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A crowd of about 14 Black people of various skin tones, all of them in either black or white, most of them wearing mask, and of varying age — some look as if they are in college; other have grey hair. All of them have one of their fists raised high, their wristbands visible in the day’s bright sun. Behind them is a flagpole flying the US flag.
Black Lives Matter supporters show off their “I VOTED” wristbands after leaving the polling place in Louisville, Kentucky, on October 13.
Jon Cherry/Getty Images

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Black voter turnout was down in 2016. This time looks to be different.

For many Black Americans, the best way to fight a pandemic and systemic racism is to vote.

Sean Collins is a news editor with Vox’s politics and policy team. He’s helped cover elections, Congress, and both the Biden and Trump administrations. Previously, Sean was Vox’s weekend editor.

This is the fourth in a series of stories looking at the people who could cast the most decisive votes in the 2020 election. You can read Ella Nilsen’s story on suburban women here, Dylan Scott’s story on Rust Belt workers here, and Nicole Narea’s story on young Latinx voters here.

D’Angelo Crosby says the demands placed on Black Americans this year are so heavy, they’re incapacitating — leaving him undecided in the election.

“I don’t think [former Vice President Joe] Biden is willing to help the American people. ... I just think that he’s been in the office a long time. And I don’t notice what he did for young Black men — or Black people in general,” said Crosby, a junior at Morehouse College who is attending classes remotely from his home in Illinois. “I could say this, that my father said that he made more than he had ever made with [President Donald] Trump [in office] than he did Obama.”

One of Crosby’s problems with Biden is that he fears the Democrat would take an overly restrictive approach to containing the coronavirus, including by encouraging the sorts of lockdowns that led to his mother losing her job.

“My mom during the pandemic got laid off. And that was a really heartbreaking experience for me. Because my mom had been working that job for over 30 years,” Crosby said. “Before the pandemic, everything was running smoothly. She was on the path to retire and everything.”

Crosby faces the camera and smiles slightly. He is wearing a navy suit with a faint check patter, a white turtleneck, a gold watch, and a gold chain featuring a medium sized crucifix. His braided hair frames his face, and his hands are clasped in front of him. He appears to be outside, with the background blurred behind him.
D’Angelo Crosby feels that Black Americans won’t be in a “great position” no matter who wins the presidential election.
Lucy Hewett for Vox

Crosby says the president wasn’t “well equipped” to handle the pandemic, and both his parents got sick with Covid-19 this year. “They were, fortunately, two that pulled out,” Crosby said. And they were, in fact, fortunate. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Black people make up nearly 20 percent of US Covid-19 deaths, despite making up 13 percent of the population.

Crosby tuned in to the first presidential debate to help him settle on a candidate, but he found it disappointing. “It was like everything was a joke,” he said. The second debate helped Crosby decide on Biden, but he still has many reservations.

There are many factors motivating voters this year, from the pandemic to the ongoing struggle against systemic racism. The extraordinary force with which these factors have shaped Black American life is animating Black voters this year — pushing them to vote with far greater energy than they did in 2016.

Now Black voters have lived under a Trump administration, and many wonder if they can survive another; they have seen their friends, family, and neighbors taken by Covid-19, and watched Black people taken time and again by police; they’ve been inspired by the Black Lives Movement but remain deeply fearful about the future.

“I’m not excited. I’m scared,” Crosby told me. “I would definitely say that it feels like, either way that it goes, Black people — just, it doesn’t seem like we’re in a great position. It just really doesn’t.”

This year, there are high hopes for Black voters to turn out

Fewer Black Americans voted in 2016 than did in 2012.

And while some election watchers, like the New York Times’s Nate Cohn, have argued that a shift of white voters from Democrats to Republicans was the source of Trump’s victory in 2016, others, like Osita Nwanevu for Slate, have posited that lower Black turnout cost Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton the election.

Black voter turnout decreased by 7 percentage points from 2012 to 2016. It was the first decline in Black voter turnout in 20 years, according to the Pew Research Center, and the steepest decline in participation by any ethnic group since white turnout fell by about 10 percentage points from 1992 to 1996.

