With less than a month before Election Day, organizations across the country are ramping up their efforts to get out the vote in what could be the most tumultuous election in modern history. President Donald Trump has suggested that he will not concede the election if he loses, and it’s still unclear how the novel coronavirus could impact voter turnout, particularly when some early data has shown evidence of voter purging and substantial demographic divides in the ways mail-in ballots are counted. Still, according to a new poll from the Black political advocacy group Black Futures Lab, Black Americans say they haven’t been deterred from showing up to the polls, with 81 percent of respondents saying they plan on voting in the general election.
While Black people are more than familiar with the obstacles standing between them and the ballot box—both past and present—there is a clear eagerness to vote this election: three out of four voters saying they are “extremely” likely to vote over the next month.
“What Black voters also know is that there is a power in our participation,” Alicia Garza, who leads the Black Futures Lab, told The Root. The organization is dedicated to building political power across America’s Black communities.
“It’s why Black voters are such a decisive voting bloc, even though we’re like a small percentage of the population,” Garza continued. “We are very receptive to the notion that if we’re going to change what’s happening in our political system, we have to use the tools at our disposal. Of course, voting is one part of that.”
The national survey (pdf) attempts to capture Black voters’ top concerns heading into the November election, disaggregating this influential bloc on the basis of gender, age, and LGBTQ identity. With voter registration closing soon in many states, the data offers a revealing glimpse of Black America’s current political consciousness. Black voters are more motivated to vote Trump out than they are to vote Biden in, plan to vote in-person, and are most concerned about race and discrimination as a national issue, followed by COVID-19 and the economy.
But the polling also illuminates data about Black voters not typically captured in nationwide polls: the political messaging that motivates them to go out and vote, generational differences, different attitudes about the power of their vote, and the diversity of their feelings around police reform.
No matter what their age, respondents generally agreed on the top three concerns facing the country: racism and discrimination, COVID-19 and the economy, with the first two issues outpacing every other concern by a substantial margin. The poll asked eligible voters to rank their top three concerns; 55 percent of Back voters found racism and discrimination to be the most important issue, while another 52 percent said COVID was a top-tier concern.
Healthcare, criminal justice reform and gun violence were considered second-tier issues according to the survey’s respondents, while issues like wealth inequality, immigration and reproductive rights were at the bottom of Black voters’ ranked priorities.
The data also shows 3 out of 4 eligible voters are dissatisfied with the direction the country is headed, with another 76 percent disapproving of Trump’s job as president. In fact, removing Trump is the biggest factor pushing Black voters to the ballot box this year. While a slight majority of survey respondents—55 percent—reported feeling “warm” or “favorable” towards Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, 75 percent reported feeling “very cold” or “unfavorable” towards Trump.
Biden was easily the most popular Democrat out of a field that included Sens. Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders and former Georgia state representative Stacey Abrams. Just under 50 percent of respondents said they felt positive about Harris.
Despite being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, 2 out of 3 Black voters say they plan on voting in person—either early or on election day—as opposed to mailing in their ballot.
In total, 32 percent of respondents said they planned on voting early in person this year, while another 31 percent said they would vote in person on election day. In both cases, Black people under the age of 50 were more likely to state a preference for in-person voting, while people ages 50 and older were more likely to say they would vote by mail. In total, just under one-third of potential voters said they planned on casting an absentee ballot.
Garza said the emphasis on in-person voting was reflective of concerns about efforts to suppress the Black vote.
“Planning to vote in person is really demonstrative of a commitment to making sure that our votes are counted and that we can at least know that when we press that button on that machine, that our votes have been submitted,” she noted.
The diversity of Black voters is not often highlighted in larger national polls. The Black Futures Lab survey, however, parses out gender differences, as well as contrasts between age groups and LGBTQ identity. The result is an illuminating snapshot of how different demographics of Black voters view their votes and their role in protest movements.
