‘A game-changer’: Pandemic forces shift in black voter outreach

Historic voter suppression helps drive preference to vote in person

A voter in Baltimore fills out a ballot in the April special election for a House seat that was run predominantly by mail with a few in-person voting locations.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
A voter in Baltimore fills out a ballot in the April special election for a House seat that was run predominantly by mail with a few in-person voting locations. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted May 21, 2020 at 5:00am

Alicia Reece had organized “Souls to the Polls” events before, but, in the age of COVID-19, this year had to be different. 

Instead of shepherding voters from African American churches to polling places in the Ohio’s hastily rescheduled primary last month, Reece and volunteers for her campaign for county commissioner guided voters through church parking lots to fill out applications to vote by mail, something black voters in particular are not used to doing.

“We’re talking about a culture shift,” Reece said in a recent phone interview.

Democrats nationally are now facing the same dilemma. Success in November may depend on turning out black voters, but a history of facing voter suppression has fueled skepticism among African Americans about voting by mail and a preference to vote in person.

Strategies to ensure black turnout are being redrawn as Democratic groups and grassroots organizations test messages in real time to determine how best to educate African American voters reluctant about casting mail-in ballots and reassure them that it is safe and secure. It’s a three-front battle, playing out in the courts, in federal and state legislatures, and on the campaign trail.

‘Back to square one’

“We had a very strategic plan in place, and then along comes the coronavirus,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a former Congressional Black Caucus chairman from North Carolina, a battleground in the fight for the White House and control of both chambers of Congress. “And that has absolutely changed the calculus. And so now we’re back to square one.”

The possibility that those who fear contracting the highly contagious virus will just not vote is fueling concerns that African Americans won’t turn out in November in numbers Democrats were counting on. “It’s a game-changer,” Butterfield said of the pandemic’s potential effect on voter turnout.

In recent elections before the pandemic, black voters had some of the lowest rates of voting by mail. In 2018, just 11 percent of African American voters cast ballots by mail, while nearly 18 percent did so in 2016. Those rates vary depending on the rules in each state, according to research from Charles Stewart III, an MIT political science professor and founder of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab.

Reasons why include practical ones, such as the need to register to vote on Election Day. But several African American campaign operatives said a history of voter suppression is also a factor.

“There’s a very deep emotional connection to casting a ballot in person, to really be able to see and hold that receipt that your ballot was cast,” said Sabrina Stevens, a campaign director for Color of Change PAC.

Dwight Bullard, a former state senator and political director for New Florida Majority, said, “A lot of the concern and skepticism that the black community particularly has around by mail is: Will those votes be counted?”

In Florida, there may be a basis for that concern. The ACLU found that in 2016, mailed ballots cast by racial minorities were more than twice as likely to be rejected as mailed ballots cast by white voters.

BlackPAC, which focuses on boosting electoral participation among African Americans, found in a poll released last month that 41 percent of black voters said they worried their vote would not be counted if they voted by mail.

Adrianne Shropshire, BlackPAC’s executive director, said the data underscored the importance of having multiple voting options — including in-person voting days before Election Day, and secure drop boxes in communities for ballots.

Still, Shropshire was optimistic that black voters would still turn out in high numbers even if some were nervous about going to polling places.

“Black voters are highly motivated to vote right now,” she said, noting that black communities have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 crisis.

“It’s less about ‘Will black voters show up and use the option to vote by mail?’ and more about whether or not there are going to be increased restrictions,” Stephenson said.

Multiple fronts 

Prior to the pandemic, Democrats were engaged in multiple court battles related to voting rights, and that effort has since intensified to include challenges to absentee voting rules.

The Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have pledged to invest more than $10 million in voting rights litigation.

“The DNC is doing everything in its power to ensure access and availability to the franchise without putting lives at risk,” DNC Black Caucus Chairwoman Virgie Rollins said.

Democratic groups and other advocacy organizations are also pushing federal and state legislatures to take up voting overhauls, including expanding absentee and early in-person voting. Butterfield, a member of the House Administration Subcommittee on Elections, said Democrats would continue to demand more funding in the next coronavirus response package to help states expand voting by mail, calling the issue a “red line” for the party.

A $3 trillion package that passed the House last week included $3.6 billion in state grants to prepare for elections as well as mandates for states that Senate Republicans have opposed.

Advocates have also stressed the importance of preserving in-person voting options, recently sparking a conflict in the May 12 special election in California’s 25th District. Democrats and the Republican mayor of Lancaster pushed for a vote center in the city, which has sizable black and Hispanic populations. When one was approved, President Donald Trump accused Democrats of trying to steal the election. Republicans ultimately won the election, but the back-and-forth offered a preview of similar conflicts heading into November.

Early and often

In addition to litigation and lobbying, Democrats and other advocacy groups are also working to engage directly with African American voters about how to vote by mail. The key, operatives said, is communicating with voters early and often.

Democratic party organizations were already reaching out to black voters, and that’s continuing during the pandemic. The DNC and the DCCC had placed staffers focused on engaging African American voters in battleground states and congressional districts. The DNC is working with state parties, launching text banks in Florida, Georgia and Pennsylvania to encourage voting by mail, and making thousands of phone calls in Michigan and North Carolina.

“Democrats’ early effort to engage black voters will ensure communities have access and know how to vote safely and securely,” DCCC press secretary Chris Taylor said.

The pandemic has also caused groups to place a much greater emphasis on voting by mail.

“COVID-19 has changed absolutely everything. There is now an urgent need to make sure that people don’t only have the information that they need, but that they’re able to vote in a safe way, and that it’s fair,” said Stephanie Young, managing director of culture and communications for When We All Vote, a nonpartisan group founded by former first lady Michelle Obama. The group is currently testing strategies that would best engage voters around voting by mail.

Democratic groups and other organizations focused on black voters are planning to deploy a range of tactics to educate voters about casting mail ballots or voting early in person, using a mix of targeted digital, radio and television ads, phone calls, and texting.

Reece, the Ohio candidate, cautioned that it was also important to reach voters where they are. Her campaign, for example, made sure there were stacks of absentee ballot applications at essential businesses such as gas stations and grocery stores. She ended up winning her primary.

“It’s going to take starting now, and it’s going to take resources,” Reece said.