It is possible the decline is due to Barack Obama not being on the ticket; the last election without him, held in 2004, had a Black voter participation rate of 60.3 percent, 0.7 percentage points higher than in 2016. Other hypotheses have been raised as well — like that Black voters soured on Clinton due to her association with criminal justice policies that negatively affected Black communities (and her use of racist language to defend them) or that the Black vote was suppressed by Russian actors and Republican policies.

Whether any, or all of these, or something else entirely was the root cause of the decline is difficult to say — and that’s something that’s still being researched today. But the 17 activists, party officials, and voters that I spoke to across the country said they think things might be different this time.

“After the election in 2016, you could literally just see all the organizations collaborating with all hands on deck,” Terri Minor Spencer, founder and president of West End P.O.W.E.R., said.

Spencer, who is based in Pittsburgh, said her organization began collaborating with the county jail, working to get voter registration forms to men and women who found themselves there. And ahead of November’s election, Spencer said the group has worked to ensure the imprisoned know their rights: “If you are not sentenced, you can vote. If you are sitting in there because you cannot make bond, you can vote. If you’re on pretrial, you can vote.”

Like Spencer, many other activists and organizers have been hard at work in their communities for four years — if not longer. And this year, all of their efforts have only been compounded by the ongoing protests over systemic racism and police violence.

The top of two Black women’s heads — both with hair dyed bright red — peeks out above the giant Black Lives Matter flag they are holding. Two Black fists are visible above the flag, as are a few signs reading “Pence Out Now,” “Black Trans Matter,” and “I Am Black And Proud.”
Black Lives Matter demonstrators protest outside the first 2020 presidential debate in Cleveland, Ohio on September 29.
Megan Jelinger/AFP via Getty Images
The photo focuses on a white sign with bold black text that been stuck into a patch of dirt. A pumpkin is behind it. The sign reads, “Only We Can Cast Breonna’s VOTE DITCH MITCH DUMP TRUMP.” A Black man’s torso can be seen next to the sign. He has a bullhorn in one hand, and is wearing a black t-shirt. The sun is shining brightly, and in the background is a crowd of people, all of them in black or white.
Black Lives Matter protesters gather in Jefferson Square Park in Louisville, Kentucky before a march to an early voting center on October 13.
Jon Cherry/Getty Images

“The Black Lives Matter movement has encouraged people to realize that we have to participate in the system and create some type of change,” Cooper Blackwell, an activist and entrepreneur in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, told me. It was a sentiment that was echoed by most I spoke to.

The importance of voting has been a fixture at many of the ongoing protests for racial justice — and there appears to have been an increase in voter registration, particularly among Democrats and independents, because of them. A message that has been stressed repeatedly at these protests nationwide is that police, mayors, and city budgets are not controlled at the federal level. And many I spoke to said that message has been fully absorbed.

“We are actually seeing a lot of people taking more interest in the local races, understanding that, obviously, the presidency is very important, but honestly, I don’t feel like it’s a key draw anymore,” Peggy West-Schroder, the statewide campaign coordinator for Ex-incarcerated People Organizing (EXPO), a civil rights group in Wisconsin that advocates for the currently and formerly incarcerated, told me.

Spencer described how focused those her organization works with have become on the power local magistrates hold over the quality of housing, and how this has inspired some to work towards becoming magistrates themselves. And Christopher Walton, the chair of the Democratic Party of Milwaukee County, told me of the new energy Democratic voters have around stopping Wisconsin’s legislature from achieving a veto-proof majority in this year’s elections.

“The revolution takes place within our communities, on the ground,” Blackwell said. “The system changes as a result of that.”

The work of activists and the energy created by the Black Lives Matter movement has culminated in a moment where Black voters — particularly young ones, whose turnout was also depressed in 2016 — are feeling as if they have an obligation not just to vote but to ensure others do, too.

Darylette Parker, a 23-year-old from Illinois who said she regretted not voting in 2016, told me she and many of her friends have been motivating one another to vote — and that she was spurred to action by Michelle Obama, who has spent much of the past few months attempting to drive up turnout.

