What’s at Stake

Y’all Need To Vote. Black Women Can’t Do It Alone.

This important voting bloc is ready to drive seismic change

Photo: Ira L. Black/Corbis/Getty Images

ZORA has delved into what’s at stake in this election cycle with an important series about women of color and the vote. We sought the insight of political activists, advocacy groups, lawmakers, and community stakeholders. Read on for insight into a voting bloc that may impact not just the next election, but America’s future course. Keep an eye on What’s at Stake all week long.

Nykidra “Nyki” Robinson saw her hometown, Baltimore, erupt in unrest following the police-involved death of Freddie Gray back in 2015. That same year, Robinson launched Black Girls Vote, which mobilizes Black women to use their collective voting power.

As November’s general election fast approaches, the team at Black Girls Vote is busy registering voters. The nonprofit has also launched Party at the Mailbox, which sends custom boxes to voters in Baltimore, Detroit, and Philadelphia. Each box contains voter information, a window sign, a poster, a T-shirt, and more.

“For many people, their mailbox is now their ballot box,” says Robinson. “Even if they don’t vote by mail, we want to make sure Black women vote in this election and feel empowered.”

Ahead of November’s general election, Black women are one of the most powerful voting blocs in the country. According to a Pew Research Center survey, 64% of eligible Black women voters and 74% of college-educated Black women cast ballots in 2016.

“Black women have long been the strength of the [Democratic] party, and even during this time of uncertainty, we cannot allow that energy to go to waste.”

“The road to 2020 is powered by Black women,” says Glynda Carr, president and CEO of Higher Heights for America, a national organization that works to elect and elevate Black women. “Sixteen million of us are eligible to vote, and we turn out at higher rates than most other groups. For decades now, we’ve been the determining factor in many races.”

About 87% of Black women were likely in 2016 to identify as Democrats, according to Pew. That may bode well for Democrats as former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris — the first Black and South Asian American woman on the ballot for vice president — battle Republican President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.

“Women of color are the margin of victory, and these leaders in battleground states know what it will take to win,” says Aimee Allison, founder and president of She the People, a national coalition that empowers women of color politically. The organization helped lobby for a woman of color as Biden’s vice presidential pick, and the group continues to push for key policy plans that speak to these communities. “Women of color can ensure a blue wave for Democrats, but that requires real investment,” Allison says.

Both Democrats and Republicans say they are investing in Black women. Black Voices for Trump, launched in 2019 in Atlanta, has hosted events at Black-owned businesses, churches, and Black Voices for Trump community centers in various states. The Trump campaign’s senior advisor, Katrina Pierson, is a woman of color.

Seat at the Table, a joint initiative of the Democratic National Committee’s Black Caucus and Women’s Caucus, was designed to meaningfully engage and organize with Black women across the country. Since its launch in 2018, the tour has expanded to include issue-based forums, training opportunities, and a grant program that provides financial support to Black women organizers nationwide.

“Black women have long been the strength of the [Democratic] party,” says Waikinya Clanton, senior adviser to DNC chairman Tom Perez and the visionary behind Seat at the Table. “And even during this time of uncertainty, we cannot allow that energy to go to waste.”

The momentum of Black women is necessary, advocates told ZORA, to tackle a tsunami of challenges in the political ecosystem that affect African American communities.

“We are in a state of emergency,” says Melanie Campbell, president and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. “From being counted fairly in the 2020 Decennial Census to surviving Covid-19 and living lives without fear of being unjustly killed by police or White supremacists, there is much that is adversely impacting our communities’ ability to vote and without barriers.”

There are nearly 39 million Black people in the country, per 2010 Census figures, about 13% of the population. An estimated 30 million Black Americans are eligible to vote this year. Yet voter suppression is still thriving in America decades after the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The recent primaries in Wisconsin, Georgia, Kentucky, and Texas offer examples of excessively long lines, multiple poll sites being closed, and the use of voter identification laws that directly suppress the Black vote. There are also questions about safely voting in person amid Covid-19, to the timely arrival of mail-in ballots. Moreover, federal election officials have announced a shortage of some 250,000 poll workers, which has already led to hundreds of polling places being closed or consolidated.

“We get the future we work for, that we fight for,” tweeted Stacey Abrams, the 2018 Georgia Democratic gubernatorial nominee who launched and now leads the voting rights group Fair Fight. “But the fight isn’t new.”

Indeed, the recent deaths of Rep. John Lewis and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg have been fuel for many Black women to fight even harder.

