This article appears in the Fall 2018 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
By Labor Day, the traditional start of campaign season, Marcus Bass had already logged thousands of miles crisscrossing the state working on turnout in the 2018 election.
Bass is Deputy Director of the North Carolina Black Alliance, and like thousands of his fellow organizers and activists, he’s driven this year by the sense that there’s a lot more on the line in the ninth-largest state than voters may realize.
It’s frustrating, he says, that deeply purple North Carolina is too often cast as another Deep South story. The lurch right by the legislature over the past decade cloaks a long history of social justice organizing that has given progressives the means to push back against the right’s agenda.
“We’re not an Alabama,” he says. “North Carolina has consistently given the national audience an understanding of what the threats are and what the fight back is.”
This is the year Democrats, led by Governor Roy Cooper, hope the fight back means ending the Republican supermajorities in the state House and Senate, which have been in place since 2012.
Cooper’s narrow win in 2016 was one of the rare victories in a state that Donald Trump carried by more than 3.5 percent. There had been hope that breaking the legislative vise-grip would happen in 2016, but heavily gerrymandered districts and Trump’s draw kept those veto-proof majorities in place, setting off a non-stop power struggle between the new governor and the General Assembly.
The power imbalance between the two has always been skewed toward the legislature, a legacy dating back to North Carolina’s rebellious ways against colonial governors. With a rock-solid majority and party-first discipline, GOPleaders in the legislature have been able to do what they want.
This year, court rulings in redistricting cases and new maps have increased confidence among Democrats of finally taking at least the additional four seats in the state House that would give Cooper a place at the negotiating table. But no one is taking any chances.
Bass travels the state, concentrating on student organizing at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and working with grassroots groups in rural eastern counties, where African Americans sometimes make up 40 percent of the electorate. Participation among voters in both of these constituencies tends to drop off in the midterm cycle, a fact Bass has set out to change.
In 2016, Democrat Roy Cooper narrowly won the governorship in North Carolina, a state Trump carried by more than 3.5 percent.
His task is voter education. There’s a thirst for it, he says, especially among younger voters who are registering at a rate far higher than expected. Voter education is particularly important this year, he says, because in a state where constitutional amendments rarely appear on the ballot, voters will see six of them, proposed in what Bass and others describe as another “power grab” by the General Assembly.
Some of the six, such as one establishing a constitutional right to hunt and fish, seem innocuous and are aimed chiefly at driving turnout. Others, however, are clearly designed to shift even more power to the legislature. This year, Bass says, getting voters information on what’s on the ballot and what it means has become just as important as a voter-registration form. “It takes an extra push,” Bass says, “to connect the dots between what’s in these amendments and the battles with the General Assembly for the past eight years.”
One proposed amendment would require the governor to choose between two candidates submitted by a legislature-appointed panel for any judicial vacancies. Another would remove the ninth member of the state elections board, who is picked by the governor from names the board submits. The remodeled eight-member board would have four members from each major party, a move that critics said would result in tie votes and deadlocks on key issues. Both amendments are opposed by the state’s five living former governors—two Republicans and three Democrats.
Bass first got involved in elections in 2008 as a student at North Carolina A&T. He watched as turnout in the black community dipped in the 2010 and 2014 midterms. Now, he believes, the wake-up call that followed the 2016 election could change that. This year, community groups in small, heavily African American eastern towns have already started canvassing and holding forums and town halls. On HBCU and community college campuses, criminal justice reform has become a major issue and has raised the profile of what he calls “justice races” for sheriffs, district attorneys, and judges.
At the top of the ticket in the justice category is a Supreme Court race that is a distillation of the state’s political struggles.
ON A CHILLY MORNING last November, Anita Earls, a civil rights attorney who, as founder and executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ), led most of the state and federal lawsuits against gerrymandering and voter-suppression legislation, stood in front of Democratic headquarters in Raleigh and announced she would challenge incumbent Republican Justice Barbara Jackson for a seat on the state Supreme Court.
In the face of state Republicans’ continual attacks on the independence of the courts and voting rights, Earls said she decided to step away from the SCSJ and devote herself full-time to run. “It was clear to me that I have to not just talk the talk, but must have the courage to walk the walk,” she said at the announcement.
The news came as a surprise to many and set off alarms down the street at GOPheadquarters, where the party’s executive director immediately began firing off tweets denouncing her.
Now working out of a sparse office at the Durham County Democratic headquarters, Earls says she’s getting used to the grind of campaigning. “I’m in a different city almost every day,” she says.
Some things have not been easy to get used to.
“Have you seen the mailing?” she asks, unfolding a large, glaring yellow and black mailer, the early edge of the coming wave of negative ads. The headline in it dubs her “Dangerous Anita Earls.” In case you don’t get what that means, there’s a skull and crossbones. She points out how it distorts her features as well as her record, linking an amicus brief on sentencing guidelines to 18 blurry mugshots, some emblazoned “murderer” or “rapist” in all caps.