“Through her Instagram, [Obama] made a video and she said, ‘If you think things can’t get worse, you’re wrong,’” Parker said. “So that was kind of like a wake-up call. And that really motivated me to go make sure I was registered.”

Social media has been a powerful agent for convincing people in Malik Martin’s life as well. A sophomore at North Carolina A&T University, Martin said he’s felt a lot of pressure from his classmates online to vote — and that he’s seen what happens to those who say they won’t participate.

“I have seen some people on Twitter ... say that, ‘Well, I’m not gonna vote because this or this,’ and the way that the students responded to it — they were really upset,” Martin said. The students who said they didn’t want to vote were on the receiving end of a lot of harsh DMs and tweets, according to Martin, “just trying to get them to understand that they should vote.”

One other powerful force driving Black voters to fill out ballots this year is the same thing driving turnout among many suburban women, young Latinx voters, and Rust Belt workers: Trump.

According to Walton, Trump’s actions, words, and record have many Black Americans “just enraged at him, especially amongst the older African American population, because they’ve seen this before. … People are like, we spent a lot of time fighting to make sure this was never going to happen again. And here it is happening. And I’ll be damned if I’m gonna stand by and allow it to happen again.”

Preliminary indications suggest efforts to energize and empower Black voters have been working.

In an analysis conducted in mid-October, the Associated Press found that about 10 percent of the more than 20 million early votes cast nationally (both in person and mail-in) were submitted by Black Americans, a number roughly in line with their share of the national electorate. Since then, the number of early voters has more than tripled, and in the states that provide voter data by race, Black voters have markedly improved on turnout compared to this time in 2016.

Black voters could swing races in key states — but must overcome voter suppression efforts first

Part of what gives Black voters their power is the Electoral College — a recent analysis by the Pew Research Center found that a little more than a third of Black eligible voters live in swing states, and that in many, they make up a sizable portion of the electorate.

In North Carolina, 22 percent of eligible voters are Black, far more than enough to decide a close race. And North Carolina, home to 15 electoral votes, is expected to be very close.

The state went to Trump by only 3.8 percentage points in 2016, and the Biden campaign hopes to run up his vote total in Democratic strongholds like Raleigh, but also in swing counties like Nash, which Trump won by 118 votes. So in the weeks before the election, top Biden surrogates, like Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), have been dispatched there to secure it for him.

But Trump has also worked hard in recent weeks to boost Republican turnout in the state. Reportedly, 70 percent of the paths to victory his campaign envisions run through North Carolina, making it a pivotal state for him. It’s one of the few swing states in which he has spent more than Biden, and he and his allies have traveled there repeatedly, even holding events in districts that went for him by a large margin in 2016.

Biden has a slight lead in most North Carolina polls, but Kevin Jones, the first vice chair of the Nash County Democratic Party, said he’s concerned about the level of enthusiasm among some of his fellow Democrats.

“It’s bad,” Jones said. “If Donald Trump needs 15 electoral votes to win the presidency, and it comes down to one vote in North Carolina, it won’t be my vote that gets him in there. But, you know, I don’t feel too good about it.”

And there’s one big reason for this, Jones thinks: “The BLM [Black Lives Matter] piece has supercharged, I think, Trump’s base. I think that the BLM, that’s been used as a tool and a firestarter, if you will, to really rally people.”

Nearly all of those I spoke with in North Carolina cited a similar concern about the effect anti-BLM sentiment will have on voting in the state. Many also said they were worried about a related issue: finding ways to empower voters in the face of attempted voter suppression.

An older Black woman with her hair dyed light brown raises a gloved hand, holding up two fingers. She has on a white mask and a plastic face shield. An older Black man and woman, both in grey shirts, masks, and sunglasses walk by her. All three appear to be in the foyer of a building; there are tables and chairs scattered around behind them.
A poll worker assists voters as they enter an early voting center in Charlotte, North Carolina on October 15.
Grant Baldwin/AFP via Getty Images

D’atra Jackson — the national co-director of the BYP100 Action Fund, who is based in Durham, North Carolina — said there is a “very real threat of white supremacist, white nationalist violence in North Carolina. And those are things that have been threats, literally every election.”

