Rural Black voters, including those in Scotland County, are key for Democrats in NC

By Ben Rappaport and Kerria Weaver

In a navy blue pinstripe suit and black and gold paisley tie, 93-year-old William Matthews Jr. drove through downtown Laurinburg in a Wagoneer bearing his name, waving and tossing candy out the window as he passed the crowds.

Matthews, a retired command sergeant major in the National Guard, was the grand marshal for Scotland County’s Second Annual Black History Parade on Saturday. Organized by the African American Heritage Committee of Scotland County, the parade made its way down Main Street, across McGirts Bridge and into the I. Ellis Johnson Community Center, which was once one of the first integrated public schools in the county. 

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As a lifetime resident of the Scotland County town of Wagram, and the first Black adviser to work in the Pentagon, Matthews says he knows the importance of a strong Black community, especially in the rural South.

“If you look around Scotland County, Black history is everywhere,” Matthews told the Border Belt Independent. “I’m glad to have played some small part in that, but I just hope others in my community will get up and serve as well.”

Events like the parade are a reminder of the power the Black community has in Scotland County, said Dawn McNeill, one of the organizers. That power can translate to the polls, particularly for Democratic candidates: Black residents make up 40% of the county’s population and 45% of the registered voters. Most of the county’s active Black voters — 81% — are registered Democrats, according to 2023 data. 

A scene from Scotland County’s Second Annual Black History Parade on Saturday. (Photo by Kerria Weaver)

Scotland County represents a microcosm for North Carolina Democrats in 2024 as the state party focuses on rural communities, particularly Black voters. While the majority of Black voters are Democrats, the party is trying to connect with those who feel disregarded and disengaged in areas where many white voters have switched to the Republican Party. 

Democrats’ success or failure in wooing rural Black voters to the ballot box could help determine key races in November.

In Scotland County, some Black residents say they feel left behind by elected officials at all levels of government, leading to a decline in voter turnout. In 2018, 48% of Black voters in the county participated in the election. In 2022, the figure dropped to 46%, according to an analysis by Democracy NC

Statewide, turnout among Black voters fell even more, from 48% in 2018 to 42% in 2022. That year, white voters saw their highest turnout in a midterm election in more than three decades, the nonprofit policy group found. 

“The numbers are clear,” said Kimberly Hardy, second vice chair for the North Carolina Democratic Party. “When Black folks vote, Democrats win. Black voters stay home, so do Democrats.”

Re-engaging voters

Republicans have made gains in recent years in Scotland County, as they have in surrounding areas in rural southeastern North Carolina. 

In 2020, Donald Trump won Scotland County by 2 points, securing 50% of the vote. Republican Sen. Thom Tillis edged Democrat Cal Cunningham by 1 point. Rep. Dan Bishop and Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, both Republicans, also won the county by just 1 point.

Before that election, Democrats historically swept the county that is home to about 34,000 people. Scotland voters picked Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the previous two presidential elections, with each winning by at least 8 percentage points.

The shift toward Republicans prompted the North Carolina Democratic Party to choose Scotland as one of six counties targeted to increase Black voter turnout for the upcoming election. (The other counties are Cumberland, Lenoir, Nash, Pitt and Perquimans.)  A voter canvass earlier this month — which included distributing state party literature, collecting data and door-knocking in predominantly Black neighborhoods — was a follow-up to a 30-county listening tour conducted by state party officials in eastern North Carolina focused on issues important to Black voters.

“Scotland is a county where the local [Democratic] party hadn’t been quite as active,”  Hardy said. “But the Republicans have been picking up steam, and doing things they haven’t usually done before there.”

Laurinburg Police Chief Mitch Johnson speaks at the Scotland County Black History Parade on Saturday. “It takes all of us to bring about change,” he said. (Photo by Ben Rappaport)

The Republican National Committee opened an office in neighboring Robeson County in 2022, catering to Lumbee voters who had historically voted for Democrats but were switching to the GOP. The Lumbee Native American tribe’s territory includes Cumberland, Hoke, Robeson and Scotland counties. 

During the listening tour, Hardy said she heard time and time again that eastern rural counties felt disregarded by the state Democratic Party, and that their votes didn’t matter. 

“Our goal should always be to try and re-engage voters that we’ve lost,” Hardy said. “A huge subgroup of the folks we’ve lost have been African American rural voters down east.”

Hardy, who became second vice chair last year, said a declining voter turnout — especially among Democrats — is evidence the party is not meeting the needs of some voters. She said turning the table back in Democrats’ favor requires a grassroots effort aimed at making voters feel seen and cared for.

When voters don’t find appreciation in one party, they may try the other on for size. That’s the message Scotland County Republican Party Chairman Joe Patton is encouraging as the election approaches. In Scotland County, fewer than 200 active Black voters are registered Republicans. 

Across all voters, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans more than two to one. Democrats make up 45% of the electorate, while unaffiliated voters account for 32% and Republicans account for 21%. 

Despite the figures, Patton, a lifelong Laurinburg resident, says the election results speak for themselves.

