WASHINGTON – A 72-year-old voter in Dayton, Ohio, said, “I’m angry about everything.” A retired veterinary technician in Detroit said she voted for one reason only: “Donald Trump. To make sure he’s not reelected.” A federal employee who waited in line for 10 hours in suburban Atlanta explained simply: “I have three Black sons.”
Two weeks before Election Day, Black Americans have voted in striking numbers, helping to drive historic levels of early voting as mail ballots have flooded election offices and people have endured huge lines to cast ballots in person across the country.
In interviews in 10 states where early voting is underway, Black voters said this year’s presidential election is the most important of their lifetime – some calling it more consequential even than in 2008, when those who were old enough went to the polls in record numbers to make Barack Obama the country’s first Black president.
They spoke of a sense of urgency to protect the nation’s democracy, and their role in it, which they believe a second Trump term would erode beyond repair. Many said they view the president as a racist who cannot bring himself to disavow white supremacists or the year’s spate of police killings of unarmed Black Americans, and they believe the country is less safe for themselves and their families.
Over and over again, Black Americans described their vote this year as much more than a choice between two presidential candidates, but as an urgent stand in the long fight against racial injustice in America, which the year’s events have made clear is not yet over.
“We shouldn’t be where we’re at in 2020,” said Tasha Grant, 44, a nurse who voted in Charlotte, N.C., on Thursday and hopes her vote for the Democratic nominee, former vice president Joe Biden, will ensure that her children grow up in a safer, more accepting world.
“Especially my son,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if he’s smart and an ‘A’ student. People still see him as a Black male.”
Turnout numbers in states with available data show a surge of Black participation in the first few days of in-person voting. In North Carolina, which began early voting Thursday, Black voters accounted for more than 30% of turnout on the first day – well above their 23% share overall in 2016. In Georgia, Black voters accounted for about 32% of mail ballots and in-person votes cast through Thursday, so far outpacing their overall share of the electorate in 2016.
The pattern is similar in U.S. cities with large Black populations. In the counties that include Milwaukee and Detroit, for instance, the roughly 283,000 in combined votes cast already is equivalent to nearly one-fourth of those counties’ total turnout four years ago. A drop-off in votes for Democrat Hillary Clinton in those cities in 2016 compared with Obama’s 2008 and 2012 vote tallies contributed to Trump’s overall victory after he carried Wisconsin and Michigan by tiny margins.
In Washington Post-ABC News national polls conducted in late September and early October, Biden led Trump by 92% to 8% among Black likely voters. Three Washington Post-ABC polls conducted since August found on average that 86% of registered Black voters are either certain to vote or have already voted, up slightly from 80% in 2016.
In some parts of the country, the Black Lives Matter movement has carried into the voting booth. Last week, dozens of people protesting the police shooting death of Breonna Taylor marched from a Louisville, Ky., park to a basketball arena serving as an early voting site.
They chanted: “This is what democracy looks like! You – can’t – stop – the revolution!”
Another voter at the arena, Rhonne Green, 39, said he had been at the Taylor protests from the start and decided to cast his ballot early because, he said, “It’s time for a change.”
“We’ve been going through this for way too long and everybody keeps putting a Band-Aid over it or sweeping it under the rug,” Green said, after emerging from voting in a T-shirt bearing the phrase, “Stand for Black Women.”
Trump’s handling of racial unrest as well as the coronavirus pandemic changed the calculation for Black voters by posing real threats to their health and safety, said Morgan Jackson, a Democratic consultant in North Carolina. For some, that turned voting into a life-or-death undertaking.
“African Americans have said, ‘Enough,’ ” Jackson said. “Everything Trump has done in the last three and a half years, as crazy as it’s been, it’s been a mile away from people. It’s a show you watched on TV. But with these two issues, he’s affected your family in your living room and at your kitchen table.”
During his time in office, Trump has presided over a sweeping U.S. government retreat from the front lines of civil rights, which advocates say has endangered decades of progress against voter suppression, housing discrimination and police misconduct.
In recent months, Trump has condemned Black Lives Matter as a “symbol of hate” while defending armed White militants in Michigan, right-wing activists who waved weapons from pickup trucks in Portland, Ore., and a White teen who shot and killed two protesters in Wisconsin.
Trump has also vowed to safeguard the legacies of Confederate generals while skipping the funeral of the late congressman John Lewis, D-Ga., a civil rights icon, and retweeted – then deleted – video of a supporter shouting “white power.” He has questioned the electoral eligibility of Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., the nation’s first Black and Asian American candidate for vice president from a major party; in doing so, he reanimated a version of the false “birther” claim he used to suggest that Obama may not have been born in the United States.
As a result, Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher said, Trump is much more than a threat to Black Americans’ right to equality under the law; he is a threat to their very existence.
“There is no group of Americans who are more vested in this democratic experiment, historically, than the Black person in the United States of America,” Belcher said. “Black people are literally voting like their lives depend on it.”
