Throughout Election 2016, the map of presidential battleground states has changed, as historic strongholds for one political party have moved to the “toss up” or “leans to” category.
It’s an indication of how new voting groups, such as Latinos and those who just became citizens, as well as local issues and community advocates are reshaping states once considered to be safe bets for Democrats and Republicans.
For Election 2016, grassroots advocates and political observers are paying close attention to changes in Arizona and North Carolina, largely because of activism and laws enacted by local officials.
Recent polling out of Arizona, which has only voted for a Democratic presidential candidate once since 1952, shows Democrat Hillary Clinton in a tight race with Republican Donald Trump. In North Carolina, another traditionally Republican-leaning state in which early voting has begun, recent polling averages put Clinton ahead by a razor-thin margin.
No Republican candidate has won the presidency without winning either state since Dwight Eisenhower. Experts say Trump’s own rhetoric, viewed as harsh by many people, has spurred some of the voter backlash in the two states, but there may be reason to believe that a nascent political realignment is underway, with causes and implications beyond the voting in Election 2016.
In Arizona, state crackdowns on immigrants have driven record numbers of Latino voters to the polls in recent years, putting Joe Arpaio’s tenure as Maricopa County sheriff in jeopardy for the first time in decades.
In North Carolina, the repeal of the Racial Justice Act and passage of a controversial transgender “bathroom bill” have energized young voters and African-Americans, throwing Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s reelection in doubt.
In both states, repeated attempts by Republican officeholders to restrict voter eligibility and curtail access to the polls have sparked fury and determination in voters who feel targeted by the new measures.
“In terms of how people feel about politics in this election, it’s less about blue or red or purple, and more about working families having their voices heard,” says Tomas Robles, co-executive director of grassroots organizing group Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA).
“The new American majority really understands that 2016 is a year our voices need to get heard, and to get out to the polling place.”
In 2010, Arizona passed the country’s toughest immigration law in generations, SB 1070, with state polls indicating majority support for the measure. Known colloquially as the “Show me your papers” law, it required police officers in the state to check immigration status documentation during any lawful stop or arrest.
Seven months after SB 1070 passed, Latinos in Arizona voted in record numbers for the 2010 midterms. The number of Latino voters registered in Arizona jumped 50 percent from 2008. Even though midterm elections typically have lower voter turnouts, over 100,000 more Latinos in Arizona voted in 2010 than in 2008, many for the first time.
“It’s nerve-wracking to go to the polls, especially for the first time,” says Petra Falcon, leader of the Latino and voter-engagement group Promise Arizona, which she helped found in the wake of SB 1070. She also leads Promise Arizona in Action.
“It became personal. [SB] 1070 was a slap in the face.”
LUCHA’s Robles says the 2010 state immigration bill created a wave of social activists and organizers, who have been working in communities since that year.
“All of us came from that moment, and now we’ve seen that all of these issues are intertwined: not just immigration but education, workers’ rights, LGBTQ rights, police accountability — all of it,” he says.
This year’s campaign rhetoric about immigration also might prompt a larger-than-normal Latino turnout at the polls, though it could mirror the growth of the group in the country.
During the 2012 presidential election, the Latino voting rate was 48 percent, compared to 66 percent for Black voters and 64 percent for non-Hispanic White voters.
Former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, drew backlash recently when she said of Latinos, “they don’t vote.”
But early voting in Arizona shows a surge of Latino participation. If Arizona is any indication, Trump’s rhetoric on immigration has the potential to spur higher turnout from Hispanic voters nationally, in both this and future elections.
At the local level, the implications of this shift for working families are already emerging. A statewide ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage, Proposition 206, has majority support from voters, a recent poll shows.
“It’s not an issue that labor brought. It’s an issue our community brought,” says Robles, who also chairs the Prop. 206 campaign. “The people brought a proposition that affects a million workers, and labor has joined in to support it.”
Opponents of raising the minimum wage have argued that it will add costs to businesses and could actually lead to the hiring of fewer workers. Minimum wage supporters dispute that argument.
Local races are also in play. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a Trump ally and proponent of SB 1070, has held office for 23 years without a serious election challenge. But recent polling shows him 15 points behind Democratic challenger Paul Penzone.
Although recent news that Arpaio faces federal prosecution for criminal contempt in a racial-profiling case likely gave Penzone a boost, local political observers believe backlash against the top of the ticket is seeping down-ballot.
“There’s been a shifting away from a hard-line immigration stance in the state,” says James Garcia, a local grassroots activist and media consultant. Progressives in Arizona, he added, “see that there’s an opportunity to turn the state purple if not lighter shade of blue, by making maximum use of local grassroots leadership folks.”
North Carolina’s emerged as a swing state in 2008, when voters there chose a Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama, for the first time since 1976. In Chapel Hill, a liberal enclave that’s home to the University of North Carolina, the streets erupted in celebration on the night of the election.
However, Obama won North Carolina by a mere 15,000 votes in 2008, and the state swung back to the Republican candidate four years later. In the current election, the state is a statistical toss-up between Clinton and Trump.
As in Arizona, local politics in North Carolina have gotten particularly contentious in recent years. In 2012, the state elected its first Republican governor in over 20 years, Pat McCrory.
After campaigning as a moderate focused on economic growth, McCrory has drawn backlash after signing laws requiring ID to vote, blocking Medicaid expansion, cutting unemployment benefits and repealing the Racial Justice Act, which allowed death-row inmates to appeal their sentences on racial discrimination grounds.
All of this has sparked intense protest at the local level. Notably, the Moral Mondays civil disobedience movement has become a weekly ritual in Raleigh, where protesters enter the state Legislature building each Monday and are peacefully arrested.
Voter registrations in the state have surged, with many of those involved with local protests seeing similar concerns playing out on the presidential election stage.
“The enthusiasm is greater than I have ever seen in the 14 presidential elections since 1960 that I have worked in,” says Al McSurely, an advisor to Moral Mondays organizer and local NAACP head Rev. William Barber III.
“We have seen a wonderful outpouring of energy in our voter engagement work,” says McSurely, citing people’s reaction to Trump’s campaign rhetoric.
Down the ballot, several key races hang in the balance in North Carolina. McCrory is up for re-election, with polls showing him in a dead heat with his Democratic rival. Likewise for incumbent Republican Senator Richard Burr.
As in Arizona, there are demographic shifts underway that mirror national trends. Three of North Carolina’s largest cities, Charlotte, Raleigh and Durham, grew in population by more than 10 percent between 2010 and 2015. Meanwhile, many of the state’s rural counties are shrinking in population.
Urban voters in the state have been particularly incensed by the state’s Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, which McCrory signed into law in March. Better known as HB 2, the law prohibits transgender people from using bathrooms in public buildings that do not correspond to the sex on their birth certificate.
HB 2 has drawn economic boycotts of the state that hit hardest in Charlotte, a financial industry center, and the technology and research intensive economy of the Triangle.
For state lawmakers in North Carolina and Arizona, community advocates say, the decision to play to the base with policies that alienate growing sections of the electorate could have consequences for years to come.
Keith Griffith is a freelance journalist in New York City. His work has appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Reader and Business Insider. On Twitter, he is @keithgriff. About the top image: Rev. William Barber, president of the state chapter of the NAACP and architect of the protests known as “Moral Monday,” speaks on June 24, 2015 during a Bible study at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C. AP Photo by Gerry Broome
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