Politics

The Necessary Vote

Black communities organized and mobilized to deliver Joe Biden a victory. Now what?

A Black woman in a red leather jacket with an I voted sticker and a mask on.
A voter after casting her early-voting ballot on Oct. 17 in Philadelphia. Mark Makela/Getty Images

On the morning of Nov. 7, Nicolas O’Rourke was sitting in his home office in Philadelphia trying to get some work done. As the organizing director for the Pennsylvania Working Families Party was catching up on emails, with his noise-canceling AirPods placed snugly in his ears, he heard a rapid succession of thumps coming from the kitchen. His wife, the source of the ruckus, bolted down the hall to his office to tell him the reason: Pennsylvania had just been called for Joe Biden, flipping the state from red to blue and sealing Biden’s victory in the 2020 election.

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Four years before, O’Rourke stayed up on election night to watch the results come in, then broke the news of Donald Trump’s win to his wife the next morning. She’d wept at the news. This time, O’Rourke said, “I felt the tension in my own chest just open up.”

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Biden hadn’t been O’Rourke’s preferred candidate for the Democratic nomination, but the Pennsylvania Working Families Party, under O’Rourke’s direction, had been working hard at a task that eventually brought about a change in administration. He said the group convinced more than 30,000 Philadelphians to commit to vote early or by mail, then followed up to make sure they actually did; its Vote Today PA program reached more than 101,000 voters to discuss early voting, and registered 2,916 people.

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“Regardless of what you may feel about Joe Biden, in that moment, put him aside. This has been some dark four years,” said O’Rourke. “I think you feel that in your body, like, wow, we just shifted something.”

In the first wave of election analysis, based on early returns and uncorrected exit polls, much of the credit for Biden’s victory went to white suburban voters who had turned away from Trump or had turned out extra enthusiastically for Biden. Increased turnout among Black voters—whose decline in turnout from 2012 to 2016 had been blamed, unconvincingly, for contributing to Hillary Clinton’s narrow Electoral College loss—was treated as unremarkable in an election with record-breaking overall numbers of votes cast; the New York Times’ Upshot desk argued that even as Biden flipped Georgia from red to blue, Black voters’ share of the state’s electorate had declined.

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But the specifics of that Georgia analysis, and the larger story of how Biden’s victory took place, look different now. As slowly counted big-city votes accumulated and Biden’s popular vote total surpassed 80 million—with margins in crucial swing states like Pennsylvania too large to be seriously endangered by Trump’s frantic campaign of lawsuits—it has become clearer and clearer that the winning campaign was borne along on a robust infrastructure built by Black organizers and other organizers of color.

In interviews with Slate, Black organizers around the country describe a 2020 campaign that called for extraordinary mobilization—one capable of adapting to a life-threatening pandemic and accumulated voter suppression measures. Their efforts drew not just on the electoral frustrations of the past four years but on the greater movement against injustice that took over the streets in the spring and summer. As part of that broader, deeper activity, organizers say, they intend to press the party and the new administration to invest in Black communities at the local, state, and federal levels. Meaningful engagement between activists and regular voters made a difference, but the party needs to make a case for why such engagement should be maintained and expanded on its behalf.

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“If they want to be a party that can win, this is a blueprint on how you win,” said Cliff Albright, the co-founder of Black Voters Matter.

Groups that animate Black voters are treating Biden’s success as a direct result of their work. Thousands of volunteers executed extensive text and phone banking campaigns that reached millions of people. Election protection efforts ensured the folks who voted in person felt safe doing so. On-site volunteers made themselves available to answer questions about the voting process.

More specifically, the Poor People’s Campaign contacted more than 3 million poor and low-wealth voters in this election. The Advancement Project focused on expanding political education, training young people to be spokespersons for causes of their choice, and promoting turnout for down-ballot races such as sheriff and district attorney. And Black Voters Matter orchestrated “the kinds of events that you wound up eventually seeing the Biden campaign doing,” said Albright.

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Black Voters Matter caravans led voters to polling places, while organizers set up events in parking lots and planned socially distanced tailgates. The group also hosted drive-in movie screenings about issues around voting, scheduled virtual town halls, and executed a 38-day bus tour across 12 states. The final days of the tour were spent driving across Georgia, where their most robust program is housed, spending considerable amounts of time in counties—including Dougherty, Chatham, and Clayton—where mail-in ballots handed Biden a definitive statewide lead.

All of this happened in the midst of a coronavirus outbreak that has been disproportionately fatal to Black people, and which disrupted the usual means of voting and prevented Democratic campaigns from canvassing door-to-door. “We had to find a way to keep up the same kind of excitement that we would [have] normally,” said Albright.

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The long-standing story of the Democratic Party’s engagement with Black communities is about expectations. The party counts on Black voters to turn out for the Democrats in droves on Election Day—even if the presidential candidate hasn’t visited the state or the House candidate has assumed the base will remain theirs even though they don’t live in the district full time. The party has relied on the Black community’s historically rooted sense of duty to vote, as well as a widespread desire to reduce harm, in order to secure wins despite a stunning lack of investment in said community. This includes down-ballot races, particularly those in red states where Democrats have essentially ceded districts to the GOP.