Threats from white nationalists have led her organization, and its partners, to set up a program around polling sites to reassure Black voters and to provide for their safety. Blackwell, who hopes to overcome any concerns with positivity, is organizing virtual parties and DJs outside of polling places, and recounted how even in Rocky Mount — a city largely controlled by Black people — the risk of violence is inescapable. Citizens there faced have implicit and explicit threats, including the appearance of a noose in a park after a Confederate monument was recently removed.

Narratives like these are a reminder that it’s not necessarily a dislike of either candidate, or apathy, or a lack of Obama on the ballot that may have led to lower Black voter turnout in 2016, but concern for safety. There are barriers put up by state actors as well: Cooper complained that a longstanding polling place had been moved to an area more difficult to access — and nationally, nearly 21,000 polling places have been shuttered this year, according to Vice News. Activists in swing states said this had been an acute problem for them this year.

“There was only four polling places open in a whole city, and it was just — it was bad,” West-Schroder said of Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s most recent elections. “And we do feel like some of that was done to disenfranchise Black voters.”

The number of polling places has been expanded for the general election, but she said EXPO faces a new challenge in the amount of “miscommunication, misinformation that’s being spread. And I think that that is a deliberate attempt to stifle the Black vote.”

“So what we like to teach our members,” West-Schroder said, “is that if your vote didn’t matter, they wouldn’t be trying so hard to take it away from you.”

Not all Black voters are thrilled about Biden and Harris — particularly because of their backgrounds

Most Black voters seem poised to vote for Biden, based on recent polls; Morning Consult’s tracking poll for the week on October 25, for instance, found 86 percent of Black likely voters favored Biden, and 9 percent favored Trump.

But Jones says he’s still nervous about the results of the election because “the enthusiasm is not there.” This too is reflected in polling; for example, an Economist/YouGov poll taken in mid-October found Black voters to be split when it comes to their enthusiasm about Biden — 48 percent said they were enthusiastic about the nominee; 49 percent said they were not.

Part of that gap might stem from a longing for another candidate like Obama.

“I don’t care how good you are at basketball, if you go play for the Chicago Bulls you’re gonna be measured up against Michael Jordan,” Jones said. “I think for the rest of my lifetime, we will measure up every Democratic presidential candidate against Barack Obama .... and Joe Biden, you know, can’t be Jordan.”

A Black man in a black puffer coat, navy face mask, and black baseball cap drops his ballot into a red and white box. A sign in front of the box reads “DC DROP Mail-In Ballot Don’t Stop.” He is in what appears to be an empty warehouse filled with socially distanced voting booths.
A voter casts a ballot in Washington, DC on October 27.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

Perhaps a more widespread issue, however, is the slightly more distant past: Many told me voters often bring up a 1994 crime bill as a reason they can’t get behind Biden.

That bill, called the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, was written in part by Biden, and he played a key role in getting it passed into law during his time in the Senate, two things he bragged about as recently as 2016.

Essentially, the law was meant to stem a decades-long rise in crime and signal to voters that Democrats were tougher on crime than Republicans. As Vox’s German Lopez has explained, it was not very successful at doing either, but it did do a lot of other things:

The law imposed tougher prison sentences at the federal level and encouraged states to do the same. It provided funds for states to build more prisons, aimed to fund 100,000 more cops, and backed grant programs that encouraged police officers to carry out more drug-related arrests — an escalation of the war on drugs.

At the same time, the law included several measures that would be far less controversial among Democrats today. The Violence Against Women Act provided more resources to crack down on domestic violence and rape. A provision helped fund background checks for guns. The law encouraged states to back drug courts, which attempt to divert drug offenders from prison into treatment, and also helped fund some addiction treatment.

