While much has been made about the suburban shift toward Democrats over the last half-decade, the reality is that Democrats cannot win elections without massive turnout in Black communities. Knowing this, Democratic candidates tend to spend October and then early November visiting Black churches and anonymously fretting to political reporters about whether it’ll be enough to win.
This year’s unprecedented early voting turnout has left us with reasons for both optimism and concern. There are indications of a big turnout of new Black voters in Georgia, despite the egregious voter suppression in the state, while there is a lot of energy in both Pennsylvania and North Carolina, as well. On the other hand, numbers look a little bit dicey in Florida thus far.
Black voters requested fewer absentee ballots and tend to vote in person (46% say they plan on voting in person in Florida), so we shouldn’t read too far into any early numbers, but given the stakes, it’s impossible not to obsess over every little data point. Thankfully, there are a number of activist groups, non-profits, and grassroots organizations out in communities, doing the hard work of getting out the vote in the face of Republican voter suppression (and, as we saw yesterday, racist police violence). A lot of money is also part of the equation.
Yesterday, I caught up with Kevin Harris, the Chief Campaigns Officer at the venerable progressive institution People for The American Way. He’s helping spearhead the group’s Defend the Black Vote campaign, which is trying to overcome voter suppression and help set record turnout for Black voters. An edited version of our conversation is below.
Tell me about the Defend the Black vote campaign.
Our Defend the Black Vote campaign is a nonpartisan effort inspired by the fact that we know that African American men are a demographic that is skeptical in many ways about our institutions and skeptical about the importance of voting and whether or not it really makes a difference. We see that as a direct threat to democracy. Our democracy is stronger when more people participate in the process. And our democracy is stronger when we have a system that doesn’t work against people voting, but actually urges people to vote.
The focus is on this community, to make sure that they understand what the stakes are, that their vote does matter, and that there are ways in which to overcome voter suppression. The fact that there is voter suppression is not ever something that we should ever allow to become normalized in our society.
How do you convince people their vote matters when politicians often don’t really follow through on their promises? One side is better than the other, but even for Democrats, a lot of promises they’ve made to the Black community have gone unfulfilled over the years.
You make sure that you’re honest with people and you explain to them that voting is one part of the solution, but it is not the entire solution. First, start with getting folks in power who are aligned with your values. Then you have to also do follow-up work to make sure that those folks are held accountable, and that they actually follow through on the things that they campaign for.
So we see the Defend the Black Vote effort as a part of a multi-layered strategy to really engage African-American males. Beyond this election, one of the things we’re going to be focused on is a new Voting Rights Act and we’re going to need African-American males at the table, because it’s something that directly impacts them. Then there are a lot of additional changes and reforms that need to be made to our criminal justice system. But when we don’t vote, we’re really fighting these fights with one hand tied behind our back.
Do you think the Black Lives Matter protests that broke out nationwide after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the political response to them, generally motivated Black voters or served as proof that nothing changes?
I think it motivates the vote. I think that people are frustrated, they are in pain. And I think they recognize that we have to use every tool at our disposal to make sure that we do something to make our voices heard and to make sure that we’re speaking out against these and justices. So I think that what these tragedies have done is sort of awakened a spirit among a lot of folks to say, I just want to do everything I can to bring about some change. You see that in these long lines, you see that in people waiting three or four hours. You see it even in places like Texas, where records are being broken.
There are some good turnout numbers in swing states, but Black turnout has been low in Florida, especially the Miami area. They certainly have voter suppression, but do you think there’s any particular reason for that? Anything regional? Do you expect a surge this weekend?
I’m optimistic that we’ll see a surge. I don’t know why [it’s been lower], there could be regional reasons. I think that that’s something we may not know until after Election Day and all the ballots are cast, when we can go back to take a look at what occurred. But I do believe that across the board, there is reason for optimism, in terms of people believing that their casting a ballot is a powerful way to make a change and make a difference. I think we have to keep talking to people; it goes back to what I said earlier about before honesty. There are a lot of folks who feel marginalized or left out of our systems and our processes and our institutions.
Black voters have been particular targets of disinformation campaigns, both in 2016 and now this year. Republicans were focused on deterring the Black vote in Florida in 2016, and it seemed to have worked to some degree. How do you combat something that’s so pervasive, with sophisticated targeting?
You have to show up to the battlefield. One of the reasons that we selected text messaging, for example, as a part of our methods of engagement is because it reaches people on their cell phones. We know that folks who want to suppress the vote, that’s one of the ways in which they’re going to be reaching out to folks.
In addition to that, there is a digital advertising component as well as a streaming radio component. What that does is create a comprehensive experience for the folks that we’re targeting. They’re getting text messages from us, when they go on to a streaming service to listen to music they’re hearing ads, and when they go on Instagram to check in on their friends they’re also seeing our ads. Cell phones are a method in which a lot of the suppression tactics are being deployed and the misinformation tactics are being deployed. We have to be real about that and we have to match it, we have to show up to the battlefield.