At a time of such visible nationwide upheaval, tangible frustrations and demand for change, the importance of voting – especially in local elections – is amplified, community leaders and Aiken County residents believe.
Putting the right people in the right place at the right time, according to a collection of people interviewed by the Aiken Standard this week, is paramount.
"Real lasting change in the community, a change of which we can be proud, … really begins with voting and placing people in those offices who best represent our visions of our world," said Eugene White, president of the Aiken County NAACP branch.
"We've had generations of our predecessors who marched, fought and died for the right of equity at the ballot box," he said. "And for us to abandon that right discredits their memory."
The sentiments come with a sense of urgency: As widespread protests and demonstrations over the harrowing death of George Floyd (a black man pinned down by his neck while in police custody) continue to rock the U.S., election officials in South Carolina are preparing for a statewide primary on June 9. Aiken County voters will next week have a say in several federal, state and local Republican races, including for sheriff and solicitor – "the highest law enforcement official in the county," White noted, and the person "responsible for prosecuting the crimes of the accused."
No Democrats are in the races for Aiken County sheriff and Second Judicial Circuit solicitor, meaning the winners later this month are, effectively, guaranteed the seats.
"Apathy is the father of tyranny and is friend to the organized scoundrel," Richard Fletcher, a North Augusta resident active in the community, said in a message to the Aiken Standard. "Voting is the plasma and platelets of our democratic republic and literally the lifeblood of a free society. Voting is at once a freedom and a responsibility."
Fletcher often uses social media to organize, unify, inform and, sometimes, lampoon. Fletcher in February 2016 created North Augusta 20/20, a Facebook group with its sights set on bettering North Augusta. The gated group now has nearly 10,000 members.
"Not exercising our right to vote makes us subject to the will of others," Fletcher said. "Americans who believe our system of government is best in the world, who care about the direction of our society, never a miss a chance to vote."
There are no upcoming Democratic primaries in Aiken County. With that in mind, Ida Weston, president of the North Augusta Democratic Club, said she is planning to vote for "the simple reason we will still be electing someone who will, hopefully, represent everyone."
Weston said it is crucial people cast ballots even when there is no one from their preferred party running, describing it as an equalizer, the voice of the people. Primaries in South Carolina are open, meaning a voter does not have to be a registered Republican to cast a ballot in Republican contests.
"It's fine to march," the club president said. "It's excellent that you're marching because that is another right that we have, to peacefully assemble. But we also have now the right to vote."
Makenzie Johnson, an organizer with a fledgling Black Lives Matter group in Aiken, separately agreed: "I think that right now we need to have those numbers up and we need to unify and come together for this."
Johnson's group – BLM Aiken Movement, as it's known on Facebook – formally met for the first time Tuesday evening. The group, alongside Aiken Department of Public Safety officers, discussed police brutality, prejudice and reform.
There are more than 117,000 registered voters in Aiken County, including approximately 31,500 non-white people, state data shows. Roughly 5,000 county residents have requested absentee ballots for the primaries. Statewide, that number was just over 210,000 as of Wednesday morning.
Polls in the Palmetto State will be open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. June 9.