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This reliability can leave the Black electorate in a bind. When Democrats lose, as in 2016, postmortems say that Black voters didn’t come through for them. When Democrats win, though, swing voters usually get the credit. The incoming Biden administration has promised to have the Black community’s back, but organizers have learned to expect politicians to lose interest in their most loyal voters in between elections.

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For a multiracial coalition party like the Democrats, the Black vote can’t ever be sufficient on its own to win a presidential election. But for Biden, energetic Black turnout was necessary. Regardless of how the intra-analyst dispute over Georgia’s vote-share numbers is resolved, Biden won the state by less than 13,000 votes, which represents a tiny fraction of the increased Black turnout. In the absence of those Black voters, Trump would have carried Georgia.

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“The reality is that Black voters consistently show up and deliver in crucial elections, pulling overall Democrat support, and anchoring turnout,” Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of BlackPAC, wrote in an email. “Even in the face of blatant voter suppression—before Election Day, on Election Day, and even during the post-election vote counting—and sustained disinformation and propaganda campaigns, Black voters rallied and found a way to cast their ballots.”

The Republican Party, for its part, has made it clear how it views the importance of the Black vote. Rudy Giuliani’s desperate legal campaign to overturn the presidential result largely ignored the suburban surge for Biden to focus on demanding that hundreds of thousands of votes from majority Black jurisdictions be thrown out. “It changes the result of the election in Michigan, if you take out Wayne County,” Giuliani argued at a press conference on Thursday.

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The debate over the relative contributions of Black voters and white suburban ones fails to reflect the systemic barriers designed to reduce Black vote share. It’s a distraction from the question of who “the power players are,” said Jamira Burley, a New York–based activist who works on political strategies.

“It’s easier to encourage white folks who have access to institutional power—whether we’re talking about the voting booth or we’re talking about housing or we’re talking about representation within other institutions—for them to see how their power plays in the grand scheme of things,” said Burley. “But when you’re talking about Black folks who not only are going to face discrimination in the ability to access the vote, they [also] haven’t seen in many ways how fighting through those barriers are beneficial to their community.”

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While the external barriers that prevent Black access to the ballot box are known, the internal battles are less discussed. Centuries of voter disenfranchisement have fueled legitimate fears about the risks of voting and whether to trust that one’s ballot will be counted. This year, long lines, a commonplace suppression tactic, came with the additional worry of exposure to the coronavirus. During this year’s primaries, thousands of Black voters reported that they did not receive an absentee ballot, and in some states, these ballots are more likely to be rejected. And the Trump administration’s attempts to undermine the U.S. Postal Service didn’t assuage this trepidation.

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These shenanigans, according to Burley, could have driven turnout down in 2020, were intensive organizing not in place to counteract them.

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When Black Voters Matter heard concerns about mail voting in their voter outreach conversations, they were accommodating of people’s fears and talked it through with them. If a voter couldn’t be convinced to mail in their ballot, the Black Voters Matter team would walk them through the early voting process in their state. And if that wasn’t an option, they would talk through preparations for voting on Election Day. The result was historic levels of turnout.

“We’ve got a fundamental belief that if you want folks to take action, if you want folks to respond to you, you’ve got to be in relationship with them,” Albright said. “And show that you hear them and affirm their lived experience. So when people tell us that they have concerns about the vote by mail process or about voting in general, we can’t just gloss that over.”

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“You have to meet folks where they are,” he said.

Meeting voters where they were was of equal importance to Kendra Brooks, a Working Families Party member on the Philadelphia City Council. Her strategy for engaging Black voters began during her 2019 campaign for council when she focused on potential voters who didn’t feel as if their ballot mattered because they believed the system to be rigged.

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“A lot of people felt that. That’s why people don’t vote,” said Brooks. “ ‘I’m going to elect another person who’s going to come into my community, and think they know better than I do, and make all these promises, and don’t deliver—year after year.’ That’s how we ended up where we are now.”

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“I had to tell them, if I win this election that’s proof that every vote matters,” she continued. “And now that you know your vote matters, I need you to show up again in 2020.”

In that election, and in this one, her team prioritized voter education and highlighted her plans to address the specific issues the community cared about: housing, education, and inequitable access to medical care. Such work was necessary to combat the apathy sparked by lack of appreciation of Black voters by the Democrats. By doing this, Brooks won her election.

“When you’re playing on the margins,” said O’Rourke, “you need to know what the marginalized people want to see happen for them and for their communities, [and] what they expect from their elected officials.”

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Biden was not the first choice for people hoping to see the political system transformed. But his status as the consensus “Well, he’s better than Trump” candidate gave organizers a chance to rally Black voters who were disillusioned with the electoral process.

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“In many of the conversations that I was able to have with Black folks who realized that Biden was not their No. 1 candidate, they showed up because he represented a moral ground that they were trying to establish by voting against Donald Trump,” said Burley.