“Regardless of how you feel about Trump, I think him winning support in this county was a game changer that led people to wake up,” Patton said. “The next election we flipped several local districts red and pretty much everyone who had an ‘R’ by their name won.”

Patton attributes much of the shift on a local level to national changes within the Democratic party. “The Democrats left us behind,” he said, citing social issues that he deems anti-Christian, like gender identity and abortion.

“Honestly, we have had to do very little in the past few years to get the vote out,” Patton said of the local Republican Party. “People just feel so angered and disenfranchised that they want to go do something for us.”

Getting young people involved

Scotland County, nestled along the South Carolina border in the Sandhills region, is one of the poorest counties in the state and consistently has the state’s highest unemployment rate. Although the county has gained some manufacturing jobs in recent years, it lost 5% of its population between 2010 and 2020. By 2030, the county is projected to lose 6.7% of its population, the eighth largest projected loss in the state, according to the North Carolina Office of State Budget and Management.

Nearly 30% of residents lived in poverty in 2020, and six of the seven Census tracts in the county are considered “high poverty.”

Tyris Jones, a Scotland County educator and storyteller, shares a piece of local Black history to a crowd of elementary school students after the Black History Parade in Laurinburg on Saturday. (Photo by Ben Rappaport)

Democrats have long held majorities on the county board of commission and other local boards. Patton says it’s time for a change there, too. 

Laurinburg City Councilwoman Barbara Rogers, who is Black, says she understands why her community has become disheartened by the political process. The 32-year-old is the youngest member of the council, and she said there needs to be increased attention on all ages.  

“We have a real reverence for elders here,” Rogers said. “And as a result of holding them up, we can also distance young people from the process.”

Rogers, who manages the I. Ellis Johnson Community Center, said it’s critical to involve young, Black, rural residents in political conversations and take their concerns seriously. Beginning that change, she says, means a paradigm shift where young people are viewed as a stakeholder in the solutions, rather than the cause of the problem. 

“There are systems in place that lead folks to believe [voting] doesn’t matter,” Rogers said. “There is a thinking that we are all just on the bus to get to what has already been decided for us.”

Following a brief program at the community center on Saturday, attendees of the Black History Parade were encouraged to learn about local agriculture, education and faith. One of the booths, manned by Loretta McNeil, 64, also encouraged voter registration.

“The biggest issue in this election is voter protection and access to the polls,” McNeil said. “If you don’t vote, you’re still voting because you’re allowing others to be the decision maker for you.”

‘Even if progress is slow’

In nearby Columbus County, where Black voters make up 28% of the electorate, the local NAACP chapter hosted a “Souls to the Polls” event on Sunday aimed at encouraging Black voters to cast ballots. Souls to the Polls is a national initiative in which Black faith leaders use church resources to provide access to polling locations during Sunday early voting.

“We want to make sure voters feel comfortable and safe at the polling location, and to make voting a fun thing,” said Curtis Hill, president of Columbus County NAACP. “With voter ID laws and other changes, it’s important to prevent voter intimidation however we can.”

Renee Gibbs serves fried chicken, string beans and more to a voters outside the Columbus County Board of Elections Office on Sunday. The festivities were part of the local NAACP’s Souls to the Polls event. (Photo by Ben Rappaport)

The event, hosted outside the office of the Columbus County Board of Elections, included food and games to promote community camaraderie. Many voters who stopped by had come directly from one of the more than 20 predominantly Black churches in the area. Tamia Strickland, 38, said her work schedule made Sunday the only time she could find time to get to the ballot box.

“Sunday voting is critical so all of us can come out and make our vote count,” said Strickland, adding that equity and civil rights were her top election issues during the primary. “When we don’t vote, a lot of people complain and cry, but things don’t change unless we get out and do something.”

Columbus County has only one Sunday for early voting prior to the March 5 primary election. The Columbus County Board of Elections originally voted not to have Sunday early voting during the primaries, but the decision was overturned by the State Board of Elections in December.

Scotland County does not have any Sunday early voting during the primary. The county only has one early voting location, the Scotland County Board of Elections Office in Laurinburg.

McNeil, who ran for Laurinburg mayor in last year’s municipal election and lost to Jim Willis by 67 votes, said there needs to be more engagement in the political process. She said showing young people the importance of voting starts with modeling it yourself, which is why she brings voter registration forms with her to community events.

“You fight for justice and democracy every day, just as you eat every day,” she said.

The systemic barriers that bar young Black people from the table — coupled with the slow march of progress — leave people who are hungry for change feeling disheartened by voting as a solution, Rogers said.

“There are times where it feels like the trying, the actions, the meetings, events, the council meetings, they don’t matter,” Rogers said. “But then there are days where you see the faces, you feel the celebration, and that’s enough to keep pushing forward, even if progress is slow.” 

Dawn McNeill stands beside a police car honoring Laurinburg’s first Black police chief, Robert Lee Malloy, who died on Feb. 1. (Photo by Ben Rappaport)