‘Vote in hope of change’: education, community concerns top voter issues here

By Ben Rappaport


Before heading to the polls, Theresa Guyton gets on a group call with every member of her family. They sort through each office on the ballot — from president, to state auditor and everything in between. Each person is assigned a different race to research prior to Election Day, then they confer and decide who earns their vote. 

This primary was no different for the Whiteville resident. She came to the South Whiteville precinct on Election Day Tuesday with a sample ballot in hand, and literature from the Republican candidates she supports. While the 62-year-old’s peers were predominantly focused on the flashier races like the presidential and gubernatorial primaries, she was most interested in down-ballot races for Court of Appeals and Auditor.

“I used to not think about these smaller races,” Guyton said. “Recently, it’s really been brought home to me how important it is to vote for every position you can.”

The top issue to the healthcare worker was voter security. She said she was most excited to vote for Charles Dingee, a state auditor candidate who promised to review voter rolls to ensure dead people were not voting. Dingee came in third place in the Republican primary for state auditor race — the election will see a runoff between Jack Clark and Dave Boliek.

Guyton said in recent years she has become a straight-ticket Republican voter because she believes the parties have become more polarized. 

“We don’t stand on a line anymore,” she said. “As a conservative, it’s very threatening.”

Campaign signs line the walkways up to the voting booth at the Whiteville Rescue Unit Building in Columbus County on Tuesday. Photo by Ben Rappaport

Voter ID laws

Other conservative voters across the Border Belt region — Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland counties — agreed with Guyton about the importance of voter security. Many said they were pleased with new voter ID laws in North Carolina because it ensured a fair election. 

The new laws were put in place by the General Assembly last year, and the primaries are the first federal and state races where IDs were required for all voters to cast a ballot.

Douglas Bowen, 72, a Laurinburg resident in Scotland County said he viewed voter ID as essential because identification was important for other aspects of life. Bowen said it’s important in preventing voter fraud.

Dissidents of the voter ID rule say it’s an additional barrier to entry in the elections process, which particularly affects people of color and other marginalized populations. Voter fraud is rare; across the country there were 193 criminal convictions made in voter fraud cases among 250 million ballots cast in the 2020 general election. According to the progressive organization Indvisible, 25% of Black voters and 15% of low-income Americans lack acceptable photo ID.  

DeMonté Alford, 32, a community organizer in Laurinburg, said that while he didn’t experience any issues with voter ID when he was at the polls, he was still not a fan of the law because it served as another deterrent to voting for Black residents.

Jackie Bowen (no relation to Douglas), 50, a poll worker in Pembroke in Robeson County, said she witnessed some inconsistencies with voter ID such as discrepancies between the address listed on IDs versus the address on their voter registration.

More common, the poll worker said, was having to turn many people away at the polls for being at the wrong precinct. She said it was not made clear that voters had to cast their ballots at their assigned precinct on Election Day.

Those who vote on Election Day in North Carolina must vote at their assigned precinct, which can be found on the North Carolina State Board of Elections website. During early voting, ballots can be cast from any early voting location within a voter’s registered county. 

Precincts are assigned based on where a given voter has resided as of 30 days prior to election day. According to the North Carolina Election Official Manual, if a voter does not want to go to the proper precinct, they can also be offered a provisional ballot.  


Other voters at the polls across the Border Belt said their primary concern was education. Republican voters said they wanted to ensure the statewide curriculum “got back to basics,” while Democrats were more likely to emphasize a need for increasing school funding and infrastructure.  

Lynn Cane, 80, a Lake Waccamaw resident in Columbus County and former teacher, said she was concerned about low teacher pay and statewide standards for students in the public school system.

“The curriculum is not friendly to the kids,” Cane said. “The kids get frustrated, then they carry that frustration out into the community.”

She said she supported Republicans Donald Trump for president and Mark Robinson for governor because she felt they could best address those concerns. Both candidates performed exceptionally well in rural southeastern North Carolina on Tuesday. 

Lumberton resident Felicia Scott, 63, said she’s witnessed firsthand the challenges of education in North Carolina. As a retired chemistry lecturer at UNC-Pembroke, she said students from the region were unprepared for college. 

“As a science educator, we had to start at basic math to help a lot of the kids from our area,” Scott said. “There needs to be a turnaround. The way we do things needs to change.”

Scott, a Republican, said she is concerned about curriculums in the schools because she doesn’t want teachers to be forced to talk about gender and sexuality issues.

On the other side of the aisle were Democrats like Tannelaine Wilson, 44, of Laurinburg. She said she was supporting Mike Morgan for governor because of the emphasis he placed on education in his platform. She cited his explicit support for the Leandro plan, which would bring more than $8 billion in public education funding over the next four years. Morgan lost the Democratic nomination to Josh Stein, who has also supported Leandro funding and pushed back against legislators’ attempts to relitigate the case as attorney general.

Jerry Long, 79, a Lumberton resident and former member of the Robeson County school board, echoed Wilson’s concerns about public education in the state. The retired educator, a Democrat, said he’s worried about what an increase in funding for private schools will do to the public school system. 

“People have just lost confidence in public schools,” he said. “There’s not much collaboration [on the school board]. One group’s got their idea, and another group’s got an idea, and there’s no compromise.”

Community concerns

One thing voters from both sides of the aisle agreed on is the need for local improvements in their community. Voters consistently mentioned a desire for increased infrastructure, service improvements and activities for youth.

At the Ransom Community Center in Columbus County, Vanessa Armond, 70, said people and industry keep leaving her community in Riegelwood. In her lifetime, grocery stores, banks and other industries have disappeared.

“It’s like this is a forgotten area,” she said. “You vote and vote in hope of change, but nothing happens.”

A voter waits outside the Ransom Community Center in Columbus County before casting their ballot in the primary election on Tuesday. Photo by Ben Rappaport

Voter turnout at Tuesday’s primary was low. In Columbus County, just 19% of voters cast their ballots, down from 24% in the 2020 primary election. Across the region, no Border Belt county had higher than 24% turnout, and the statewide turnout rate was 24%, a seven-point dip from 2020. 

Armond said she now has to travel 30 miles for most everyday tasks like going to the bank or grocery store. However, she hasn’t lost hope that change is possible. Even as the county has proposed growth in the eastern end, she and her peers lack access to the internet and county water.

“We have a lot of elderly people here, and there are changes needed to help them,” she said.

Despite being discouraged at the lack of change, Armond said the only way to give the community a chance was to voice its concerns through voting.

In Elizabethtown, Arthur Owens echoed a similar message. He’s a member of Bladen Improvement, a local progressive PAC that aims to create housing and employment opportunities in the county. Owens, a Democrat, left Bladen for nearly 30 years when he was serving in the military, but upon his return in the early 2010s, he was surprised to see not much had changed.

“We need local help here — we’ve been a poor area for so long,” Owens said. “People can’t afford to make repairs on their homes, and that begins to take a toll.”

He cited a lack of job opportunities and youth engagement throughout the county as other issues he hoped local and state representatives would address in the community. As part of that effort, he supported Ophelia Munn-Goins’ campaign for Bladen County Commissioner. She won her race for the Democratic nomination by 32 votes on Tuesday.

For full election results across North Carolina visit the state board of elections results dashboard.   

Rachel Baldauf and Kerria Weaver contributed reporting 

Campaign signs greet primary voters Tuesday in Laurinburg. Photo by Kerria Weaver