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African-American turnout is key to US election result

In many parts of the American South, Sundays in October are synonymous with four words: souls to the polls.

In African-American churches in particular, there is a long history of congregants attending services, listening to sermons espousing civic engagement, and then driving — or in some cases, being driven by the busload — to polling stations to cast their ballots.

This year few churches are gathering in-person because of concerns about Covid-19. But civic organisations and Democratic groups, especially in key swing US states such as North Carolina, Georgia and Florida, say the pandemic has not deterred them from partnering with pastors and other community leaders to do everything they can to register African-Americans and get them to vote.

In the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections, Billy Michael Honor, who runs faith-based engagement for the New Georgia Project, a group set up by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams to mobilise black voters, worked to get church leaders to encourage congregants to fill out mail-in ballots from their seats in the pews.

Now, with churches holding services virtually, Mr Honor has asked pastors to share their congregation membership lists, so he can check them against the state’s publicly available voter file. After reviewing the entries, he sends church leaders a list of which congregants to encourage to register and turn out to vote.

“Then they now know among their congregation who they need to call, text or reach out to encourage them to go out and vote, or who needs to get registered,” he explained. “That’s all I need to help a congregation become 100 per cent voting congregation. They ain’t got to have worship service. All I need is a list of names.”

Democrats see the work of people such as Mr Honor as critical to their prospects in Tuesday’s US elections, saying African-American voters could be the key to their party taking back the White House and the Senate.

Four years ago, 91 cent of black voters cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton, compared with just 6 per cent who backed Donald Trump.

But black voter turnout nationwide fell for the first time in two decades in 2016, with just 59.6 per cent of eligible black voters casting their ballots, according to Pew. That compared with a record high 66.6 per cent turnout rate just four years earlier, in 2012, when Barack Obama stood for re-election.

Analysts say the fact that black voters stayed home in key battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan — which Mr Trump won by razor-thin margins of 44,000, 22,700 and 10,700 votes, respectively — probably cost Mrs Clinton an Electoral College victory.

“Black turnout is important for Democrats in particular because arguably, if Hillary Clinton had increased lack of voter turnout in cities like Philadelphia, Detroit and Milwaukee, she might have actually won those states, just given how narrow the margin was and also just given how low voter turnout was,” said Andra Gillespie, a political-science professor at Emory University and an expert on African-American politics.

g2121_20x chart showing Black voter turnout rate declined sharply in 2016

Despite widespread concerns about voter suppression and intimidation tactics, there are early signs that this time might be different.

Tom Bonier, chief executive of TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm, said his statistical model shows that in six battleground states — Arizona, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Nevada and Texas — the number of black voters over the age of 65 who have voted early, either in-person or by mail, has already exceeded their overall turnout numbers from four years ago.

According to Hawkfish, a Democratic data firm backed by former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, some 142,000 voters in Florida who have voted so far are either newly registered, or did not vote in the 2016 presidential election or 2018 midterms.

LaTosha Brown, cofounder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, talks to rapper Snoop Dogg on a voter registration tour in Los Angeles © Dean Anthony ll

Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic consultant from Columbia, South Carolina — a traditionally Republican state where polls show Democrat Jaime Harrison, a black candidate, within striking distance of incumbent senator Lindsey Graham — said Democrats have been “very intentional” to avoid repeating the mistakes of four years ago, and sought to engage with voters both online and in person, where possible.

“The problem is we are in the middle of a pandemic that has disproportionately impacted voters of colour, and so none of us know what the final impact of that will be,” he said. “What I do know is the party and candidates, and our campaigns, are not taking anything for granted.”

LaTosha Brown is co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, which seeks to galvanise black voters. She has spent recent weeks on a bus tour across more than a dozen US states, meeting black community groups, and educating people on how to vote, either by mail or in person.

Speaking this week on her way to Flint, Michigan — a city where more than half of the population is African-American — she predicted “high black voter turnout” across the country, on par with numbers last seen when Mr Obama was on the ticket.

“Black voters are very pragmatic,” she said. “There has been enough racist rhetoric that we have heard this year from President [Donald] Trump. There has been a tremendous amount of concern around the lack of leadership in Covid-19. And I think in light of this year . . . George Floyd and Breonna Taylor . . . black folks we are talking to are quite frankly fed up and want at least some kind of relief and change in this moment.”

But many activists agree that there is still more work to be done.

Data firms such as TargetSmart and Hawkfish have found that while a record number of black voters are casting their ballots early this year, they are still trailing their white and Hispanic counterparts in many parts of the country.

“We are encouraged by the turnout, but there is just more work to do,” said Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of BlackPAC, another group that works to mobilise black voters. Ms Shropshire said African-American voters have historically been more likely to vote in person, rather than by mail, and she expected more black voters to turn up at the polls on Tuesday.

“Folks just have not gotten to the polls yet, which is the reason why these last few days are going to be critical,” she said. “I think we are going to see a lot of these voters show up on election day.”

Swamp Notes

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