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In Detroit, signs of increased interest among Black voters, but concerns remain

A dip in Black voter participation in 2016 helped Donald Trump win Michigan, but activists see a surge in interest this year.
Voters wait in line on Election Day in Southfield, Mich., on Nov. 6, 2018.
Voters wait in line on Election Day in Southfield, Mich., on Nov. 6, 2018.Clarence Tabb Jr. / Detroit News via AP

DETROIT — Oriana Powell, 31, an African American single mother, didn't vote in the 2016 presidential election and never felt a strong urge to do so. "I just didn't make it to the polls, and I didn't make it a priority to do so. I wasn't super active or engaged at all," Powell said.

But since Donald Trump narrowly won Michigan four years ago, in part because of a steep drop in Black voter participation compared to 2012, Powell has become much more politically aware, and she said in an interview that she's excited to vote in November.

After succeeding Barack Obama, a Democrat who was the country's first Black president, Trump has spent much of his first term working to dismantle Obama-era policies while stoking the racial grievances of his largely white, conservative base. That record, along with his hostile response to the recent wave of protests against police brutality, has led to an explosion of political participation among Black voters, many of whom, like Powell, sat out the 2016 election.

Trump is "really one of the best things" to happen in a generations-long movement for racial equality, Powell said, citing an "overt" approach to fanning racial tensions that has activated Americans across all demographic groups.

Early data in Michigan do suggest that interest among Black voters is high. In Detroit, where 80 percent of the population is Black, City Clerk Janice Winfrey said she has already received more than 90,000 requests for absentee ballots for the Senate primary on Tuesday — the most ever, eclipsing even past general elections.

Winfrey said the ballot applications point to "very hearty turnout" that could also preview voting enthusiasm in November.

Black voters in Michigan were showing signs of greater participation even before the coronavirus pandemic and the social justice protests.

In the 2018 midterm election, Black turnout in Wayne County, where Detroit is located, rose sharply compared to the previous midterm election, in 2014 — from 38 percent to 54 percent.

Still, the Michigan Democratic Party's optimism is guarded. It said channeling the street protests against police brutality and anger over Trump's policies into votes in November will demand a sustained effort.

Trump has been on the offensive against mail-in voting, calling it "rigged," and he has even threatened to withhold funding for the state, alleging voter fraud based on a false accusation that the secretary of state sent absentee ballots to millions of Michigan voters.

Nowhere are the stakes greater than in Detroit, where a dip in Black turnout in 2016 helped cost Hillary Clinton the state and where many Black families who have lost friends or family members to COVID-19 are likely to opt for mail-in voting this year.

Enthusiasm for voting is high nationally among Black Americans, according to a Washington Post-Ipsos poll conducted in early June.

The survey found that 74 percent of Blacks say they are certain to vote in November, compared with 59 percent who turned out in 2016. The percentage of Blacks who said the outcome of the election matters a great deal to them jumped by 11 points, to 71 percent, from January to June.

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Turnout among Black voters fell across the country in 2016: 7 million fewer Black voters went to the polls that year compared to 2012, when Obama was on the ballot, while white turnout increased. Black voters overwhelmingly favor Democratic candidates.

In Michigan, Black turnout fell by more than 12 points overall in 2016, while voters in the whiter, more rural areas along the Interstate 75 corridor turned out in force for Trump. He won the state by just 10,000 votes out of nearly 5 million cast.

Despite the apparent spike in Black voter enthusiasm, Democrats say they worry about whether Biden will be enough of a draw at the top of the ticket, particularly among younger voters.

Mary Sheffield, 33, a City Council member who voted Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in the primary, said many progressives view Biden "as a candidate we can work with, but we're not necessarily that excited."

"A lot of the conversations I'm having" with young Black voters "are about no confidence in the federal government and in what the Democrats have done traditionally," she said.

Republicans say Trump will perform better among Black voters than other GOP candidates.

Tony Zammit, communications director for the state Republican Party, cited a recent survey from a pollster who accurately predicted in 2016 that Trump would beat Clinton and is now forecasting that Trump will increase his share of Black votes and beat Biden in Michigan.

"We've got over 70 field staffers pushing voters in all corners to get the vote out for Donald Trump. We are very confident that come November President Trump will be successful," Zammit said.

The 'forgotten man'

Trump promised a "New Deal for Black America" in his 2016 campaign, which centered on the "forgotten" men and women of America.

"We live in a very divided country, and I will be your greatest champion," Trump said in a speech just days before the general election.

Yet Black Americans, by several measures, may be among the most "forgotten" by the Trump administration.

Trump has rescinded Obama-era policies meant to rebuild trust between Black communities and police departments, limited investigations of police departments and rescinded Obama-era guidelines encouraging affirmative action programs. Black households got only 5 percent of Trump's tax cuts, even though they account for 13 percent of the population.

The disparities are also true of the coronavirus, which is disproportionately killing Black Americans. And the administration's refusal to open insurance exchanges under the Affordable Care Act has also hurt African Americans, who make up a disproportionate share of the uninsured.

Black Americans are also "overrepresented" in essential occupations, such as nursing assistants or food service workers, filling the most dangerous jobs during the pandemic as the president downplayed the threat.

Quran Calhoun, 45, a union organizer from Romulus, also didn't vote in 2016.

"Everybody's faith in the system was down," he said. But "I feel a lot of difference now," he said, citing an "uplifting" unity among Black people he has been mentoring about voting rights. "It's become urgent that, no way no how, we can't keep him in any longer."

Grassroots network

Days after Trump's surprise victory in Michigan, local Democratic officials got to work. "It was a shocker," said Lavora Barnes, who became the state Democratic Party's first Black chair in February.

The party has hired its first full-time African American outreach director to craft voting rights education programs and voter registration drives. Forty-one percent of the party's more than 100 organizers are people of color, the party says.

Ken Whittaker, director of movement politics at Michigan United, a grassroots social justice advocacy group, said there "was a flood of new grassroots organizations" in the state after Trump was elected. "Enthusiasm I'm seeing this time feels more like it's coming from a need. I see it coming from pain, and I see it coming from suffering," he said.

It's a stark contrast to 2016, Whittaker said. "There was no Democratic turnout machine. Balls dropped left and right, and work didn't happen," he said.

A recent New York Times/Siena College poll in Michigan found Biden with a hearty 11-point advantage. But nervous Democrats point to a Detroit Free Press poll in June 2016 that gave Clinton a similar lead over Trump.

"We've come a long way, but I don't know that we're quite there yet," Barnes said.

Sheffield, the City Council member, concurred.

"I'm not all the way convinced," she said. "There's a lot of work and rebuilding and educating that still needs to be done."