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From Covid-19 to racial justice, how 2020's biggest issues influenced the Black vote

"A coalition led by people of color is now the dominant political reality in the United States," said national pollster Henry Fernandez.
Image: Voters Head To The Polls On Last Day Of Early Voting In Key Battle Ground State Of Pennsylvania
Voters queue outside of Philadelphia City Hall on the final day to cast their early voting ballots at the satellite polling station in Philadelphia on Oct. 27, 2020.Mark Makela / Getty Images

National pollster Henry Fernandez has spent the election cycle immersed in the minds of Black voters.

Fernandez, a lawyer and expert with the African American Research Collaborative, or AARC, has queried people across the country about their candidate choices, motivations and policy priorities.

So he wasn't surprised that Black Americans voted "overwhelmingly" for President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, while "white people turned out in a big way for President Donald Trump." The Biden-Harris victory, he asserts, is a "sea change in American politics."

"This election shows the country is no longer dominated politically by white voters," Fernandez said. "A coalition led by people of color is now the dominant political reality in the United States."

Indeed, one of the most critical, contentious elections in America's history has signaled the Black electorate's coming of age. Experts say the voting bloc is in certain aspects consolidated, in other ways malleable and evolving. But most of all, Black voters are cognizant of their long underestimated power.

"We've spent the past 100 years mobilizing Black people across the country to get out the vote," said Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP. "But this movement started long before. Throughout the history of the United States, Black people have always led the charge to make this country live up to its ideals of fairness and equality."

Recently the AARC, the NAACP and the Vera Institute of Justice released findings from the 2020 American Election Eve Poll conducted by the AARC, Latino Decisions and Asian American Decisions. More than a dozen other organizations also sponsored the survey, among them the National Urban League, the Advancement Project, Demos, the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the Service Employees International Union.

More than 15,000 Americans who voted were sampled, including 4,100 African Americans from several battleground states, including Georgia and Wisconsin.

Key takeaways: More than half of Black voters called the coronavirus pandemic the top priority that elected officials should address, followed by discrimination and racial justice.

In the same year when George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others died at the hands of police, fueling Black Lives Matter protests, this demographic of voters registered strong views about law enforcement. Respondents cited a need for accountability, reform and policy changes, including bans on such practices as chokeholds.

"Sixty-one percent of Black voters indicated that they or someone they know has been unfairly stopped or harassed by the police," said Nick Turner, president of the Vera Institute. Voters "support shifting funds from policing to community and family support."

Black voters also expressed deep concerns about systemic racism, especially as it relates to the criminal justice system and mass incarceration. The poll found that 8 of 10 Black voters supported reducing prison and jail populations, as well as detention of immigrants.

Is there a gender divide?

According to national exit polling shared by the major news networks, including NBC News, about 9 percent of Black women supported Trump this election cycle, compared to 4 percent in 2016. About 91 percent of Black women voted for Biden and Harris, most exit polling data show.

"We see how powerful and influential Black women voters continue to be at the polls," said Glynda Carr, president and CEO of Higher Heights, which works to elect and amplify Black women in politics. The national organization endorsed Harris early on. "We showed up even in the face of persistent attempts to suppress our voices and our votes."

About 80 percent of Black male voters chose Biden, according to NBC News exit polls. According to The Associated Press, 12 percent to 19 percent of Black men voted for Trump. His possible gains (he got about 13 percent in 2016) continue a slight shift in preference, among some, for Republican presidential candidates over the last several election cycles.

If the higher figure is more accurate, "Trump received more Black male votes than any Republican in modern history," said Terrance Woodbury, a partner with HIT Strategies, which specializes in polling millennials and people of color.

This cycle, Woodbury said, the Trump campaign spent millions on Facebook advertising and on TV, radio and digital strategies to peel off Black men from Democrats.

"In our focus groups and polls, a small but significant percentage of young Black men said they supported Trump," he said, noting that some had "socially conservative" leanings on issues such as marriage, abortion and immigration. "A lot of people dismiss this as inconsequential, but I disagree. Gains over every election begin to add up. I believe it's important for the party to appeal to and try to reclaim these Black men. We need them."

People for the American Way's Defend the Black Vote initiative reached out to 5 million eligible Black voters in 23 states through texts, town halls and a public service announcement. Many were young Black men.

"What's remarkable is that despite Trump being an unrepentant racist, slightly more Black men voted for him this time than last time," said Ben Jealous, president of the organization.

"Black folks voting for a problematic, authoritarian Republican is nothing new," he added. "When I was growing up, every Black family had somebody who had voted for Nixon in it, and yet our families stuck together just fine."

Jealous is encouraged that more Black men voted this year than in 2016 and that overall African American turnout was robust in this record-breaking election.

"Once again Black women were the gold standard for American voter participation," he said, referring to the nearly 50 percent of registered Black female voters who cast ballots this year. Jealous' attention is now trained on Georgia's Senate runoff races on Jan. 5. "The holy grail for us as a community must be getting Black men to vote at the same rate as Black women."

Melanie Campbell, president and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and convener of its Black women's roundtable, agreed. She said Black women are the "secret sauce" that helps candidates win elections.

"Our people turned out," Campbell said. "We vote as a bloc, and we vote our interests."

The coalition and its Unity '20 Black Voting and Power Building Campaign partners recently released their exit survey of more than 3,600 Black women, men, transgender and gender-nonconforming voters from Southern polling locations and battleground states nationwide.

Respondents were asked what they wanted the next president and the incoming 117th Congress to address. Structural racism (71 percent) topped the list, followed by eradicating Covid-19 (63 percent) and policing/criminal justice reform (62 percent) and then saving safety net programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Youth and seniors vote

Voters under 35 had a significant effect on the election. Sixty percent of voters ages 18 to 29 voted for Biden, and 36 percent chose Trump, according to exit polls.

While younger voters overall were vital to Biden's victory, young people of color played an especially critical role. Black voters ages 18 to 29 chose Biden with 89 percent of the vote, according to NBC News' poll results.

Fernandez, citing AARC polling, mentioned similar figures among young Black voters. Issues they care about, he said, include better health care coverage, equitable economic opportunity and comprehensive justice reform.

Black voters over 60 were also part of this cycle's seismic voter turnout. Even before Election Day, Black seniors broke records, and their early voting surged in several states. Ultimately, according to exit polling data, about 92 percent chose Biden.

'We want to reap the benefits'

Quentin James and Stefanie Brown James are co-founders of The Collective, an umbrella organization whose political action committees and training initiatives are aimed at building equitable Black elected representation nationwide.

The Vote To Live Black voter engagement program of The Collective Education Fund was far-reaching. Efforts ran the gamut from voter registration and education to celebrity promotions with Tracee Ellis Ross, Nia Long and Common to partnering with Black churches to providing 12,000 voters free Lyft rides to and from the polls.

"Black voters delivered the White House to Joe Biden," Quentin James said. "Therefore, we want to reap the benefits."

Jennifer Epps-Addison, network president and co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy Action, echoed the sentiment.

"As the Biden/Harris administration takes office, they are faced with a clear mandate from the people," she said. "They must take action to turn the tide of the Covid-19 pandemic, lead us out of this economic crisis to an economy that works for all, take bold steps towards advancing racial justice, implement humane immigration policies, transform our justice system, make up for lost ground in fighting climate change and ensure quality health care for all."

Collective action by countless organizers brought American democracy back from the brink, she said. "Today we celebrate the power of the people, and tomorrow we will keep fighting for a country that is worthy of all their hopes and labor."

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