Bertie County (pronounced burr-TEE County) is a rural county located in North Carolina’s northeastern Coastal Plain. Formed in 1722 as one of the oldest Tar Heel counties, Bertie is part of North Carolina’s Black Belt, a stretch of counties in the eastern part of the state marked by expanses of fertile soil. The Chowan River to Bertie’s east and the winding Roanoke River to its south provide the county with rich wetlands, and prime soil conditions make the area ideal for agriculture. Antebellum farmers took advantage of Bertie’s agricultural potential by forcing thousands of slaves to work on local plantations, and the county’s large African American presence has remained – over 62% of Bertie’s 19,881 residents are African American as of mid-2017, the highest proportion of any county in the state.
Agricultural output in Bertie has stalled in recent decades, and although manufacturing and seafood production are still profitable to the local economy, the county is currently experiencing one of the highest levels of financial hardship in the state. Bertie has also been experiencing population loss typical of rural areas in the state, with the county’s population decreasing by over 6% between 2010 and 2017 as residents seek to move to more economically prosperous metropolitan areas. However, developers are increasingly promoting inner coastal areas like Bertie County as North Carolina’s “Inner Banks,” emphasizing nearby beaches and attractive landscapes in order to appeal to tourists and retirees. Much of Bertie’s current economic output is centered in its county seat and largest municipality of Windsor, where African Americans make up most of the town’s nearly four thousand residents. Other municipalities in the county include Askewville, Aulander, Colerain, Kelford, Lewiston-Woodville, Powellsville, and Roxobel, although none contain more than a few hundred inhabitants.
Bertie County’s high African American population provides overwhelming support for the Democratic Party, characteristic of most areas of the Black Belt. Bertie has supported the Democratic nominee in every presidential election of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries except for in 1972, when the county supported Richard Nixon in his landslide reelection bid over George McGovern. Bertie County is also solidly Democratic on a statewide level, having voted for every Democratic candidate for statewide office since at least 2008.
1992 Presidential PVI: D+33 (Safe Democratic)
1996 Presidential PVI: D+31 (Safe Democratic)
2000 Presidential PVI: D+30 (Safe Democratic)
2004 Presidential PVI: D+26 (Safe Democratic)
2008 Presidential PVI: D+23 (Safe Democratic)
2012 Presidential PVI: D+29 (Safe Democratic)
2016 Presidential PVI: D+23 (Safe Democratic)
Hillary Clinton – 61.82%
Donald Trump – 36.97%
Deborah Ross – 60.87%
Richard Burr – 37.53%
Roy Cooper – 59.41%
Pat McCrory – 39.94%
Bertie is generally carried by the heavily African American precincts in the western two thirds of the county – almost all of the blue precincts in the maps above gave over 70% of their support to each Democratic candidate, including the southeasternmost blue precinct containing the populous Windsor. Republicans perform better in the eastern portions of the county with more white residents, although the red precincts in the maps above rarely vote over 60% Republican even in polarized races. The lone exception is the red precinct in the center of the county, which gave over 90% of its vote to Trump, Burr, and McCrory – this precinct contains the town of Askewville, which is 99% white and has no black residents.
Bertie is also strongly Democratic on a local level, with 72% of registered voters affiliating with the Democratic Party and only 11% affiliating with the Republicans. However, the county’s local politics are interesting – the county commission currently contains three Democratic members and two Unaffiliated members, one of whom was elected without opposition in 2016 and the other of whom narrowly defeated a Democratic candidate in 2014. No Republican has run for the county commission in the two most recent election cycles, although conservative aspirants may choose to run as Unaffiliated in order to avoid the local electorate’s animus towards Republicans. Bertie’s Democratic nature is further present in its congressional and legislative representation – the county is represented by Democratic Congressman G. K. Butterfield (CD-01), state Senator Erica Smith (SD-03), and state Representative Howard Hunter (HD-05), although it has been redistricted into the Republican-leaning HD-01 for the 2018 election.
Bertie County’s political leanings are largely divided on racial lines, with the African American majority continuing to carry the county for Democrats even as white voters have moved en masse to the GOP. The county is slightly less Democratic than nearby areas with similar African American populations, likely due to the increasing presence of conservative white retirees and lower voter mobilization among economically disadvantaged African Americans. Bertie has become somewhat less Democratic in recent years as white voters continue to abandon the party and the black population emigrates to metropolitan areas, although it will remain safely Democratic well into the future. Republicans should not invest in Bertie as it stands, but Democrats should be keen to continue promoting high African American turnout as current trends suggest a potentially competitive future for the county.