts have morphed back into high-stakes electoral work.

These and other similar North Carolina organizations are racing to meet Latino and Black voters in their neighborhoods and online, informing them of what voting looks like in this changed environment, and the importance of the down-ballot races in effecting change in their communities.

"One of the first things we are having to do is motivate our gente to vote because a lot of messaging isn't happening in Spanish," said Cris Batista, with Mijente in Durham, North Carolina, which knocked on 12,000 different doors and engaged 4,200 voters. "Our folks know Trump isn't supporting Latinos while in office, but just a few weeks ago they weren't being talked to."

North Carolina has been a close battleground state in recent election cycles. After Barack Obama won it by a razor-thin margin in 2008, he lost it by 2 points to Mitt Romney in 2012. While Donald Trump won it by 4 points in 2016, the current Real Clear Politics average shows Joe Biden ahead by 2.7 points.

Black residents are 22 percent of the state's population, and Latinos are 10 percent, but that wasn't always the case with the fast-growing Hispanic community in North Carolina. In 2008 only 77,000 Latinos voted, but that number more than doubled to 186,000 in 2016. Now the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) expects that 230,000 Latinos will vote in North Carolina in this election.

With the voters in place, the groups began their efforts by learning the top issues among their consituency. They found that Latinos are largely focused on COVID-19 and the economy, groups said, while in rural areas they are worried about escalating racial discrimination. For Black voters, health care and housing are at the top of the list, said Jasmine Whaley, regional field director for the Carolina Federation.

Whaley said her organization believes in multi-racial coalitions, and so they have partnered with Mijente on events, such as a recent joint canvas to knock on voter's doors while wearing masks and observing safety precautions. But the group has also found it difficult to engage Black voters in Guilford County during the pandemic.

"We're trying very hard to find Black folks, but during this time of COVID it has become ridiculously hard to engage the Black folks who need a more active voice," Whaley said.

She said it was particularly difficult to engage single Black mothers, working mothers, and young Black men when swamping the community with a hyper-focused door-knocking operation isn't an option.

But the group persists, stressing to voters the importance of the down-ballot races as well as the presidential contest. The group is backing progressive candidates for the county commission in Guilford County who have pledged to restore funding to schools, which it says have been "chronically under-funded."

"That means schools on the Black side of town will be heated," Whaley added, with a short incredulous laugh. "This is a year we can not afford to be uninformed about who is on our ballot."

With early voting underway Thursday, a news helicopter captured a line of voters that stretched for blocks, and Whaley received reports of people in red MAGA caps supporting the president in the same line with people wearing Black Lives Matter shirts and masks, a reflection of the hyper-politicized environment that has become the norm.

But the beginning of early voting was also an opportunity for group members to show up early to vote so they can impart information to those in their community, including Spanish-speakers who feel intimidated by the changed voting environment.

On Thursday, Latino groups shared reports among their members of people they believed to be Republican poll watchers coming near Latinos in line who were speaking Spanish and scribbling down notes, an effort voters who relayed the stories felt were intimidation efforts, Mijente's Batista, told Newsweek.

Frustration among voters and activists over long lines to vote is also high.

Irene Godinez, the executive director of Poder NC Action, said some members waited three hours and 45 minutes to vote Thursday in diverse Raleigh, North Carolina. As a test, she drove 20 minutes out of her way to vote in Apex, North Carolina, a whiter, wealthier, more conservative part of town whose motto is "The Peak of Good Living." She waited just 50 minutes.

While Mijente hits doors, Godinez's campaign has made 300,000 phone calls with volunteers as young as 15, helping to churn out 23,000 phone calls per shift five to six days a week. They will send 1.3 million pieces of mail to Latinos in the state by Election Day, including a "love letter" to 87,000 unregistered Latinas who can still register to vote and early vote on the same day, according to North Carolina law.

But with staggeringly long lines to vote, the group also plans to park food trucks near polling places where voters can get free food through an app, and use golf carts to bring chairs to older voters waiting in line.

Reflecting the way the groups see the importance of a multi-racial coalition, Poder NC Action will also bring a Day of the Dead altar featuring pictures of Black people killed by police like Breonna Taylor and Tamir Rice to remind voters what is at stake. They will also ask community members to write down the names of people who died of COVID-19, the group said.

"We want to demonstrate visually that we are proud of being Latinx, and sharing part of our culture with North Carolinians," Godinez said. "But it's also a way of saying, 'You're safe here, we see you, and we are you.'"

Senator Kamala Harris, the vice presidential nominee, was set to visit North Carolina on the first day of early voting Thursday, but had to cancel her planned travel because two members of her traveling party, including her communication director, tested positive for the virus.

Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state house representative and CNN commentator, said Biden will likely eke out a win in the state, but Harris will have to reschedule and visit North Carolina.

"Kamala's got to come back now," he told Newsweek. "Kamala has to be in North Carolina because it helps. Her presence will turn out Black voters exponentially, probably even greater than Joe Biden."

Walter mercado
A mailer sent out by Poder NC, Mijente, Fortaleza, and NC Latino Power featuring famed astrologer Walter Mercado has become a collector's item among Latinos in North Carolina. Courtesy Nikki Rodriguez

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