Renewed focus on the role of black women in U.S elections

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Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Voting rights for women of colour in the United States have come into renewed focus as the country marked the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment.
  •  Right to vote extended to women of colour, in some instances, many decades after the ratification of the 19th amendment.
  • Black women, who have been the critical centre of a multiracial coalition of voters, are now really standing up in leadership and in power to lead the country forward.
  • Black African and Caribbean Americans may play a more significant role in the 2020 presidential election than in 2016.

On a hot summer day in June, Jennifer Lumpkin and dozens of other organisers and volunteers rode through the streets of Cleveland, Ohio in a caravan of brightly coloured Jeeps, handing out cloth masks and registering people to vote in the historically black neighbourhood of Buckeye-Shaker.

“Masks weren’t being provided even though the number of people dying of Covid-19 were disproportionately African American,” says Ms Lumpkin, 37, head of civic engagement at Cleveland VOTES, a non-partisan US organisation founded and led by Black women.

The event, held on June 20, the Saturday after Juneteenth, a holiday celebrating the end of slavery in the United States, was organised to promote voting as well as aid with public health awareness amid the pandemic.

“It was a way to engage people in a way that was culturally relevant,” Ms Lumpkin says.

Since late spring, Ms Lumpkin and her team have distributed roughly 60,000 masks to community members at sites across the Midwestern city while providing information on how to vote, and in some locations, registering people to vote as well.

The pandemic has “mobilised democracy literally and figuratively,” Ms Lumpkin says.

Systematic racism

Voting rights for women of colour in the United States have come into renewed focus as the country marked the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment, on August 18, against the recent backdrop of a devastating public health crisis and a reckoning with systemic racism and police brutality.

Though the 19th amendment legally provided the right to vote for women in the United States, in practice it primarily protected the rights of white women and did not guarantee voting access to women of colour.

The right to vote extended to women of colour, in some instances, many decades after the ratification of the 19th amendment.

Black women – from Sojourner Truth, a 19th Century abolitionist and women’s rights activist, to women like Lumpkin – have a long history of protecting and expanding access to the voting booth in the United States.

Activists like Mary Church Terrell, the first president of the National Association of Coloured Women, a women’s suffrage organisation created by, and for black women in the late 1800s, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a pioneering black female journalist and suffragist, fought for women’s suffrage while working to hold their white counterparts in the suffrage movement accountable to the concerns of Black people.

Expanding democracy

“Black women have generations of leadership on expanding democracy,” says Aimee Allison, Founder and President of She the People, a national organisation dedicated to elevating the political power of women of colour.

“Black women, who have been the critical centre of a multiracial coalition of voters, are now really standing up in leadership and in power to lead the country forward in this moment.”

In the 2018 midterm elections, women of colour – and black women in particular – fuelled a 33 per cent increase in voter turnout from 2014, by mobilising their networks to go to the polls, according to an analysis conducted by the US -based Asian American Pacific Islander Civic Engagement Fund. The US House of Representatives elected a record number of women that year.

In 2008 and 2012, black women voted at a higher rate than any other demographic bloc, according to the Centre for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, in New Jersey.

In the Alabama Senate election in 2017, Black women were able to push the democratic candidate Doug Jones over the finish line. In 2016, an estimated 94 per cent of Black female voters voted for the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, according to exit polls from CNN (although the group’s voter turnout was lower than in the last two previous presidential elections, reporting from the Centre for American Women and Politics suggests).

Immigrant population

Black African and Caribbean Americans may play a more significant role in the 2020 presidential election than in 2016.

From 2010 to 2018, the black immigrant population in the United States has grown by roughly 30 per cent, according to an analysis from the New American Economy of the 2018 American Community Survey.

In Texas, a potentially crucial State for Democrats, the black immigrant population has increased by nearly 81 per cent over the same period, and as of 2018, roughly 121,000 black immigrants in the State are eligible voters.

“When you look at Black women in States like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Texas, and Florida, black women who are eligible to vote have enough numbers to close the gap in order to flip those States from red to blue,” Ms Allison says.

Pre-pandemic, the turnout strategies of organisations like Cleveland VOTES and Black Voters Matters relied on face-to-face interaction, whether that was knocking on doors, engaging potential voters at church, or hosting voting “salons” in their living rooms in their communities.

Now, the leaders of these organisations have had to get creative and work around the limitations on physical contact.

Due to the virus, there were sharp declines in new voter registration across American States in March and all 13 studied in April when compared to last year, according to data from the Centre for Election Innovation and Research.

Unaffiliated voters

But closures could encourage new approaches to encouraging voter participation, according to the organisation’s analysis. Following the Black Lives Matter protests in June, voter registration among Democrats and unaffiliated voters greatly increased from the month prior, according to TargetSmart, a Democratic political firm.

“While new voter registration deficits may be difficult to overcome, they could spark a push to make up for lost time as states reopen,” it said in a June report.

Despite the challenges, Ms Lumpkin says she is still optimistic.  “We’ve been able to access people safely,” she says, “we’re putting ourselves in locations where we know the need for democracy-building is not yet met.”

Organisers are hopeful Senator Kamala Harris, the first Black and South Asian woman on a major US party presidential ticket, will help ratchet up community enthusiasm even further, as it was during President Barack Obama’s nomination in 2008 and 2012.

Black Voters Matter turned their much-lauded bus tour, which previously crisscrossed the country encouraging people to vote in the 2018 midterms and 2020 election, into an online town hall.

The organisation is looking at safe ways to help their grassroots partners who are adapting popular programs like souls to the polls initiatives, where religious communities organise rides to polling locations.

Rural areas

Finding ways to continue to serve rural communities across the United States is another large concern of organisations like Black Voters Matter.

“Rural areas are often ignored or missed when it comes to (voting) resources,” says Wanda Mosley, the organisation’s senior State coordinator in Georgia.

“So we are very intentional about not just reaching out to areas with huge populations.”

Roughly 30 per cent of rural Georgians lack consistent access to broadband internet, according to the 2018 Federal Communications Commission Broadband Deployment report.

Instead of relying on reaching potential voters in-person, Mosley’s organisation plans to give local groups at least 100,000 door hangers to distribute across the Southern State with a guide on how to vote by mail—a solution which doesn’t require the internet or speaking to people face-to-face.

“I have no doubt that we will be able to exceed the record turnout that we saw for the same election in 2016,” says Mosley.

“We already did that in the primaries that had to be rescheduled twice... And yet, we came out in record numbers and so I fully expect that trend to continue in November.”

Working on creative ways to engage voters and expand access is personal, Ms Mosley says: “I’ve always been someone who’s taken voting very seriously,” she says. “(Black women) have always been in the fight doing the work.”

Jessica Washington is a reporter with The Fuller Project, a non-profit newsroom reporting on global issues that affect women. She held an unpaid internship for Senator Harris in 2017

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