“It’s like Willie Horton times 18,” Earls says. “It’s not only that it’s fear-mongering and very racialized, but it’s designed to discourage people from participating in democracy. You see something like that and you think, ‘The whole thing is just a dirty, ugly game, why should I bother?’”
She says she got into the race in part over frustration with how the courts have handled redistricting cases. “It was the frustration of seeing districts drawn by Democrats thrown out because they are not geographically compact enough and then districts drawn by Republicans that are the least compact as any in the history of the state being upheld by a court saying, ‘We just can’t measure compactness,’” she says. “The court should be applying the law equally.” When she’s out canvassing, she hears repeatedly that the courts are becoming too politicized.
Anita Earls is challenging Justice Barbara Jackson for a state Supreme Court seat.
The legislature has made dozens of changes to state and local courts since Republicans took both chambers in 2010, but in the past two years the state House has stepped up its efforts, at one point considering a redistricting plan that would have eliminated most of the African American state judges. Last year, in a move seen as a warning shot to jurists challenging the moves, a bill filed in the Senate would have ended the terms of all local judges this year. The the bill went nowhere, but it sent a message, and Earls says the legislature is unambiguously trying to intimidate the judiciary.
Or even control it. One of the constitutional amendments that Republicans have placed on this year’s ballot would give the legislature far more authority to fill judicial vacancies, which are now filled by the governor based on recommendations from local bar associations.
This year, in the kind of plot twist that would be hard to dream up, two recent changes to election law, which made Supreme Court races partisan and eliminated this year’s judicial primaries, could work to Earls’s advantage.
Even though she didn’t support making those races partisan, running in a midterm election in a year in which Democratic voters are fired up is clearly going to help her. “People seem to value the label,” she says of having a D next to her name on the ballot. They also tend to vote more in partisan races. In the last election, there were close to 500,000 more votes cast in races for state Court of Appeals, which were partisan, than were cast in the nonpartisan Supreme Court race.
The legislature’s move to eliminate this year’s primary, which was criticized as an attempt to create confusion and dilute votes among multiple candidates, also worked against Republicans when Earls managed to clear the field of other Democrats, while Chris Anglin, a Democrat who had re-registered as a Republican, filed to run against the Republican incumbent and Earls. GOPleaders denounced Anglin’s party switch as a dirty trick, and the legislature quickly changed state law in a way that would have forced Anglin to run as a Democrat. But in one of six separate court cases challenging various parts of the ballot, a state court ruled in Anglin’s favor, setting the three-way race as a two-Republicans, one-Democrat contest.
There is more riding on Earls’s candidacy than just one seat on the Supreme Court. The current breakdown of the high court is four Democrats and three Republicans. Although there are currently seven justices on the court, North Carolina’s constitution allows the legislature to add up to two more seats.
A not-so-secret strategy for a court-packing plan that has swirled around Raleigh since 2016 is that, should Jackson hold her seat and the 4–3 split stand, the legislature would add two more seats to the court. That change, coupled with the constitutional amendment on judicial vacancies, could flip the majority of the court to Republicans.
GOP leaders have accused those raising the court-packing idea of “ridiculous speculation,” although the General Assembly has announced plans to return on November 27, after election results are certified, to act on enabling legislation for the amendments.
Regardless of the election results, that end-of-term session will give the GOPsupermajorities another crack at making changes. The new General Assembly elected this year won’t take office until the first week in January.
FAULKNER FOX, CO-FOUNDER of Durham for Organizing Action, is one of many activists shoring up the Earls campaign. The all-volunteer group, which started as Durham for Obama in 2008, has built an extensive network through meetings, forums, and social media. This year, the group decided to focus on Earls’s campaign, canvassing and phone-banking to turn out Democrats and independents.
The decision came after a lot of soul-searching following Trump’s victory. “We felt like we had to do something; people were devastated,” Fox says. “We decided we’re going to fight back. We know how to do this. We have a history of people who know how to canvass effectively.”
The group focused on Earls because of her early support for their efforts, and the briefings and updates she’s given the group on voting-rights cases over the years. It focused on Durham because its members knew the territory and knew that’s where the votes were for the statewide race. Usually, the drop-off in Durham voters during the midterms is steep, Fox explains.
That’s especially true during “Blue Moon” elections like this one, when there’s no statewide federal race on the ballot. They happen every 12 years here; the last time, turnout dropped to 37 percent. Fox said bringing some of those voters back to the polls could go a long way in the statewide judicial races and constitutional amendment referendums.
“Midterms matter,” Fox says. “You can’t assume people are going to vote in the midterms. Our thought was to turn out the vote in Durham.”
Working with Earls has provided another benefit, Fox says: someone to vote for. “You can’t always just resist and work against; you run yourself down that way,” she says. “To be with other people who care about democracy and justice, it’s better than therapy, better than yoga. I think the most dangerous thing is when people feel discouraged and isolated and they stay home and read incendiary things on Facebook, but they don’t go out and see other people. Nothing substitutes for acting like a citizen.”