Particularly during the past 10 years, advocacy groups, think tanks, and scholars have argued that the 1994 crime bill helped encourage racially biased mass incarceration and, along with the crime laws of the 1980s, exacerbated systemic inequality. The general consensus now, as Princeton African American studies professor Naomi Murakawa put it to the Marshall Project in 2015, is “that 1994 act is overwhelmingly, incredibly punitive.”

Throughout the Democratic primary campaign, Biden’s then-rivals brought up this record; Sen. Cory Booker called the crime bill “shameful,” while Biden’s current running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, accused him of contributing to mass incarceration. The attacks stuck — and were quickly adopted by Trump, who has continued to use them against Biden in the general election.

But Curmilus Dancy II, a political blogger in North Carolina, argued that the criticism makes little sense: “You want Black folk to be mad because you say they were hard on them, but I see it as them doing a job, and what some Black folk wanted, at that particular time.”

To Dancy’s point, the crime bill was popular at the time. As the Brookings Institution’s Rashawn Ray and William A. Galston have explained, in 1994, “58% of African Americans supported the crime bill, compared to 49% of white Americans.”

After several different responses to these attacks (some less convincing than others), Biden has simplified his message.

“It was a mistake,” he said when asked about the crime bill at the second presidential debate. “I’ve been trying to change it since then, particularly the portion on cocaine.”

It’s an answer that impressed Crosby, and Biden’s new stance on the bill has impressed others as well; that he’s willing to say when he is wrong and knows when “it’s time to step up” is something Spencer said she liked about him.

While Biden was ultimately able to satisfy Crosby’s concerns about his record on criminal justice, Harris has been able to do no such thing.

“She prosecuted so many Black men, and it’s just like, do you, also feel the struggle of Black people? Or are you at a place right now where it’s just you and your family, and you don’t care about oppression anymore?” Crosby asked. “That’s so sad to me, to see that you cannot be empathetic and sympathetic to Black people, your own race.”

He went on to explain that he cannot understand why Harris accrued the record she did as San Francisco’s district attorney, and later as California’s attorney general.

Harris had a somewhat contradictory record in those two roles, as Vox’s Lopez explained: She implemented some progressive reforms, but there are also prosecutorial choices she made that critics say were particularly harmful to people of color.

This record means that when she was announced as Biden’s vice presidential pick, “We weren’t as excited maybe as some other people were, just because her track record hasn’t hasn’t been that great in regards to criminal justice, reform, and second chances,” West-Schroder of EXPO said, noting the group is nonpartisan.

Harris has since stressed that she has left behind the “smart on crime” stances she took while in California in order to advocate for progressive criminal justice reform in the Senate — including by introducing bail reform, anti-lynching, and marijuana decriminalization bills. And like Biden, she clarified where she stands now during a recent debate, saying, “We need reform of policing in America, and our criminal justice system.”

A group of people sit outdoors on black folding chairs; each chair is in the center of a white circle, and all the circle are six feet apart. Harris, in a grey suit and seated on a wooden stool, speaks with a woman in a black suit jacket and grey slacks; both of them are in front of a giant US flag. Next to the flag is a blue sign that says in white font, “North Carolina for Biden Harris Text NC to 30330.”
Sen. Kamala Harris hosts a discussion outside of White’s Barber and Beauty Shop in Raleigh, North Carolina on September 28.
Logan Cyrus/AFP via Getty Images

This new stance won over some of the voters I spoke with; but others were excited more by what she represents — potentially, the first Black and first Asian American woman to be vice president.

“A lot of people were already like, ‘Eh, yeah, I’ll vote for him, I’ll do what I got to do.’ And then when she was put on the ticket, it was, ‘I’m voting!’” said Walton, the Milwaukee party chair.

“The fact that she would be the first woman vice president is lit,” Blackwell said, noting that he also thought she would be helpful in balancing a potential President Biden: “It’s hard to trust any old white man with a lot of power, to be honest.”

“There’s a contradiction that folks are holding,” Jackson said, noting “there’s a particular political terrain that we need to be on” to achieve aims like defunding the police. But many are willing to embrace that contradiction and come out for Biden and Harris regardless of their pasts, because, as Jackson said, “this is such a high-stakes election.”

