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Meet the volunteers trying to ‘FLIP’ North Carolina’s courts

Credit: iStock

by Kelan Lyons, NC Newsline
April 18, 2024

It all started with Donald Trump’s win in 2016. After the election, a group of shellshocked progressive Durham Democrats met at a bar to commiserate over their loss.

“We just were obviously horrified post-2016 election,” said Andrea Cash. “And that was the real moment of, ‘What are we going to do?’”

What they did was create FLIP NC, an all-volunteer grassroots organization co-founded by Amy Cox and Briana Brough. For the next year they knocked on 20,000 doors and sent 250,000 text messages to prospective voters in legislative districts that were competitive in the 2018 elections. Two years later, they worked even harder, making 400,000 calls and sending 1.4 million text messages to prospective voters.

FLIP’s focus in its first few elections was winning competitive seats up for grabs in the legislature. Volunteers wanted to end gerrymandering, and put legislators in office who were not going to draw districts skewed toward a specific political party.

“We want to be able to fight on a fair playing field for our progressive values, and it doesn’t feel like we can do that in North Carolina without fair maps,” Cox said.

But after the North Carolina Supreme Court upheld Republican lawmakers’ gerrymandered maps last year — the high court’s Republican majority reversed a ruling issued by a Democratic majority just months earlier — it became clear to FLIP NC volunteers that they’d need to focus on different races in the 2024 election: those for seats in the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.

“We can’t get fair maps,” Cox said. “Now we have to flip the court, then the legislature, so that we can get fair maps in 2030.”

Democrats cannot retake control of the state Supreme Court this year. Only one seat is up for election, the one currently occupied by Justice Allison Riggs, a Democrat. Even if Riggs wins, Democrats will still be outnumbered by the Republicans 5-2.

But if organizers like FLIP NC protect Riggs’ seat, protect Justice Anita Earls’ in 2026, and then flip two of the three seats up for election in 2028, Democrats will regain control of North Carolina’s high court — just in time for redistricting in 2030, when the maps will be redrawn once again.

“We need judges who are fair and who are not motivated by these extreme partisan aims, which I think is what we have now,” Brough said. “We focus on the courts because if we don’t have judges who are going to protect the rights of citizens, then we are not going to ever be able to stop the gerrymandering.”

FLIP NC’s efforts are aligned with the state Democratic Party’s. Earlier this year, Anderson Clayton, the party chair, vowed to put more attention and resources on the judicial races this November. After getting swept in recent statewide judicial races, Clayton said in January the party would hire a judicial coordinating campaign director, a specialist she said the Republicans have had for years.

FLIP’s ethos also echoes public comments made by Riggs, the Supreme Court justice and candidate herself. In a virtual forum in January, Riggs said she wasn’t just running to keep her seat. She was campaigning for the long game, talking to voters about Democratic judges’ values in an attempt to build “the pipeline to ensure that when we have the chance, we win back our courts in 2028.”

‘These races matter’

FLIP NC volunteers practice a “deep canvassing” style, prioritizing conversational flow over strict adherence to a script. They still hit the highlights, the stakes of the judicial races, but they ask voters what issues matter to them and talk about how judges’ decisions impact their everyday lives.

“It’s not transactional. It’s going to the door and asking, ‘What issues matter to you?’” said Cash, FLIP NC’s director of communications.

“Ideally, we want the voter to talk more than we’re talking,” Cox said. “It’s not just delivering information at them. It’s listening.”

They pass along an information sheet that gives general details about the political makeup of the state Supreme Court, and another that details how the Republican judges have ruled on key issues, inviting prospective voters to learn about how GOP Supreme Court justices blocked almost $700 million in public school funding and restored a voter ID law that a Democratic majority on the high court had deemed unconstitutional just months earlier. Their website makes note of Republican justices’ cozy relationship with corporations and the threat they can pose to reproductive rights.

“This court feels very corrupt, and people don’t know about it,” said Cox.

FLIP NC hosts a monthly canvas in Durham. Their next one is May 19. They are planning on hosting others in Asheville, Raleigh and Wendell in the coming months. And they are open to doing more throughout the state, should they find volunteers interested in helping spread the word throughout, or outside of, The Triangle.

“We hope to host more canvasses if we have other volunteers who can bring them to other areas,” said Cox.

For this year’s election, volunteers have knocked on 1,500 doors in Durham over two canvass sessions. Three issues they keep hearing about from voters: abortion, housing and education.

“We train volunteers to have the information about how the judges are ruling on all of these things,” Cox said.”[But] delivering that is not the most important thing. We want people to feel heard and we want them to come away with, ‘These races matter.’”

Turnout tends to be higher in presidential election years than in the midterms, but FLIP NC is trying to convince North Carolinians to fill out the entire ballot, not just tick the box for who they want to be president.

“We even saw that in the Democratic primary in March, people who voted in the presidential and then dropped off and didn’t vote in the governor’s [race,] didn’t vote in the Supreme Court [race,]” Cash said. “It’s just not a given that everyone who goes to the polls will fill out the full ballot.”

Despite the challenge, Cash, Cox and Brough are optimistic, if cautious. They are excited about the direction of the Democratic Party’s leadership and its candidates. But that doesn’t mean they’ve forgotten their despair after Trump’s victory in 2016, the election that led to FLIP NC’s genesis.

“I will never again be flagrantly optimistic about elections,” Brough said. “I just think you need to fight for every inch, because you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

NC Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. NC Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Rob Schofield for questions: info@ncnewsline.com. Follow NC Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

This story is republished from NC Newsline under a Creative Commons license. Read the original story.