Nonpartisan coalition offers voter education

A NEW APPROACH: Canvassing volunteers are trained to use deep canvassing techniques, which focus more on listening to voters and answering their questions, says Brenda Murphree, founder and past president of Indivisible Asheville/WNC. Photo courtesy of Indivisible Asheville/WNC

With a new law requiring voter identification in North Carolina and a lack of resources for non-English speaking voters, a coalition of nonprofits is working to get voters educated in time for the primary election.

“It’s easy to be confused about what’s required and what’s not,” says Robin Lively Summers, board president of Indivisible Asheville/WNC, one of the lead organizations in the coalition. “It’s especially difficult to learn your way around this new landscape if you haven’t voted recently, and some people could be removed from the rolls without even knowing it. We plan to show people how to overcome those barriers.”

A new voting hurdle arose last year with a N.C. Supreme Court decision that said the state can require citizens to show photo IDs in order to vote. The law, which was passed by the General Assembly in 2018, had been ruled racially biased and unconstitutional by the U.S. District Court.

Brenda Murphree, founder and past president of Indivisible Asheville/WNC, believes the law will have a negative impact on voter turnout, particularly in underprivileged communities.

“The new voting requirements make it far more difficult to vote for people not in a place of privilege,” Murphree says. “If you are in a more privileged position, you can probably get the information you need and handle the workarounds. But if you are a young single parent, for example, depending on public transportation, working two jobs, are you going to be able to just drop everything and run to get a photo ID? Probably not.”

Murphree says that it is especially difficult for non-English speaking U.S. citizens, particularly within the Hispanic/Latino communities, to participate in elections.

“When we were deciding [the coalition’s] specific goals and focuses, we really tried to look at the communities that are left out of the main narrative,” Murphree says. “When it comes to communities where English is not the first or primary language, they have an additional barrier of entry.”

For example, Murphree pointed out, “the primary info-sheets from the State Board of Elections about the new photo ID requirements aren’t even available yet in Spanish, so part of our outreach includes making sure voters who prefer Spanish have all the necessary voter information available. Buncombe County Board of Elections has created early voting schedules in both English and Spanish, but adjacent counties have not done the same, so we will be creating translated materials where needed.”

Thus, the WNC Voter Outreach Coalition formed to fill those gaps. Members include Indivisible Asheville/WNC, the western region of the N.C. Poor People’s Campaign, the YWCA of Asheville, Just Economics of Western North Carolina and Asheville Food & Beverage United.

“A lot of people feel hopeless about our government and like their one vote is not going to make a difference,” says Leslie Boyd, co-chair of the western region of the N.C. Poor People’s Campaign. “People don’t realize that there are so many elections that are really close, so it is important for [the coalition] to educate as many people as we can and encourage them to register and vote.”

In 2022, 54,035 people voted in the primary election in Buncombe County, down from 82,519 in the 2020 primary. In 2022, 120,558 people voted in the general election, compared with 162,137 voters in 2020, a presidential election year.

Educating potential voters

The coalition formed to coordinate efforts to educate potential voters about the ID requirement before they went to the polls.

“Many of the organizations within the coalition already had their own initiatives to help educate people and get them registered to vote,” Murphree says. “However, with the new laws and changes, we really wanted to make sure that we were collaborating so that we could get the information out there more efficiently and have a bigger impact.”

Murphree says the coalition has divided its outreach efforts into three main categories: tabling, canvassing and Hispanic/Latino outreach.

“Tabling is our easiest outreach method, as it mainly entails setting up and being present at a specified place for a specified period of time with nonpartisan voting information, helping people with registration and getting them information that they need in order to be able to cast a ballot,” says Murphree.

When it comes to canvassing, or going door to door to speak with potential voters, Murphree says that the coalition uses a gentle approach.

“We are really intentional about using the deep canvassing approach when we are going door to door,” Murphree says. “That means we approach talking with voters in a way that is focused more on listening rather than telling. Ultimately, we try to engage with people by establishing a relationship and being present when they have questions. It is a more respectful and effective approach for engaging with voters, especially voters with a sporadic voting history.”

Boyd, who is helping to spearhead the coalition’s canvassing efforts, says she hopes the canvassing approach will be encouraging for those who feel disenfranchised.

“Our goal is to help people to understand that their vote does really matter. Democracy is participatory, so if people don’t participate in elections, it doesn’t work,” Boyd says. “With that in mind, we want to do everything we can to connect people with the resources they need to register, help people get IDs and help them get to the polls.”

While the coalition’s first canvassing event in January was canceled due to inclement weather, the next event is set for Saturday, Feb. 17, 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m., and radiating from the Land of the Sky United Church of Christ in East Asheville. Boyd says the coalition plans to have at least one canvassing event per month leading up to the general election in November, but the group needs volunteers.

“We have volunteers from each of the coalition’s organizations, but we could definitely use more people, especially for our canvassing efforts. There is safety in numbers, but also there is effectiveness in numbers, and we want to make sure that this outreach effort is as successful as possible,” Boyd says.

Keeping it neutral

Murphree says keeping the coalition nonpartisan was important, especially when speaking with disenfranchised voters.

“I believe that nonpartisan outreach, especially for voters who feel disengaged to start with, is infinitely more effective,” Murphree says. “It’s not a transactional approach. Nobody’s coming and saying, ‘Vote for my candidate, vote for my party, I want you to do this.’ Instead, it’s focused on the voter.”

Additionally, Boyd says, remaining nonpartisan helps with the coalition’s credibility.

“We are not doing this for any party, which is important. I have helped people register to vote who have told me directly that they would vote for a candidate that I don’t support,” Boyd says. “We are not going out telling people that they need to vote Democrat to beat the Republicans or vote Republican to beat the Democrats. We just want people to vote. It’s that important.”

Boyd says that the nonpartisan approach has been effective so far.

“People appreciate that we are not trying to sway their vote, and our outreach has been well-received so far,” Boyd says. “People are eager to participate; they just need the resources to do so. For example, the last election was the first election where people convicted of a felony could vote, so we sat across the street from the courthouse, and as people came by, we asked them to register to vote at their current address. People [who had been convicted of a felony] were so excited to be able to participate after not being able to for so long. They just needed the resources.”

Murphree also notes the positive reception that the canvassing efforts have had in previous elections cycles.

“Typically, if someone shows up at your door, they are trying to sell you something or get you to do something that they want you to do,” Murphree says. “Instead, we have somebody show up with information about how you can participate and make your voice heard in the system. Even if somebody is busy and doesn’t have the time, they generally still have a positive reaction. That’s not true in every case, but generally that’s what we’ve experienced.”


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About Chase Davis
Chase Davis is an Asheville-based reporter working for Mountain Xpress. He was born and raised in Georgia and holds a Bachelor's degree in Political Science from LaGrange College. Follow me @ChaseDavis0913

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