Black voters on both sides of the aisle say the civility and inclusivity of the two presidential candidates is on their minds as they prepare to head to the polls before Election Day. (Oct. 23)
Before dawn, Dickie Fontaine, a 75-year-old retired Philadelphia school teacher, bundled up and headed out into the 40-degree chill to be among the first in line at her local polling precinct in the predominantly Black neighborhood of Mount Airy.
While she waited for doors to open, she thought about her grandparents and great-grandparents who fought for the right to vote in North Carolina.
“If they could stand out and be beaten and suffer trying to vote, I can certainly stand in line,” said Fontaine, who cast her vote for former Vice President and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. “I wanted to make this personal. I wanted to be here.”
In a year that has seen marginalized Americans disproportionally grapple with the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, a historic civil rights movement against systemic racism and a recession that has wiped out economic gains for Black, Latino, Asian and Native American families, many people of color exercised their hard-fought right to vote on Election Day. In interviews conducted around the nation, one sentiment prevailed regardless of political persuasion: A fierce determination to be heard.
How communities of color vote this election could decide the next president of the United States. Communities of color represent 40% of the population and many lean Democratic.
But turnout is often much lower compared with white voters, who tend to vote Republican and overwhelmingly make up the majority of many swing states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio. And President Donald Trump has sought to win over as many Black and Hispanic as possible with the promise of a strong economy and conservative judges.
James Taylor, a political scientist at the University of San Francisco and author of “Black Nationalism in the United States: From Malcolm X to Barack Obama,” said he expected turnout among communities of color to grow this election cycle, in part because of the renewed focus on racial injustice and COVID-19. Nearly 100 million Americans have voted early, a number that suggests this year could see record voter turnout.
“The totality of these issues has exhausted people in the African American community, the Latino community and the American population at large,” he said.
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks with supporters as he visits Hank’s Hoagies in Scranton, Pa., on Election Day, Nov. 3, 2020. (Photo: Carolyn Kaster, AP)
Taylor pointed to reports that Black voters waited for nine hours to early vote in Harris County, Texas, a state where there is only one ballot drop-off location per county.
“That’s when I knew there was a fierce determination that is now driving this large pre-election voter turnout,” he said.
In the battleground state of Wisconsin, staff members of the Black Voters Organizing for Communities readied an assortment of provisions they were taking to the polls in Milwaukee, including boxes of Cheetos, hand warmers and ponchos. Formed in the wake of the 2016 election, where Black voter turnout dropped about 19% in Wisconsin and helped Trump edge out Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, the group has been part of the Democratic strategy to redouble efforts to engage with the Black community.
The pandemic has only heightened the gravity of the work, said Angela Lang, the group’s executive director. “The same communities of color that can make or break an election, we’re the same communities disproportionately affected by COVID-19.”
Republicans in Wisconsin also have sought to better engage with Black voters and opened their first field office on Milwaukee’s north side, where most of the city’s Black residents live.
The party has made important inroads by connecting with residents about jobs and the economy, said Andrew Hitt, chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin. “Until you have a stake in the ground, you don’t have a lot of credibility in the community,” he said.
If 2020 does show a record minority turnout, both candidates want to be sure they take full advantage. Biden is hoping his outreach to Black voters in Georgia and Latinos in Florida will make a difference. Trump, meanwhile, is banking on conservative Cuban American, Mexican American and other Latino voters in Texas, Nevada, Arizona and Florida to help him secure a second term.
The focus on voters of color represents a shift from four years ago, when Black voter turnout dropped nearly 5% compared to 2012 and turnout rates for Latinos and Asian Americans hovered at just under 50% compared to nearly 80% for college-educated white Americans, according to the U.S. Census.
Native American voter turnout traditionally lags other ethnicities due in part to policies of voter suppression and systemic racism that range from onerous voter-ID rules to ineffective and distant postal service.
