In this Robeson County town, high school seniors say they don’t plan to vote

By Ben Rappaport 

Samere Yates sees plenty of problems in his hometown of Fairmont, a town of 2,500 residents in the southern end of Robeson County. 

“Everyone here winds up shot, dead or in jail,” said Yates, 18. “There’s just nothing here. It’s terrible.” 

But Yates, who will graduate this month from Fairmont High School, doesn’t see any solutions to his community’s woes coming through the ballot box in the November election. Many of his senior-class peers agree. 

The Border Belt Independent spoke to more than a dozen Fairmont High School seniors at a job fair in town on May 22. All of them said they saw a need for change in Fairmont but none planned to vote in November, when North Carolina will pick a new governor and is likely to be a battleground state in the presidential race. 

They said their main goal is to get out of town.

“Right now I just don’t see the point in it,” Janine Abdil, a Fairmont High senior, said about voting. “I wish there was more education about voting and the potential impact it has, but I just don’t see it as important now.”

Like much of rural southeastern North Carolina, Fairmont has fallen dramatically since its days as a major tobacco market. About 34% of the town’s residents live in poverty, nearly triple the statewide rate. The average household income is less than $32,000. Meanwhile, Robeson County had the highest overall crime rate in the state in 2022. 

Robeson County’s jobless rate in April was 4.6%, nearly one point higher than the statewide rate. Neighboring Scotland County had the highest unemployment rate in the state at 5.8%.

Many voters in Robeson County, a tri-racial community of Native American, Black and white residents, have supported more Republican candidates in recent years. President Barack Obama won 58% of the county’s vote in 2012. Then voters picked Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020. 

To keep the GOP momentum going, particularly among members of the Lumbee tribe who make up nearly 40% of Robeson’s population, the Republican National Committee opened an office in Pembroke in 2022. 

But in Fairmont, where 53% of residents are Black, voters have continued to pick Democrats in every general election since at least 2016 when the North Carolina State Board of Elections began keeping digital records of precinct data.

About 80% of North Carolina’s Black voters are registered Democrats. Their turnout at the polls could be crucial for Democratic candidates in November. About 41% of Black voters in Robeson County participated in the 2022 election, down from about 45% in 2018, according to an analysis by Democracy NC.  

Fairmont Mayor Charles Kemp at a job fair in town. Photo by Ben Rappaport

The decline is especially prevalent among young people. People ages 18 to 25 made up the state’s smallest voting bloc in the 2020 general election with a 60% turnout, accounting for 13% of all ballots cast. Young people have consistently had the lowest turnout rates, with 24% in 2022 and less than 8% in the 2024 primaries, according to the North Carolina State Board of Elections.    

Fairmont High School’s class of 2024 has seen both Democrats and Republicans in power. But they say neither party is making a meaningful difference in their day-to-day lives plagued by poverty and violence. 

‘It’s all just lies’

About 50 Fairmont High seniors attended a job fair hosted by the town on May 22. The event featured 15 employers, including Smithfield Foods, Robeson County Emergency Services and the U.S. Coast Guard. Students who attended — about a quarter of the senior class — were selected by the school’s principal because they did not have plans after graduation to attend college or enter the military. 

“I would love for you to walk across the stage for your diploma on Friday,” Fairmont Mayor Charles Kemp told the group. “And walk into a job on Monday morning.”

Tilan Whittington, a senior, said he intends to eventually go to North Carolina Central University and pursue a career in business. A college degree, he said, is a way out of the difficult circumstances facing his community. He doubts he will ever return to Robeson County. 

“I’m not going to say I hope not, but if I do, I do,” Whittington said. “But I’m not planning on it. I like going places and I want to see the world.”

For many students, politics don’t play a role in their decision-making. Kamuri Vereen said much of the information he sees through political ads and social media feels like deliberate misinformation meant to deceive people for votes. 

“It’s all just lies out there,” Vereen said. “It’s like, why should I vote for you? You’re not really going to make a change here, you just want the power.”

Calvin Townsend, another senior, said he does not plan to vote in November. The political system, he said, has not benefited his community.

“There’s a lot of violence and just not much to do,” Townsend said. “I just don’t see things changing here in my lifetime.”

Staff writer Rachel Baldauf contributed reporting.

The town of Fairmont hosted a job fair for high school seniors. Photo by Ben Rappaport