Since the beginning of his presidency, Trump and his administration preoccupied themselves with committing human rights violations and upending civil rights protections. An onslaught of nefarious and targeted attacks on queer folks have focused, primarily, on repealing protections afforded to transgender people. An immigration ban targeting Muslim countries preceded a cruel family separation policy that was instituted in 2018, leading to children being split from their parents and forced to live in abhorrent conditions. He refused to punish China for its human rights violations against the Uighur people because he didn’t want to damage trade talks. His refusal to initiate a comprehensive federal pandemic response has allowed the novel coronavirus to run unchecked, which has led to more than 260,000 deaths—disproportionately of Black Americans, the same demographic that has borne the brunt of crackdowns on protests and the bolstering of the police.

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The ledger persists and so does the pushback against it. Political change has rested on the shoulders of those willing to make good trouble for as long as America has existed. Numerous movements—such as the Women’s March, the Sunrise Movement, the March for Our Lives, Demand Justice, the Yellowhammer Fund—sprang up in response to the sweeping human rights injustices posed by the administration. And the groups that existed prior deftly shifted their infrastructure toward getting Black voters to the polls. Over the summer, after the death of George Floyd, a wave of anti-racism protests swept the country and brought more people along for the ride.

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To centrists, that energy was not necessarily a good thing. Despite Biden’s success at the top of the ticket, the election left the Democrats with a badly diminished House majority and needing a sweep of the Georgia runoffs to break Republicans’ hold on the Senate. Disappointed Democratic moderates quickly settled on the claim that calls to “defund the police” had been a detriment to the movement and undermined the campaigns of moderate Democratic candidates.

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“Politicians and pundits who blame Democratic losses on the call for ‘Medicare for All’ and defunding the police are wrong,” said the Rev. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. “The top of the ticket won in every area of the country by running on [a minimum wage of] $15 an hour, health care expansion, and addressing systemic racism. All Democrats should have been running on these three things, at least.

“Some Democrats lost because they are not expanding their language, vision, or voice to reach poor and low-wealth voters who now represent almost 30 percent of the electorate,” he continued, adding that Democrats should center their agendas around addressing the issues that pain their constituents.

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Albright was more direct: “Be a better candidate.”

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“The thought that issues like defund or any other racial justice issue scared off people flies in the face of what we saw,” said Albright. “If it was so hurtful for the moderates, then how did Joe Biden win some of those same states where those moderates lost? So that’s a question that they got to deal with. At the end of the day, no matter how you peel it back, it’s going to boil down to the same thing: If you lost your race as a moderate, then you needed to be a better moderate.”

The numbers back up the idea that the problems for moderates were the moderates’ own inability to generate excitement, rather than fallout from a vigorous national racial-justice campaign. Ninety-two percent of those who voted for Biden said racial inequality was an issue of concern to them, ranking it higher than any other issue considered in the 2020 exit polling.

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“My question would be: What movement are these centrists referring to?” said Brooks. “Because where I live, if you talk to young people in my neighborhood, they are very clear that we need to completely rethink how we are policing our neighborhoods. And the young people in my neighborhood could be the future of the Democratic Party—if the Democratic Party stops alienating young voters of color.”

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In the same districts where some of these moderates lost, a progressive won another race. In Democratic Rep. Joe Cunningham’s South Carolina district, a progressive candidate for sheriff beat out a 32-year incumbent. In Georgia, a progressive district attorney secured a win in Savannah. Over in Brunswick, the district attorney who was initially assigned to the case of Ahmaud Arbery, whose death helped fuel the summer’s uprising, lost their bid for reelection. Despite what centrists claim, energy from the movement has created victories.

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What Black organizers and voters want in return is straightforward: investment in the neighborhoods they mobilized and insurance that the issues those communities care about will be addressed by the Biden administration—including restoring and expanding voting rights, alleviating student loan debt, addressing disparate health outcomes, and delivering COVID-19 relief that specifically responds to the disproportionate impact of the virus on Black communities. The Democrats could sidestep their deference to moderate legislation and pass transformative policing policies, provide health care for all, and fully fund public education.

It’s the bare minimum the party could offer.

“For a long time, the Democratic Party has taken Black voters for granted because we’ve always had to choose the lesser of two evils,” said Brooks. “Over the past five years, there has been a new wave in the movement for Black liberation—and that movement is demanding more for Black people. We are demanding that our communities are resourced, our people have the right to live, that we have access to full employment and affordable accessible housing and the highest quality schools, that we have clean air and a Green New Deal that employs millions of people.”

“When Black people have communities that thrive,” said Brooks, “all people will thrive.”

The desires and requests from the most reliable voters in the Democratic coalition are within the realm of possibility. But organizers warn that Black voters are already wary of a party that doesn’t reliably deliver for them, and if the Democrats skirt their responsibility to come through after this campaign, the base may be even more reluctant in the future. Still, no matter if the Democrats keep their promises or not, the organizers who have always had the community’s interests at heart will continue to do the work. Black folks take care of one another when institutions won’t. No administration changes that for the people on the ground.

“If they don’t step up more, then we are going to expand what we do,” said Albright. “One way or another … we are going to support our communities in building power. And either the Democratic Party can learn from it, and try to replicate the strategies that we use, or they can just keep doing what they’re doing—in which case they’re gonna have to get out of the way.”

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