Although the group is focused on Earls and Durham turnout, the group’s members understand that breaking the supermajorities in the legislature is the key. They’ve joined with a handful of other local groups to shuttle canvassers to closely contested legislative districts in exurban and rural districts one or two counties away.
Graig Meyer, a Democratic representative from neighboring Orange County, says the Durham group is part of a growing, informal network of organizations that work on campaigns. “There are dozens of these grassroots groups that started in women’s living rooms or online convening,” he says. “Almost all of them have the ability to channel volunteers into actual campaigns.”
He credits the Forward Together movement, led by former state NAACPPresident Reverend William Barber II, with laying the groundwork for that kind of solidarity through the 2013 Moral Mondays protests.
“All the advocacy organizations on the left got aligned and started working together with the Forward Together movement. So instead of being siloed off, it became all for one and one for all,” Meyer says.
Although Barber keeps his distance from individual races and candidates, Meyer says he’s also had a big impact on how they talk about issues. “Reverend Barber really gave us a clear moral language for how to talk about our values and why they lead to the policies that we’re fighting for,” he says. “That’s one thing the Democrats have failed in far too often in electoral politics. We try to speak to people about policies when we ought to speak to people about values.”
This year, Democrats have managed to field candidates for all 170 state House and Senate seats. Republicans matched them in all but one. Compare that to two years ago when almost a third of all the races were essentially uncontested. In all, the results for 2016 in nearly half of the 120 House seats and 15 out of 50 Senate races were locked in before November.
Meyer says that as he’s traveled the state, the overarching issue this year is health care, which should give Democrats an advantage since the General Assembly’s Republican leaders decided to opt out of Medicaid expansion in 2013. They haven’t wavered, even though some equally conservative legislatures took the deal. In addition to the more than 500,000 North Carolinians who would qualify for the Medicaid expansion, health-care services offered in rural areas are being cut back and small hospitals around the state are being squeezed without the support that would come with expansion.
“I think we’ve turned a corner where people understand that for us to have affordable, accessible health care, the government has to play a role,” Meyer says. “People know it’s going to be a state and federal solution.”
Demonstrators celebrate a federal court decision striking down North Carolina's gerrymandered congressional districts.
If the veto-proof majority in the House goes away, he says, Cooper could have the leverage to push for an expansion, possibly as part of next year’s budget deal. “We’ll be able to sit at the table and negotiate that.”
Meyer says the ultimate goal is to gain control of at least one chamber of the legislature, although right now there’s only a slim chance of that happening. But any victories this year would put the House closer to being in play for 2020. Democrats learned a painful lesson when they lost both chambers in 2010 and GOPmapmakers took over.
“Everyone on our side knows, if we gain a chamber, that leads to fair maps,” Meyer says.
Amy Cox, co-founder of FLIP NC, an independent expenditures organization that grew out of Durham’s Indivisible group, says fair maps that more closely mirror the almost even split of the electorate means the end of heavy-handed rule seen since the Republicans took the legislature. “We’re playing the long game,” she says. “This legislature is so gerrymandered. Our goal is to flip one chamber, and then get fair maps.”
More balanced representation in North Carolina could also contribute to a shake-up in Washington. With the current 10-3 split in the state’s congressional delegation and the next census expected to add a 14th congressional district, a 50-50 split could mean a pickup of four U.S. House seats.
Cox, a data analyst, was part of a letter-writing group in Durham during the 2016 campaign. She and other founders of FLIP NC thought a lot afterward about what they could have done to better connect with people outside of the solid-blue enclaves of the state’s Triangle region. “After the 2016 election, we really regretted not getting out, not doing more, and not getting out of our comfort zone,” she says. “We heard from people who said we want to get out of our blue bubble and help in purple areas.”
FLIP NC has been organizing monthly canvass events all summer in a handful of key legislative races in the state, kicking into high gear in September with weekly events. “We try to make it fun,” she says. “It’s all geared at getting people from talking about it on Facebook to going out and doing the work.”
FLIP NC can’t coordinate with candidates, but has worked to develop its own voter lists targeting reliable Democratic voters. In talking to canvassers, she says it’s been striking how few of the people they meet who are tuned into national politics are thinking about the midterms in their own state.
“It’s shocking how many people who are otherwise politically informed don’t know they’re in a flippable district,” she says.
AT 8:53 P.M. ON September 5, Josh Lawson, the attorney for North Carolina’s Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement, tweeted that his office’s ballot preparations, delayed by six separate lawsuits, had finally begun.
The board had barely beaten the deadline to have absentee ballots ready for distribution in accordance with federal voting laws. Celebration was muted, however. No one who has paid attention over the past decade expects that to be the last of the court fights over the 2018 election. And if the GOP’s supermajority is indeed broken, no one expects it to go quietly, not with a session already scheduled for after the election.
For now, in North Carolina there is no discernible light ahead in the state’s long dark ride. All anyone here can say for sure is that at least we are finally in the tunnel.