This election season, the Democratic presidential field saw the most diverse roster of candidate yet, with tech leader Andrew Yang, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and U.S. Rep Tulsi Gabbard running to replace Trump. Ultimately, Democratic voters went with Biden, a white man, who went on to name U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, who also ran in the primary, as his running mate and possibly the nation’s first woman of color vice president should Biden win.
Trump’s view of race is on the ballot
Trump has often had a tense relationship with communities of color.
While launching his campaign in 2015, Trump called Mexicans “rapists.” Once in office, Trump referred to Haiti and African nations as “shithole countries.” The administration’s immigration policies have made it virtually impossible for anyone to legally migrate to the United States and separated children from their families.
For his part, Biden said he dove into the presidential race after Trump said there were “fine people on both sides” when asked about a 2017 torch-lit parade of white supremacists that killed one protester at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
Shahid Lodhi, 72, of Montville, New Jersey, emigrated from Pakistan 52 years ago and is a registered Republican. But this year, she is voting Democratic across the board.
“For the first time in 50 years, I feel marginalized,” Lodhi said.
Sesh Herrera, 20, a computer science student at Austin Community College in Texas, said the past four years have been particularly troubling because of the administration’s targeting of immigrants.
Herrera said he could no longer hang out with friends whose immigrant parents wouldn’t let them out of the house for fear that federal immigration agents would detain and deport them under Trump’s stricter immigration rules. Several of those parents were deported, he said.
As a result, Herrera, voting in his first election, said he was excited at the prospect of Texas – long a reliably red state – possibly turning blue. “To be a part of that would make me proud,” he said.
Miami resident Gabriella Quintero, 19, also was voting in her first election, spurred by Trump policies that she said discriminate against classmates who hail from Haiti, Honduras and other foreign countries.
Quintero, who was born in the United States to Cuban parents, said she was particularly upset by the family separation policy that left more than 5,000 children without their parents and the Remain in Mexico plan that has forced 60,000 asylum seekers to live in makeshift camps on the Mexican side of the border.
“Let’s call it what it is, an internment camp,” she said, her mother standing by her side. “The same thing that happened to Japanese Americans” during World War II “is now happening to aspiring Americans. It’s really sad.”
Holding a different view was fellow Miami resident Ana Vega, 72, who emigrated to the U.S. from Cuba. She sees little in common between herself and the waves of Mexican and Central American migrants trying to enter the U.S. now. Vega said she came legally, sponsored for a green card by her husband’s family. She worked at a furniture factory until she retired.
“We didn’t get any kind of help,” said Vega, who voted for Trump. “Now, people come here illegally, they don’t want to work, they all want hand-outs.”
COVID-19 a big factor for voters
Trump has repeatedly downplayed the impact of COVID-19, which he contracted last month, but the disease continues to hospitalize Black and Latino Americans at nearly three times the rate of their white counterparts, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Asian Americans not only have suffered hate-crime attacks after Trump’s repeated reference to the virus as “Kung Flu” and “China virus,” but in cities such as San Francisco, they are testing positive at a greater rate than other ethnicities.
In Arizona, tribal members and community residents arrived to cast their ballots at the Ak-Chin Indian Community.
Jose Batopis III, 28, was voting for the first time. Batopis, who’s enrolled in the Yavapai-Apache Nation and also has Yaqui and Tohono O’odham heritage, lives in Ak-Chin and has lost an uncle, great-uncle and his grandfather to the coronavirus. He voted for the Biden-Harris ticket.
“The way the president has handled the pandemic has been a disaster,” he said.
Georgina Rodriguez, 42, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, was solely focused on health care concerns when she cast her vote in Brooklyn in New York City.
“The money doesn’t matter right now,” she said of the economy. “When you die, you don’t take anything with you.”
Her father died from COVID-19 earlier this year, she has young children and said Trump hasn’t prioritized public health in the pandemic. That’s why she voted Biden.
“I didn’t have my father for Father’s Day this year,” she said. “You should not play with people’s health.”