Trump has denied that he is a racist, proclaiming on several occasions that he has done more for Black Americans than any president since Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. As examples, Trump touts the pre-pandemic decline of unemployment among Black Americans, as well as his support for reducing prison time for nonviolent offenders.
Trump campaign officials, too, have said repeatedly that they are winning a greater share of the Black vote than past Republican nominees, with surrogates including retired professional football player Herschel Walker appearing in ads in cities with significant minority populations such as Atlanta; Detroit; Jacksonville, Fla.; Philadelphia; Raleigh, N.C.; and Savannah, Ga.
“President Trump has a real record of accomplishments for the Black community,” said senior Trump campaign adviser Katrina Pierson. “Joe Biden, on the other hand, oversaw stagnant wage growth and anemic job creation. He also authored legislation that incarcerated entire generations of Black Americans for nonviolent offenses. On the facts, President Trump is a far better choice for Black Americans and it isn’t even a close call.”
Campaign officials also said the surge of early voting so far will fall short of what Democrats need to offset enthusiasm for Trump on Election Day, when most Republicans have said they will vote.
“It takes work to get those ballots filled out and returned,” Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien told reporters on a conference call last week. “This is why a ground game matters . . . and Joe Biden doesn’t have one.”
States have logged record levels of voting both by mail and in person, with data showing that Democratic voters have powered much of the turnout.
As of Sunday, nearly 28 million Americans had cast ballots, according to Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida. The number, equivalent to more than one-fifth of the overall turnout in 2016, suggests that Trump will have to make up a huge Democratic advantage on Election Day.
Said GOP pollster Bill McInturff: “What was a modest Democratic advantage in 2016 among early voters has become a chasm in a way no one has ever seen before.”
Still, analysts warned that if narrow results prompt a wave of post-Election Day ballot litigation, it could affect voters of color more than White voters.
Research by political scientist Dan Smith at the University of Florida found that the mail ballots of Black voters have been rejected at higher rates in past elections. And in North Carolina this fall, election officials have flagged the ballots of a disproportionate number of Black voters with errors that must be remedied to count.
So far, this year’s mobilization is on track to rival 2008, when historic levels of Black turnout helped propel Obama to the White House. Since Clinton’s lower performance among Black voters in 2016, Democrats have lamented whether a White candidate, including Biden, could ever attract the same level of support as Obama.
Interviews with dozens of Black voters, however, suggest that the driving force for many this year is not the Democratic candidate but the desire to remove the current president; some Black voters said they are more motivated to vote against Trump than they were to vote for Obama.
“I was waiting for this day,” said Connie Neal, who works in health-care management in Charlotte and voted Thursday. “We need change. We need a new president. As soon as I could do my part, why put it off?”
In addition to issues of race, Black voters also said in interviews that Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis is a major motivating force. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black Americans are more than twice as likely as Whites to become infected with the coronavirus, nearly five times more likely to be hospitalized and twice as likely to die.
Married couple Latonia and Irie Smith, both 62 and retired postal workers from Fishers, Ind., said health care was the driving issue behind their decision to vote in person on Oct. 6, the first day it was allowed in their state.
“We’ve been fortunate to not have been affected so far,” Irie Smith said. “But we never know what the fall and winter are going to bring.”
Many voters interviewed as they waited in lines in recent days in Atlanta, Houston and Durham, N.C., said it was important to cast a ballot in person at the first opportunity to make a statement about how important this election is.
They brought picnic lunches and lawn chairs, wore Black Lives Matter apparel, and, in some cases, voted for the first time.
Some also said they were suspicious of using the mail – in part because of the raft of reports this year about delays at the U.S. Postal Service and Trump’s threats to withhold postal funding.
Another force resonated for others: a wariness, born of decades of voter suppression targeting Blacks, to trust that their vote would be counted if they couldn’t feed it into a scanner themselves.
“Since I was 18, I feel more comfortable this way,” said Alyson Marsalis, 57, a psychologist from Waukegan, Ill. “I have folk who got beaten over voting.”
Said Jatona Mitchell, 37, a home-care nurse who voted last week near Charlotte: “My people fought for the right to vote.”
Carole Blount, 60, of Detroit, also a retired postal worker, offered a succinct answer to the question why she cast her ballot in person. “To get it counted,” she said.
“My people, my heritage, were not born with this right, and they had to fight,” she said. “I owe them my vote. They fought hard and shed blood and died so I could be here in 2020 to vote.”
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The Washington Post’s Elise Viebeck, Scott Clement, Emily Guskin, Ted Mellnik and Greg Miller in Washington; Anna Clark in Detroit; Ted Genoways in Omaha, Neb.; Mark Guarino in Waukegan, Ill.; Stephanie Hunt in North Charleston, S.C.; Pam Kelley in Charlotte, N.C.; Brittney Martin in Houston; Kevin Williams in Dayton, Ohio; Haisten Willis in Marietta, Ga.; Josh Wood in Louisville, Ky.; and Adam Wren in Noblesville, Ind.; contributed to this report.