Turnout is anticipated to be low for the upcoming November elections, and voter interest has been dropping since June; NBC’s political analysts have called it the “great American tune out.” But generalizing about an apathetic electorate ignores one key group of voters whose participation in recent years has been on the rise: black women.
That’s the demographic often called the most reliable progressive voting bloc. From the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections to last year’s gubernatorial race in Virginia, black women can be counted on to show up at the polls. In 2012, young black women had the highest voter turnout of all voters ages 18 to 29. Black women’s participation that year contributed to the turnout rate of black voters surpassing that of whites voters for the first time ever.
A handful of organizations are intent on keeping black women’s political participation high. ColorOfChange.org, an online civil rights advocacy organization, has launched a new campaign urging its base—specifically black women—to turn out. “The hope is that not only will we continue to see this upward trend in participation, but that black women will lead their families to the polls as well,” Arisha Hatch, the organization’s managing director of campaigns, told me. They’re focusing on issues broader than just casting a ballot, like calling for a debate in the Ohio Secretary of State race and fighting disenfranchisement in Georgia, where 40,000 voter registration applications have turned up missing. Hatch said ColorOfChange will facilitate conversations on Twitter during Thursday night Scandal broadcasts in an effort to meet a critical mass of black women where they are in the weeks before the election.
The Detroit-area group Mothering Justice is taking a similar approach. On Tuesday night, it will hold a conference call for black mothers about the power of their voices in the midterms. Danielle Atkinson, the group’s director, said the message is especially important in Michigan, where about half the state’s black residents live under emergency management and are governed by state-appointed officials.
“We feel like black women have been overlooked as part of the electorate,” said Atkinson, whose group is working to contact 30,000 Detroit-area registered black women and let them know about Tuesday’s call. “We know that they’re predictable in their voting and they’re reliable, but they’re so much more than that.” Atkinson, too, sees black women as “influencers.” She says the path to getting black families and communities to show up at the polls is to engage women by talking to them about economic issues that effect them, like the need for paid sick days, a minimum wage increase and access to affordable childcare.
In Milwaukee, efforts to educate voters about the midterms have focused not just on the issues but also on what identification will be required at the polls. The Reproductive Justice Collective has run emergency phone banks and updated its canvassing literature multiple times to make sure its target audience—women of color—has up-to-date information about what they’ll need on Election Day. The Supreme Court blocked implementation of Wisconsin’s voter ID law earlier this month, and the ID requirement has shifted as its been challenged in the courts.
Sarah Noble, who directs the Reproductive Justice Collective, said the key to effectively reaching their audience around elections is staying in touch with them throughout the year. The Reproductive Justice Collective has, for example, reached nearly 19,000 households in an effort to get people signed up for insurance through the Affordable Care Act. The focus on building relationships and maintaining a presence in the community has paid off. Noble said that in the 2013 election her group saw a 30 percent increase in voter turnout among the group of women voters they spoke to, women who live in the ward known for having the lowest voter turnout in the state.
I asked Noble how her group’s voter organizing work connects to advocating on behalf of women’s health and advancing a reproductive justice agenda in Milwaukee.
“Our work is way broader than access to abortion and birth control,” she said. “We look at family-supporting jobs and quality healthcare, access to quality foods, in addition to voting without obstacles. We know that the women that we work with and support have a whole host of things that are happening in their lives that need to be addressed.”
The consistent belief in the political process that black women demonstrate should mean that they have the attention of politicians they help usher into office. Unfortunately, they don’t, says the National Coalition on Black Civil Participation. According to a report from that group’s Black Women’s Roundtable earlier this year:
Such impact should wield influence and demonstrate high indicators of quality of living. However, Black women show low indicators in many areas including health disparities and economic indicators such as unemployment rates and equity of pay.
Which means these groups have their work cut out for them well beyond November 4th, assuming black women turn out in large numbers. Then the question becomes how to best remind Democratic elected officials that they’re accountable to a voting bloc that’s gaining strength.