Overall, there were more substantial differences in attitudes by age and LGBTQ identity than there were between men and women. Black people under the age of 50 and people identifying as LGBTQ were far less likely to believe in the power of their vote, which directly correlated with a lower likelihood of voting, the survey found. While 69 percent of Black people over the age of 50 felt their vote was an “extremely” powerful tool to create change in their communities, less than half of younger Black folks felt this way. More than a third (37 percent) of young Black Americans felt their vote was not a powerful mechanism for effecting change.
This attitude was shared by Black folks identifying as LGBTQ, with 35 percent saying they didn’t consider their vote powerful.
But that isn’t to say LGBTQ and younger Black people are disinterested or disengaged from current events. These groups were much more likely to engage in racial justice protests since the death of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, with 64 percent of Black LGBTQ respondents saying they had taken part in a protest over the last several months—the largest portion out of any sub-group.
Not surprisingly, younger Black respondents were more likely to have participated in racial justice demonstrations than people 50 and older (43 percent vs 9 percent). Women were also more likely to have protested than men: a third of Black women said they had taken part in a demonstration, compared to a quarter of Black men.
Overall, greater numbers of respondents said they hadn’t participated in any protests at all, in part because older Black folks’ participation was so low: 68 percent of all survey participants said they had not protested, while 29 percent said they had.
The survey also measured the efficacy of different voting messages, analyzing which approaches had the most resonance with Black voters.
Overall, Black voters were most moved by messaging that framed their vote as an extension of protest. This message ties their vote to increased feelings of political optimism sparked by the large-scale Black Lives Matter protests but doesn’t present voting as a one-time fix to racism. Black voters under the age of 50, as well as LBTQ voters, were more likely to be swayed by this kind of messaging than other appeals.
Emphasizing the collective power of Black voters also proved resonant for respondents, particularly Black men. Here, clear examples of the sway Black voters have—such as in the 2018 midterms—proved to be persuasive.
Also effective for many respondents was emphasizing Biden’s ability to handle crises that Trump has created. The survey found that this messaging was most effective when Biden was linked to the successes of Barack Obama’s administration, and when directly contrasting the former Vice President to Trump.
Overall, 75 percent of respondents felt that electing a president was “very important” to making a difference in their community—more so than electing governors, mayors, attorneys general or sheriffs. But, the survey concludes, the best way to increase the likelihood of voting is to increase perceptions of political power.
A top concern for many Black Americans is police reform, but there are substantial divides among this group on how best to address police brutality and lack of accountability.
Less than a third of respondents say they support defunding police. The strategy, rooted in the larger goal of prison abolition, asks Americans to look beyond the criminal justice system to ensure public safety and is still fairly new to the political mainstream. Slightly more people said they supported divesting from police funding, at 39 percent.
There was much more substantial support for holding police legally accountable for their actions, with 65 percent of respondents saying they’d like to see the criminal justice system more effectively discipline police. There was also substantial support for requiring police to wear body cameras, at 64 percent, despite the fact that these tools haven’t been shown to deter police abuse. Another 61 percent of respondents said they wanted to see chokeholds outlawed and reforms in police training.
While the Black Futures Lab survey reveals a lot about how eligible Black voters are feeling leading up to the election, Garza cautioned that the real work begins the day after Election Day. The organization is already working on its “100 days agenda,” which will emphasize specific policy goals to push for at the local, state and federal level.
Since July, Black Futures Lab has been “training Black folks in our communities to design, win and implement new goals in cities and states that unrig the rules that have kept us from the things we need for so long,” Garza said.
The 39-year-old activist and organizer considers this work even more urgent in the face of a presidential election that will likely be contested. Here, she points to the enthusiasm Black voters have shown this year in voting Trump out.
“Luckily for us, our system doesn’t work in such a way where one person can declare the victor. And just because they do doesn’t make it so,” Garza noted. “So the real work here, too, is to make sure that our communities don’t concede. And by all accounts, our communities are fired up and ready to go.”