Can Democrats turn out Black voters in Michigan this November? Some organizers aren’t so sure. | Michigan Radio
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Can Democrats turn out Black voters in Michigan this November? Some organizers aren’t so sure.

Sep 26, 2020

Many politicians see Black voters’ support as crucial for Democratic wins in November. But some organizers are wondering whether former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign can effectively engage with Black voters in Michigan, many of whom say they’ve been taken for granted by the Democratic Party.

It's been a summer of turmoil as the shootings of Black Americans by the police sparked massive protests across the country. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to have a devastating and disproportionate effect on Black communities. The Democratic party has been pitching former Vice President Joe Biden as the person to lead the country forward. But while Black voters overwhelmingly prefer Biden in national polls, some here in Michigan aren’t so sure about voting at all, said Kat Stafford, who writes about race and ethnicity for the Associated Press

“There are other folks who are saying, ‘Well, hey, what’s the difference between the Democratic party and the Republican party, when life for me—in my neighborhood in Detroit, in Flint, in Inkster—has not changed at all, regardless of who is leading this country?” Stafford said. “When you think about apathetic voters like that, that’s a real concern for Democrats, because it hurts them more than anyone else.”

Low voter turnout in mostly Black precincts played a key role in President Donald Trump’s electoral victory over Hillary Clinton in Michigan in 2016. Now, Stafford said, organizers and politicians are working on the ground in Michigan to engage Black voters. It’s not always easy to connect, she said, especially as the Biden campaign has been holding mostly virtual events due to the pandemic.

“In a city like Detroit, ground game is king,” Stafford said. “These are communities that have a digital divide. And when you think about that, how are you reaching folks who are not able to tap into these virtual events? That’s a real weakness, I think, that the party is still struggling to figure out.”

This week, vice presidential nominee and Democratic Senator Kamala Harris visited Flint and Detroit for socially distanced campaign events. Biden also stopped in Michigan recently. Stafford said she noticed some real enthusiasm at Harris’s campaign stops, but they were small gatherings compared to the large events that you would expect if there weren’t a pandemic.

“When we think about ‘Will that translate to people actually heading to the polls in November? Is this enough?’ That’s the question that remains to be answered,” she said.

For some organizers on the ground in Detroit, engaging Black voters requires a focus on community issues, rather than candidates. That’s how Detroit Action approaches potential voters, explained executive director Branden Snyder. The grassroots political group organizes for Black and brown working-class communities in Metro Detroit.

“When it comes to Black votes, you have to meet them at the depth of their experiences, and that means being able to talk to people about economic justice and what you’ll be able to do for our communities if elected,” Snyder said.

Snyder said that the true swing voters are people who swing between voting and not voting. Democratic politicians, he said, need to work harder to connect with working-class Black voters. Many are frustrated and distrustful of the political system, especially  now amid the COVID-19 pandemic, an economic downturn, and looming threats foreclosure or eviction. 

Snyder said he’s noticed that both Democratic and Republican campaign messaging currently seems to be focused on securing the support of white, suburban women. That, he said, is a mistake. 

“We know that Black women vote 80 to 90% Democratic in all elections, and we know that right now, just in terms of ad buy and in terms of spending, we know that the Trump campaign is spending money to target Black men,” he said.

Snyder added that some young voters in Detroit who are becoming politically active now are distrustful of the Democratic party, as well as the current political system. He said he thinks they’re looking for specifics from the campaign.

“It’s not going to be, just, return to an era of pre-Trump,” he said. “You actually have to articulate what’ll be different in the lives of young Black and brown folks who’ve grown up during this Black Lives Matter moment and grown up during the Trump presidency.”

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.