How North Carolina Democrats’ Youngest Party Chair Plans To Protect Voting

New NC Democrats party chair Anderson Clayton in front of various state symbols and buildings and an outline of the state all in varying shades of blue.

On Feb. 11, 25-year-old Anderson Clayton from Person County, North Carolina made history by becoming the youngest-ever chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party. She defeated incumbent chair Bobbie Richardson and will serve a two-year term. We spoke to Clayton to learn more about her race for party chair, her plans heading into 2024 and how she intends to protect North Carolina voters against Republican attacks on democracy.

Clayton emphasized how year-round organizing resonated with party members.

Clayton’s victory in the race for party chair was widely seen as an upset, with the incumbent chair having earned the backing of the governor, attorney general and every Democratic member of the state’s congressional delegation. Clayton believes that her commitment to increased organizing in all parts of the state contributed to her victory. “I think the main thing that people really want to see is a reinvestment in boots-on-the-ground energy and a new hope in a democratic party that organizes across every community, from Murphy to Manteo,” she told Democracy Docket.

As a young voter herself, she also wants to engage young North Carolinians in the political process, and pointed to organizing on university and community college campuses as one way she hopes to achieve that. “One of the things that I want to be able to do is put ourselves in the places where young people are. I think that right now young people are kind of being forced to choose what they’re going to be involved in. Politics isn’t really accessible right now for young people to really get engaged with and I want to make sure there’s a low barrier to entry to this party.”

Clayton stressed that her own election as party chair could serve as an inspiration for young voters, noting that “we changed this state, we changed this party, with this election.” That’s the example she wants to show voters in a state where Democrats sometimes feel powerless against a Legislature that rigs election maps. “It’s really about finding a way to show people you have power again and telling them how to use it.”

With a competitive election cycle coming up, the newly elected party chair sees the governor’s race as her number one priority — but not at the expense of down ballot races.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper — the only person standing in the way of North Carolina’s Republican-dominated Legislature — is term-limited in 2024. The race to replace him will be highly competitive, and Clayton wants to ensure he’s replaced by another Democrat.

“I think that is our number one priority, to make sure that we have a Democratic governor.” But Clayton highlights an important — yet often overlooked — reason to focus on the governor’s race. In the Tar Heel State, the governor appoints the chair of all 100 county boards of elections, as well as all five members of the state board of elections. “I tell people that all the time, those [positions] are appointed by the governor. And that determines where you can vote and the access to voting.”

While conceding that the governor’s race is the top priority, Clayton also wants Democrats to win races further down the ballot, a feat that the party has struggled to accomplish in recent years. Though Cooper won re-election in 2020, Democrats remained in the minority in the state Legislature and lost key judicial races. Clayton aims to change that in future elections by focusing on down ballot races and recruiting candidates to run in every race. She further emphasized the implications of these smaller contests on statewide elections, attesting that they’re “building the bench for those up-ticket races.” Beyond outcomes, though, Clayton sees these down ballot races as a way to “ensure that Democrats feel heard across the state.”

Clayton views the North Carolina Supreme Court’s decision to rehear two recent cases as dangerous — and a wake up call.

Earlier this month, the North Carolina Supreme Court agreed to rehear two recent cases, one striking down a photo ID law and the other overturning the state’s congressional and legislative maps for being partisan gerrymanders. Notably, the only difference between when those cases were decided and now is the composition of the court, which flipped from four Democrats and three Republicans to five Republicans and two Democrats after Republicans swept judicial races in 2022. We recently heard from North Carolinians, who largely concurred that the move was unprecedented and dangerous to North Carolina voters. Clayton agrees.

Analysis North Carolinians and Legal Experts React to the State Court’s Unprecedented Move

On the photo ID to vote case, she told us that the decision to rehear is “harmful and it’s detrimental.” She worries about the impact that ID laws can have on marginalized people. “It’s impacting people that are elderly, people that are homeless, people that just don’t have a license or don’t drive. It’s ridiculous, quite frankly, for us to be rehearing that.”

On the partisan gerrymandering case, Clayton argued that the rehearing is “just another opportunity” for North Carolina Republicans to rig maps. At the same time, though, Clayton views it as a call to action for her and North Carolina Democrats. “We have every obligation to make sure that voters know that and understand that, and work towards getting back those seats on our Supreme Court. What I’m trying to do right now is build out that 10- and 20-year plan for the Democratic Party.”

To fight back against partisan gerrymandering, Clayton joins others in calling for an independent redistricting commission.

Regardless of the outcome in the gerrymandering lawsuit, the North Carolina General Assembly is poised to redraw the state’s congressional map this year, and Clayton believes Republicans will enact another partisan gerrymander. “I’m expecting it,” she said. “I fully expect Republicans to take every advantage to ensure that they are disenfranchising voters across this state, which is the saddest thing to me that folks are really willing to not let people be heard.” She also echoed calls from other Democrats to create an independent redistricting commission that would redraw maps every 10 years. Currently, the state Legislature fully controls the map-drawing process.

With the General Assembly controlled by Republicans and Gov. Cooper unable to veto maps, Democrats are unlikely to stop a new gerrymander from being enacted. Instead, Clayton wants to build awareness through mass action. “We’re going to try to make sure that we have all our Democrats in Raleigh,” she told us. “We want to make sure that folks are outside the General Assembly and let them know where the people stand on this issue. I think that the party right now has a huge role to play even though we may not have power in our state legislature. There’s an opportunity for us to come together and at least say and educate our folks on this.”

When asked about protecting the right to vote, Clayton points to her influence over the county boards of election.

All across the country, Republicans have introduced legislation restricting the right to vote. In North Carolina, Republicans are considering legislation to move up the deadline to return mail-in ballots to elections offices. As party chair, Clayton plans to take an active role in fighting Republican attacks on voting and highlights her role in influencing the county boards of election.

“Party chairs across the state are the ones who get to help pick and choose who to appoint to our boards of election when a Democratic governor is in charge,” she points out, noting that the county boards actually set the rules for voting in each county, such as deciding where to open more polling sites or how many hours of early voting to offer. “I want to make sure that the folks that are in those positions are educated about these things that are happening at the state level.” Educating board members is essential to ensuring “that at the county level, right at the local level, we’re protecting people’s right to vote.”

No matter what happens in the next two years, Clayton wants to be prepared.

Ultimately, the new party chair believes that Democrats must prepare for the worst when it comes to protecting the right to vote. If a photo ID law ends up going into effect, for example, she stressed the need to educate voters on the law’s impacts and what actions they can take to avoid disenfranchisement. “We need to have a plan in place for how we’re going to get people temporary IDs, what that can look like. I think the one thing that we have not done is be able to actually get ahead of what Republicans are doing to us right now. So that’s what I want to do.”

She’s also prepared when asked what side she’s on in the state’s eternal debate over eastern or Lexington (western) style barbecue. “I’m gonna piss off one side of my state by saying that, but western definitely. I am a big old App State girl.”

Correction: An earlier version of this piece misstated Clayton’s concerns about the North Carolina Supreme Court’s rehearing of a partisan gerrymandering case. She argued that the rehearing is an opportunity for Republicans to rig maps, not rig elections. The piece also misquoted her response to a question about her barbecue preferences. She said she’s an “App State girl,” not an “upstate girl.”