The administration’s handling of the pandemic was top of mind for Kiana Keys, 40, a Chicago business manager working in finance who voted for Clinton in 2016. The Black mother came to the polls early with two of her three kids, Jordan, 8, and Dallas, 6.
Keys, who is originally from Michigan but was raised on Chicago’s Far Southwest Side, said her family has been quarantining since March. Her grandmother in a nursing home had COVID and recovered.
“I wasn’t able to go to my son’s graduation. I wasn’t able to take my son to college. We have to do remote learning,” she said. “I feel like this pandemic wasn’t handled appropriately. We have to get control of this pandemic. Too many people are dying. I don’t want to die. I don’t want my family to die.”
Police misconduct galvanizes the electorate
Another motivating factor for Keys was the national discussion of systemic racism that has been a frequent topic at her dinner table.
“The protests and things that have happened over the last few months are things that many of us sit around our dining room tables and talk about every night, so it just manifested on a larger platform, a larger stage,” she said. “I’m happy the country has gotten some window into our reality.”
This spring, the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police officers fueled renewed support for the Black Lives Matter social justice movement and sent thousands into the streets nationwide to protest police brutality, while the White House denied the existence of systemic racism and took an unequivocal pro-law enforcement stance. In June, Trump signed an executive order encouraging police departments to improve training while reiterating that Americans “demand law and order.”
Rasul Freelin, right, a police sergeant, and his son, Diata Freelin, voted for Joe Biden Tuesday at an elementary school on Chicago’s Far Southwest Side. “He has a sense of fairness and respectful interactions for all, regardless of what they may believe,” said Rasul Freelin. (Photo: Grace Hauck, USA TODAY)
Rasul Freelin, a Black police sergeant, and his son, Diata Freelin, 18, voted for Biden Tuesday at an elementary school on Chicago’s Far Southwest Side. They’d been waiting in line since 6 a.m. in near-freezing weather.
“He has a sense of fairness and respectful interactions for all, regardless of what they may believe,” Freelin said of the former vice president. “I believe he’s still strong, along with his running mate Kamala Harris, against crime, but still believes in a sense of fairness and treating people equally.”
Corey Felton, 50, a Chicago machine operator for a milling company, was wearing a matching Chicago Bears hat and jacket as he voted for Biden. He said he works with people who support Trump, and that their support “seems racist.”
Felton said he voted for Biden because he’s seen violence rise under Trump, particularly by police toward African Americans and Latinos. Felton said he was visiting his niece’s house on Saturday when a man was shot by police one block away.
“Death happens since Donald Trump got in,” Felton said. “You got more deaths from police. Got me even scared. I get pulled over and I don’t even know what to do.”
Proudly wearing two “I voted” stickers, Hunter Gray, 25, of Denver said she cast her ballot for Biden, citing climate change, abortion rights and the president’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic as motivators.
Of particular significance to her, however, were this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, which she said played an important role in raising awareness of police violence and systemic racism.
“Every Black person already knew these things,” she said. “We’ve always been aware. It’s just that our allies are becoming aware and informed. I’ve always known how the president feels. And I always knew how he would react to it.”
Fellow Denver resident Evan Anderson, 27, also participated in recent street protests. Anderson, who is Black, said he voted for Biden even though he’s “not a big fan.” He called Trump “very dangerous and toxic.”
Voting with the wallet
Others voters cast a ballot with their wallets in mind.
Jeanette Taylor walked out of the Clinton Rose Senior Center in Milwaukee after voting Tuesday morning. Taylor, who is Black, voted for Biden.
Taylor said she only earns $7.25 per hour as a housekeeper and has five children to support. Her life has not gotten better over the past four years of the Trump presidency, she said.
The recession caused by the pandemic has decimated jobs at many levels but particularly low-income service industry positions that are often held by people of color. Unemployment for Black workers is expected to hit 30% and 22% for Latinos, erasing any gains made by these economic groups since the 2008 recession, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a non-partisan research institute.