“History happens in cycles, and we are in a particularly intense one,” adds LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter Fund, which has conducted massive voter registration and mobilizing efforts across the South and elsewhere. “We have been fighting for the soul of democracy, kicking and screaming and marching and protesting its erosion for decades. … I want and deserve better, as do more than 300 million of my fellow Americans.”

From grassroots activists to community advocates and celebrities, a groundswell of influential Black women are raising their voices this election cycle. Oprah. Former first lady Michelle Obama. Beyoncé. Tracee Ellis Ross. Kerry Washington. Janelle Monáe. Taraji P. Henson. And many others. The memo to America: Black women plan to exercise their collective power at the polls and beyond.

To wit, Oprah Winfrey and OWN recently announced they will join with the NAACP and national voting rights leaders to host “OWN Your Vote: Our Lives Depend on It.” The virtual conversation, airing tonight, will feature remarks from leaders in the fight for voting rights. They include Abrams, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, Minyon Moore (Power Rising), Tiffany Dena Loftin (NAACP Youth and College), Judith Browne Dianis (Advancement Project), and other women leaders. Says Tina Perry, president of OWN: “This is a critical time in our history to come together and raise our voices.”

“History happens in cycles, and we are in a particularly intense one.”

Emily’s List and BlackPAC recently announced a $1.5 million joint fundraising agreement, formalizing the work they have done together in past cycles. The two organizations aim to raise critical funds together to support Black women candidates and comprehensive voter outreach plans that are critical to victory.

BlackPAC has held state focus groups and conducted nationwide polling of Black voters to gain insight. “The top issue is racism and discrimination,” BlackPAC executive director, Adrianne Shropshire says. “People’s economic situations, health care, and education are also important. And a lot of these issues are seen through the lens of Covid-19. For instance, workers being laid off or K-12 kids at home with no laptops.”

What’s happening in the streets — protests over the rash of killings of Black men such as George Floyd and women like Breonna Taylor — could also impact this election. Inspired by a 1972 gathering in Gary, Indiana, the Movement for Black Lives hosted the 2020 Black National Convention in August, drawing about 145,000 virtual attendees. The group released a policy agenda that tackles racism, voting equity, reproductive rights, housing, climate justice, LGBTQ issues, and more.

“Today, just as years ago, there are real, urgent conversations that are worthy of an alternative, self-determining space for Black communities,” says Jessica Byrd, co-founder of Electoral Justice at the Movement for Black Lives.

Meanwhile, dozens of groups nationwide — Color of Change, National Action Network, National African American Clergy Network, The United State of Women, the National Council of Negro Women, NOW, and the Ms. Foundation for Women, to name a few — are engaging and informing folks ahead of this election. Supermajority, a community envisioned by women like Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza, plans to activate 4.5 million text messages, make at least 250,000 phone calls, and write 50,000 letters.

Reaching young voters is critical this election. Michelle Obama’s When We All Vote initiative has launched Vote Loud, geared to youth voters. “We’ve got to do a better job of speaking directly to the motivations and unique challenges that young and first-time voters face around voting,” the former First Lady said in a statement. “It’s up to all of us to encourage and work with the next generation to really change the culture around voting.”

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law recently unveiled the HBCU’s vote campaign, which will provide financial, educational, and organizing support to student leaders in an effort to increase voter participation.

“There are nearly 20 million student voters across the U.S., but their participation in our elections is abysmally lower than the general public, which means their voices are not being heard,” says Chynna Baldwin, senior national coordinator of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee.

Democratic Rep. Yvette Clarke of New York tells ZORA that even though 2020 has been a year of unprecedented challenges for Americans, she remains hopeful. The Congressional Black Caucus currently has a record 25 Black women serving in the House and Senate. Across the country, sistas hold elected offices that run the gamut from attorneys general to mayors of major cities.

“Our country is ready for change — we are seeing it from coast to coast,” says Clarke, who, along with Democratic Rep. Robin Kelly of Illinois, is leading a new congressional initiative called the Racial Disparities Working Group. Clarke cited the trajectory of progress — from early Black suffragettes who helped secure the vote to 20th-century civil rights freedom fighters to today’s “activist sisters.”

“Black women are reimagining, reshaping, and recalibrating this democracy,” she says. “And when you lift a Black woman, you lift the nation.”

Award-winning digital, print and broadcast journalist. https://www.linkedin.com/in/donna-m-owens-15627658

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store