There is a lot at stake for Black Americans

The stakes feel — and are — existential for Black Americans.

For many, the Covid-19 death toll isn’t just numbers of a graph; they have been personally swept up by the first, second, and third waves.

Branden Snyder, the executive director of Detroit Action, told me, “In Detroit, you know, it’s six degrees of separation, everyone is seeing someone that they know who passed from from Covid. I know somebody — we’ve had … two of our members pass, we’ve had staff members who’ve been infected.”

More than 27,000 Black Americans have died. And that means Black Americans “have the kind of collective experience of grieving and mourning people that should be here,” Jackson said.

It is not just the coronavirus that is taking Black lives. This year, Black Americans have been killed by vigilantes and police officers, by guns and knees, on snow-covered pavement and in their own homes. Black men have a 1-in-1,000 chance of being killed by police, a recent study found. One in 920 Black Americans has been killed by Covid-19. It can feel as though if one does not get you, the other will.

“I just don’t understand it,” Crosby said. “I don’t see why we’re not getting helped.”

A line of photos, each blown up to be about four or five feet tall, sits in the grassy media of a road. The photos go as far as the eye can see. All the faces are Black. Each has a white bar at the bottom, with the name of the depicted person. The photo closest to the viewer is of Weada Denise Trotter, a Black woman in a grey dress; her hair is in braids, and she has a necklace made of concentric rings. The street is clogged with cars, and the GM Building is visible on the horizon.
Relatives of Covid-19 victims drive past photographs of their family members in Detroit, Michigan.
Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

Spencer expressed similar frustration: “How are we still fighting for the same things that my mom was fighting for? My mom is 90. How? How? I mean, how?!”

Many I spoke to expressed particular concern for racist violence from non-state actors. “The KKK, the white supremacists, the racist individuals, they have taken off their hoods,” Spencer said. “They are no longer hiding who they are. They are embracing it, actually. They are embracing white supremacy.”

The president has had a strong hand in this. In the words of my colleague Fabiola Cineas, “Trump is the accelerant” — he habitually quickens racist fires, from insisting that Obama was a Muslim with ill intent to telling the far-right hate group the Proud Boys to “stand back” and “stand by” on national television. In his staffing choices, rhetoric, and policies, he has advanced the cause of white nationalists, who desire a physical or spiritual white state.

Spencer said many Black voters she’s talked to believe the price of a second Trump term will be high. She said they are “extremely worried that if there’s four more years of this administration, we will be under 2.5 seconds away from chains and cotton fields.”

Even if such a dire reprisal of history isn’t in Black Americans’ future, they will still be faced with the economic remnants of that past. In good times, Black Americans faced a desolate economic landscape, one bereft of benefits accessible to white Americans, like homeownership and being on the high end of a persistent wage gap. Now is not a good time, nor will the foreseeable future be.

There is no simple solution to these monumental problems that are so ingrained in American life. Trump may be the accelerant, but he is not the root cause.

“We’ve got to delete Trump out of the picture,” according to Blackwell. “It’s not about him. It’s about us.”

Crosby was always sure he was going to vote, but he also wanted to be sure he was casting his ballot for the candidate who would most benefit his community. And he said, after watching the final debate, he’s no longer undecided.

Crosby in profile, framed by a tree beginning to show fall colors. In a navy suit and white turtleneck, his face is turned towards the viewer, and his left eyebrow slightly raised. His hair is braided and bleached brown; an earring shines in his left ear. He stands in the sunlight, in front of a brick wall.
“It upsets me to think that people don’t think that America is still racist,” Crosby said.
Lucy Hewett for Vox

With a pandemic, systemic racism, economic inequality, and the shadow of white nationalism haunting the US, he said, “I don’t know who’s truly going to help me. But it sounds like Biden is more on the side of trying to help people.”

That is enough for him, and enough for nearly everyone I spoke to. They all just want to use their voting power to install leaders who will actually work for — and with — them to make life better.

“We just have to get to the next level,” Blackwell said. “So we can change, really, the system.”


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The second GOP debate: September 27, 2023


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