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Young Voters In NC Are Energized Like Never Before

Leoneda Inge

Hannah McKnight, 20, is a "new voter." She's technically a junior at Duke University, but she took the semester off and started spending the past several weeks at the downtown Durham bus terminal. That's where she helped start Durham Drives.

McKnight used social media to encourage people with free time and a car to give other people rides to the polls so they can vote, and even register to vote during early voting. Most rides are round trips from the bus terminal.

“I found that every organization in Durham that typically does drives to the polls was not doing it anymore," said McKnight. "Because of COVID and because of the liability, they decided that they were not going to do individualized rides to the polls.”

Since October 15, the start of early voting, Durham Drives has registered more than 300 drivers and arranged more than 500 rides to the polls.

“I think for me, part of the reason why transportation was on my mind is I don’t have a driver’s license, and I can’t drive, so I know what it's like to be in Durham and not able to get anywhere," McKnight laughs. "I like to joke, I started it just to get myself a ride to the polls.”

McKnight, who is often seen wearing an orange t-shirt with voting rights advocate, the late Congressman John Lewis on the front, says after sitting at home during much of the pandemic and attending some summer racial justice protests, she wanted to do more.

Credit Leoneda Inge / WUNC
NCCU students Justin Wright, left, and DeWayne Whitehead voted early and for the first time this election year.

Numbers show a significant rise in “woke” young people — like McKnight — this election season. NextGen America, an advocacy group working to turn out young voters, reports 28% of North Carolina voters who have already cast their ballot are young voters, a big jump from the last presidential election. In North Carolina, more than 85% of voters aged 18 to 29 who have voted so far are considered first-time or infrequent voters.

David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College in Raleigh and director of the Meredith Poll, says this past summer ignited a spark in young people, especially first-time voters.

"Young people were more civically engaged this year, doing things like attending rallies, participating in online petitions. The kind of civic engagement that kind of shows that they really are interested in what’s going on in the world," said McLennan. "To see that translate into voting doesn’t surprise me at all.”

Last week, a large bus pulled up on the North Carolina Central University campus. The sides of the bus read, “State of Emergency Vote Tour.” Young Black activists from across the country are making stops in swing states between Florida and Michigan, encouraging young folks to vote.

Angelo Pinto was a passenger on the bus. He co-founded an organization called “Until Freedom” and said they have a lot of work to do.

Credit Leoneda Inge / WUNC
The 'State of Emergency Vote Tour' stopped at NCCU Oct. 29, 2020 to encourage young people to vote. The bus tour, sponsored by 'Woke Vote,' was scheduled to make stops in swing states from Florida to Michigan.

“I think there’s a lot of narratives out there that are saying to folks, hold your vote, don’t vote, neither candidate is great. So we’re competing with a lot of narratives," said Pinto. "I think we’re also competing with candidates who don’t always serve our best interests.”

Pinto says that’s why he’s not just pushing young folks to vote, he’s pushing them to get organized.

Justin Wright, a 20-year-old junior at North Carolina Central, was wearing a black hoodie that read “Black Voters Matter” as the bus pulled up.  

“People feel like their voice is never heard and this is my first time voting, so I am like, I am going to make sure my voice is heard today and I’m excited to see how elections about to go," said Wright.

Leoneda Inge is WUNC’s race and southern culture reporter, the first public radio journalist in the South to hold such a position. She also is co-host of the podcast Tested and host of the special podcast series, PAULI. Leoneda is the recipient of numerous awards from AP, RTDNA and NABJ. She’s been a reporting fellow in Berlin and Tokyo. You can follow her on Twitter @LeonedaInge.
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