There is no doubt that black voters will play a definitive role in the 2020 election cycle. For the last several years, politicians and the media have paid increasing attention to the choices and motivations of black voters and our ability to influence elections. But there is often confusion, misunderstanding, or outright ignorance about the black electorate on the part of the dominant (white) culture. Mainstream media has fallen woefully short in this regard, often boiling black voters down to a monolithic group that will always vote in lockstep with the Democratic Party, come what may. Since polling data on black voters is often incomplete or lacking altogether, it is important that we learn from the information that is already out there, especially when it is coming from black-led organizations.
Going into the 2018 midterms, Black PAC, an organization dedicated to the political engagement of black voters, commissioned a large-sample poll of black voters in eight battle ground states. It discovered that there was no single issue motiving black voters in the election cycle, because black folks were concerned about a variety of things, including economic insecurity, wages, housing, health care, education, and college affordability. However, racial justice was the most motivating issue that ultimately moved black voters to head to the polls.
More recently, Black PAC followed up post-midterms with black voters in those same battleground states to learn more about their reasons for voting and to mine lessons for 2020. In a telephone interview with Adrienne Shropshire, executive director of Black PAC, and Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher of Brilliant Corners Research and Strategies, Daily Kos learned more about issues faced by the black electorate in 2018.
Belcher began by noting that this was anything but a regular election for black voters and that that’s why so many came out. In fact, 40 percent of black midterm voters did not vote in the previous midterm election in 2014. And in some states, black voters comprised up to 27 percent of all Democratic voters. Though white voters were more likely to decide who they would vote for more than a month before the election (67 percent), 64 percent of black women said that they decided well before October.
Voting rights topped the list of concerns that motivated black voters in 2018. Among others were division and racism, hate crimes, government corruption, and the economy. In Georgia, the majority of black voters (77 percent of them) believe that voter suppression negatively impacted their state elections, while 53 percent of black voters polled overall also believe that voter suppression played a role in election outcomes. This, Belcher and Shropshire say, is important for Democratic politicians to take note of; they will need to develop specific plans to address issues of racism, voting rights, and access to the polls in order to resonate with black voters in the future.
According to the poll data, black voters are right to believe that voter suppression was an issue in the midterms. Their wait times to vote varied, but were longer compared to those encountered by white voters. According to a Black PAC press release:
The poll found 27 percent of Black voters waited over 20 minutes to vote compared to just 18 percent of White voters. In Georgia, 42 percent of Black voters waited over 20 minutes to cast their ballot. Across states, four percent waited one to two hours. That means more than 275,000 Black voters likely waited more than one hour to vote in these states.
In addition to long wait times, black voters encountered other barriers to voting, including not having the proper identification; not being able to find their correct polling location; not having enough time in general, and the wait time at their designated polling location being so long that they were unable to vote.
We know that voter suppression is a tactic straight out the Republican playbook. Still, that doesn’t mean black votes are an automatic given for Democrats. If anything, it means Democrats will need to work harder, in terms of making sure both that black voters have equal access to the ballot and that they have a reason to come out for specific candidates. The data indicates that black voters are well aware of Donald Trump’s racism and the danger his administration poses and the destruction that it is doing to black people. But Democrats need to be about more than simple opposition.
“Candidates matter,” said Shropshire. “And people want to know what issues they stand for. They are interested in knowing who a candidate is, whether or not they have an authentic story if they care about the issues black voters care about and their lived experiences.”
The good news is that Black PAC’s polling helps to create a blueprint for Democrats to engage with black voters around the important issues of concern. And notably, the data also shows that age played a major role in the 2018 election cycle. The early-voting statistics among voters ages 18-29 show an increase of a whopping 712 percent over 2014. This means that black voters of all ages and backgrounds were motivated to vote more than ever before. Engaging these demographics is going to be key in 2020. As Shropshire noted, “To win in 2020, candidates must be able to speak to and mobilize all of the progressive base, including voters of color.”
Don’t let myths about black voters being unmotivated and not engaged fool you. Across the country, many of us are eager to exercise our right to vote and usher in a new decade of change and progress. And the data shows, particularly in battleground states, that black voters are working hard to exercise their right to vote.
Democrats, however, need to do the work to make voting rights a priority—not just in the weeks leading up to elections, but in the years prior if they want to appeal to black voters. Likewise, Democrats can’t rely on an anti-Trump strategy, but instead will need to specifically address issues of racial justice, division, and hatred, and propose solutions that empower and protect black communities, if they want to continue to see black voters help deliver a “blue wave” in 2020 and beyond.