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The suburbs: Winston-Salem’s forgotten voters

by Jordan Green

My doorstep pitch is lightning fast.

“Hi. I’m Jordan Green, a reporter for YES! Weekly newspaper. I’m just encouraging people to vote in the upcoming Winston-Salem primary election. Can I give you some information?” If I’m catching a hard, impatient stare, I edit.

“Hi, I’m a reporter with YES!

Weekly. I’m just encouraging people to vote in the upcoming election. Can I give you some information?”

If the resident is trying to restrain a large, baying dog on the other side of the door, the spiel boils down to, “Hey, can I give you some information about the election?” The quarter-page flier says, “Elections are a participation sport. Don’t stay on the sidelines.” It lists the two candidates for mayor in the Sept. 10 Democratic primary — incumbent Allen Joines and challenger Gardenia Henley — and the three Democratic candidates for the East Ward — incumbent Derwin Montgomery and challengers Joycelyn Johnson and Phil Carter. It provides the address for the polling place for Precinct 507, which is Sedge Garden Recreation Center. It advertises YES! Weekly’s online voter guide, at triadpolitics.info and lists my cell phone number in case anyone has any questions about the endeavor.

I chose Precinct 507 because only 2.2 percent of registered voters cast their ballot in the last primary, which took place in 2009.

I usually remember to ask if everyone in the household is registered to vote. Most of the time that’s about the extent of it. I don’t ask them any questions or drag out the conversation unless they want to talk more. Most people are polite; they take the flier and close the door. You can tell the ones who are dedicated voters because they thank you for what your doing. Plenty of people just say, “No thanks,” from the jump and one young man listening to the radio in an open garage promptly responded to my question about whether I could give him some information about the election by saying, “Absolutely not!” Some people look afraid, and many seem uncertain. The uncertainty tells me I’m on to something.

Over three days in the field, I ran across one woman who had moved earlier in the month and wanted to update her registration and one who had recently registered and eagerly took a batch of fliers to help get the word out. Those were exceptional experiences.

The precinct is sandwiched between Business 40 and Interstate 40 on the back side of Salem Lake. It straddles Kernersville Road, which becomes Waughtown Street if you head in a southwesterly direction and South Main Street if you go the other way. The subdivisions sparsely distributed over the area are as closely tied to the steakhouses, gas stations and grocery stores in Kernersville as the Latin American commercial district on Waughtown Street in Winston-Salem.

The residents look a lot like my family: young, working, multiracial and growing. Almost half of the registered voters are Democrats, but there are also healthy shares of Republicans and independents. Even for a staunch new urbanist like myself, the logic is inescapable: If you want two or three bedrooms and you can afford a mortgage of about $100,000, you head for the suburbs.

It’s easy to forget there are neighborhoods like this in the East Ward, which, after all, is more than the public housing communities that throng Highland Avenue. When you start covering the ground, it dawns on you that there’s a vast multitude of people who live outside of the politically active, core neighborhoods that become identified with their respective wards — Ardmore in the Southwest, West End in the Northwest and Washington Park in the South, for example.

Only 3.7 percent of registered voters in Forsyth County participated in the 2009 municipal primaries in Winston-Salem. Considering the heavy partisan skew of voter registration in the city’s eight wards, the primaries determined the eventual victor in every single races. That’s right: One in 27 registered voters made the call on who decides for 226,617 people how much tax property owners pay; what level of police, fire and sanitation service is provided; and what strategies are pursued to promote economic development and job creation. This year, as it was in the last election, the East Ward race drew only Democrats and the West Ward contest exclusively attracted Republicans, so the primaries are the final word, barring successful write-in campaigns.

The marquee contest — the general election on the first Tuesday in November — is a bit of sham in Winston-Salem because the show’s already over by that time. Last time around, Democratic incumbent Allen Joines ran without a Republican mayoral challenger.

Joines has rightly called voter turnout in Winston-Salem municipal elections “abysmal.” Sadly, the last time turnout in the general election topped 20 percent was in 2001, when Joines unseated Jack Cavenagh. Even that was nothing compared to the barnburner elections of 1989 and 1977, which respectively brought out 40.9 percent and 42 percent of the electorate.

Voter turnout in the Camel City is tepid compared to other major North Carolina cities. The last election in Charlotte, which also uses a partisan method, saw 2.6 percent in the primary and 16.2 percent turnout in the general election. Greensboro’s most recent nonpartisan municipal election drew 11 percent in the primary and 20.7 percent in the general election. Durham also compared favorably, with 8.8 percent of registered voters polling in the primary and 17.6 percent participating in the general election.

I’m an expectant father in Greensboro with my first child on the way in about three weeks.

Why should I care whether people in Winston-Salem vote or not? Don’t I have better things to do? I think the answer is that we can’t call ourselves a democracy if our elected leadership isn’t truly representative. And we don’t deserve anything more than mediocrity if we don’t take responsibility for our future. So what kind of example would I set for my daughter if I took a pass? And, for what it’s worth, I don’t even live in Winston-Salem. But I work in the city, so that gives me enough stake to get to work.

Four years ago, four-term incumbent Joycelyn Johnson garnered 228 votes in the Democratic primary for the East Ward. In a normal year, that might’  have been enough. But then-challenger Derwin Montgomery trounced her with 530 votes, mostly from other students at Winston-Salem State University, carrying only one precinct.

If Montgomery’s upset wasn’t incredible enough, in the neighboring Southeast Ward, challenger James Taylor Jr. pulled 150 votes, slightly less than the 160 tallied by incumbent Evelyn Terry. But it was enough to set up a runoff and allow Taylor to defeat Terry in a second primary.

It’s no wonder that Taylor saw an opening.

Four years earlier, Terry had won her primary with only 162 votes — only two more than her opponent, Jimmy L. Boyd.

Don’t let anybody tell you one person’s vote doesn’t matter.

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