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SMITHFIELD — Historically, primary elections in Johnston County bring out few voters.
Sharon Castleberry, chairwoman of the county’s Democratic Party, understands some of the reasons why.
For one, “it is not that simple for many of us to just show up,” she said in an email interview. “It takes time and focus to show up.”
Castleberry pointed to the primaries in 2018, when just 12 percent of Johnston’s registered voters went to the polls. “While that was initially stunning to me, I don’t think this is about folks not caring,” she said. “It’s about several factors.”
Some Johnstonians, for example, question whether their vote matters, Castleberry said. Pointing to statistics from Democracy NC, she’s convinced they do. In 2015, Castleberry noted, 69 municipal races in North Carolina were decided by five or fewer votes. And of those 69, she said, 31 came down to one vote.
Other Johnstonians don’t make voting a priority because they have greater demands on their time, Castleberry said. “Life keeps happening,” she said. “We just have to make choices about how we need to use our time.”
Knowledge of the candidates matters too, Castleberry. “I hear a lot from folks who don’t want to vote because they don’t know anything about the candidates,” she said.
Learning about candidates is an ongoing challenge, even for a party chairwoman, Castleberry said. “There have been times in my life where I couldn’t study (candidates) daily or find the time to get to candidate forums or education events,” she said.
On the flip side of too little information is too much, Castleberry said. “The technology and the instant information in our hands can make it all so overwhelming,” she said. “There is so much to look at (and) not enough time for most folks to give to studying the candidates.”
In their heyday, printed newspapers were “a constant vehicle for voter education,” Castleberry said. And for folks who grew up with local print media, “we find that this service has not been adequately replaced by online media,” she said.
That makes it incumbent on the political parties to work harder than ever, Castleberry said. For the Johnston County Democratic Party’s part, “we made a stepped-up effort this cycle to provide (and) maintain ... current information on the Democratic candidates to meet the voter-education challenge,” she said.
“We are here to help any voter in need of education on who the candidates are, education on the voting process, even getting them to the polls with a ride if that is what they need,” Castleberry added. “Our votes always matter, even when we don’t cast them.”
Depending on where Democrats live in Johnston County, next Tuesday’s primary ballot has few local contests. The Republican primary has many more, and like Castleberry, the head of Johnston’s Republican Party sees voter education as the party’s chief job leading up to March 3.
“The mission of the county party during a primary is to provide opportunities for the voters to meet and hear from all Republican candidates so as to make an informed decision,” Darryl Mitchell said in an email.
After the primaries
Both Mitchell and Castleberry see the general election in November as critical, though for different reasons.
Mitchell doesn’t want to see what happened in Virginia happen in North Carolina. “In 2010, (former U.S. attorney general) Eric Holder put a strategy in place to turn the State of Virginia back over to Democrats by suing in the courts to have district maps redrawn that were more favorable to Democrats,” Mitchell said. “ ‘Sue till Blue’ became the strategy for Democrats to win back the governorship and win back majorities in the state house and senate.
“In November 2019, that became a reality,” Mitchell said. “As a result, Democrats in Virginia are going after the Second Amendment rights of Virginia citizens.”
Holder’s group has now targeted North Carolina for the same transformation, Mitchell said. “Republicans and conservatives must stand up to this by getting out to vote in the primary and the general election and electing strong conservative candidates who are not afraid to fight for liberty and freedom,” he said.
The November election will also be a referendum on Republican leadership, and Mitchell gave President Donald Trump high marks. “President Trump has done a excellent job in keeping his promises by lowering unemployment for whites, blacks and Hispanics to all-time lows; rebuilding our military; increasing security for Americans here and abroad; and protecting innocent life in the womb,” he said.
“Republicans and conservatives cannot become complacent,” Mitchell said. “The 2020 elections will determine the course of our nation for the next 10 years. We will go back to the failed liberal, progressive policies of Barack Obama and Democrats, or will we move forward with the successful policies of President Donald J. Trump and Republicans in our state to keep great?”
For the Johnston County Democratic Party, the November elections could prove a test of its strength, Castleberry said. “I have long said that a strong showing (or) win in Johnston County by any N.C. General Assembly and, or U.S. House candidate would get local folks’ attention,” she said. “And in turn, that would show more potential candidates who are thinking of running for any seat at any level that a Democrat can once again run in Johnston.”
“Our challenge over the last 15 years or so has been convincing potential candidates that they could run successfully with a committed outreach to the voters,” Castleberry said.
The party is enjoying some success in candidate recruitment, Castleberry said. “2008 was the last year, I think, that we had this many candidates on our ballot,” she said. “With the exception of District Court seats that are now partisan, there is a Democratic choice for all other seats for 2020.”
And what are their chances in November?
“Democrats will surprise you across our entire ticket,” Castleberry said.
Mitchell’s plan, on the other hand, is to “keep JoCo red.”
“We must move forward by keeping conservative Republicans elected in the county, in the state and in Washington,” he said.