Eliza White, 57, came out of a South Side Chicago elementary school polling station with a smile. “Biden all the way,” White yelled as she threw her head back and lifted up her arms. “No other way to go.”
White said she lost a friend and cousin to COVID-19. She also lost her job as a cashier at a grocery store when the store shut down amid the pandemic. She said she’s been living on her “little nest egg” since then.
“You’re always supposed to save for a rainy day,” she said. “My mama taught me that at an early age.”
In contrast, Jose Pastor, who voted Tuesday near Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, said “I don’t support everything” about Trump, but he considered voting for the president simply because his locksmithing business remains on an even keel.
“Americans vote with their wallet and my wallet is fine,” he said.
Pastor said Trump’s other policies, including his approach to immigration, don’t affect him. But the way the president has spoken in derogatory terms about Hispanics does grate on him. He called the image of Trump throwing rolls of paper towels at Puerto Ricans after Hurricane Maria in 2017, “ridiculous.”
Asked which presidential candidate he voted for, Pastor said “blank,” wiped his hands and walked away.
Muhammad Masood, 66, originally from Pakistan, emerged on Tuesday from a fitness-center-turned-polling-site in a strip mall in North Austin known as the city’s Chinatown. A small “I VOTED” sticker was stuck to his shirt. It was the first presidential election for Masood, who became a U.S. citizen in 2018.
Despite Trump’s claims of fueling a thriving economy, Masood said he hasn’t felt the fruits of that improvement. The pay at his job as a warehouse security guard has increased only incrementally, from $400 a week to about $500 a week, over the past seven years. He voted for Biden because, he said, he has the experience to improve the economy and create better-paying jobs for working class people such as himself.
“I was voting for America’s future,” he said. “It’s time for a change.”
Marty Byers, a 66-year-old retired construction worker, also had economics on his mind as he voted on the first floor of his senior citizen center in Columbia, South Carolina. He voted for Trump in 2016 and refused to divulge his choice this time. But while he liked that Biden supports the Affordable Care Act, he said he applauds Trump’s handling of the economy.
“The country is very prosperous, people are working every day,” he said, adding that people of color have also landed jobs. “People are moving up.”
Fellow Columbia resident Jerry Kelly couldn’t vote fast enough for Biden. He only waited for Election Day because he didn’t trust the mail-in ballot system.
“We need to get rid of the Donald, quick, fast and in a hurry,’’ said Kelly, 65, a former steelworker. “He’s trying to set America back 500 years. He wants to be a dictator and he doesn’t have the temperament to be a president.”
Kelly, who stood steps from his polling site, said he’s worried about the way Trump has governed and how COVID-19 had disproportionately impacted people of color.
“For every white that dies, we got two or three of us dying,’’ he said.
Four years ago, Kelly voted for Clinton and went to bed early, confident she had won. When he woke up to learn Trump had won, “I said, ‘Oh Lordy,’’ he recalled. “I went to the liquor store and got me a drink.”
Jon Johnson also voted for Clinton in 2016. Under Trump, Johnson, a Black man, said he worries for the safety of the six boys he’s raising with his wife. He said watching news reports of armed white groups hassling Black Biden supporters alarmed him, and he’s still waiting for Trump to condemn them.
“I don’t want to say Donald Trump is racist. But the people who are following him sure seem they don’t like Black people,” said Johnson, 33.
Johnson lost his job selling circuit boards during the pandemic, which he said would likely have been better handled by someone other than Trump: “This has happened under his watch. He took it for a joke.”
Johnson voted in person on Tuesday after his wife insisted he not sit out the election. His wife, who voted early, promised him breakfast if he voted. Walking out of a Denver voting site mid-morning, he threw his arms into the air and exclaimed, “I voted!”
Contributing: Debra Utacia Krol of the Arizona Republic, Erin Richards in Milwaukee; Kyle Bagenstose in Philadelphia; Grace Hauck in Chicago; Mary Chao in Montville, New Jersey; Ryan Miller in New York.
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