In late summer, as Democrats were shaping a general election strategy around the merits of voting by mail, former first lady Michelle Obama used a portion of her convention speech to open up the door to a more flexible framework.
Part of her message, “vote early, in person if we can” was subtle, and she would later go on to list other acceptable alternatives. But it displayed a fundamental understanding of a view commonly shared among Black voters—that voting in person is historically preferable—and signaled a desire for Democrats to broaden their approach.
Now, with less than a month until Election Day, Black activists, operatives, and lawyers have rallied around and intensified that push, particularly as President Donald Trump has baselessly and repeatedly cast doubt about voting by mail throughout the pandemic.
“Black voters are rightfully so skeptical about the prospects of voting by mail,” said Caleb Jackson, a voting rights attorney at the Campaign Legal Center. “What we’ve seen is a lot of Black voters are just saying ‘Hey, I don’t want to deal with the trouble of worrying about these issues so I’m just going to vote in person.’”
The “issues” that Jackson described range from obstacles over the eligibility to obtain an absentee ballot to the speed that the United States postal service will return them, on top of a host of other hurdles. All, he said, have compounded under Trump’s mixed and misleading guidance from the top.
The president, who was hospitalized until last night after testing positive for COVID-19, has long spread factually inaccurate information about the country’s mail-in voting system, seeking to create doubt on its validity without evidence. During last week’s debate, just days before he was moved to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Trump also sent a conflicting statement about voting in person by encouraging his supporters to monitor polling locations, further amplifying his own hypothetical about voter fraud in a yet-to-happen election.
Grappling with shifting rhetoric and misinformation from the White House, Democrats have mostly tried to counter the president’s changing words by heavily promoting a vote-by-mail message for November. But as the election nears and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden starts to campaign more frequently in person, that tactic has expanded to a bigger bucket of choices, all of which include casting ballots early as the main priority.
For some Black voters, that means receiving a positive message from party leaders and organizers about how to engage safely in the traditional practice of voting in person.
“I think ‘vote early in person’ is probably the thing that a lot of Democrats would hope would be the unified measure,” said Joel Payne, who led African American advertising outreach for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, highlighting the significance of Michelle Obama’s method. “Democrats have been pretty committed to using high-profile Democratic surrogates to counter the misinformation campaign” from Trump, he said.
BlackPac, a liberal mobilization group, has been working behind the scenes for several weeks to provide information on alternatives to mail-in voting for Black Americans. During the summer, staffers sent applications and follow-ups encouraging voting by mail, an effort that they continue to practice. But they’ve also moved towards a more inclusive technique to inform voters about safety protocols should they decide to go in person, a development that the group’s executive director described as a pivot.
“You can vote by mail, you can vote early in person, or you can wait until Election Day,” BlackPAC’s executive director Adrianne Shropshire told The Daily Beast about their countdown strategy, which involves “telling people the challenges with those things and what to prepare for depending on which of the options they chose.”
“Skepticism around vote by mail in the Black community didn’t emerge because of Trump and his shenanigans,” Shropshire stressed. “Historically, Black people have always voted by mail at lower rates than white voters and some of that is skepticism and some of it is also the fact that people know that Black absentee ballots get rejected.”
Add Trump’s shifting tone into the mix, however, and there are even more complications to the already mangled process. “Black voters also completely and totally expect Donald Trump to cheat,” she continued. “That then gets tied in to expectations that the president of the United States is a cheater, [which] is tied in to their skepticism around voting by mail.”
One of the leading proponents of early voting is former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, whose own brush with voter suppression significantly hindered her campaign to become the state’s next governor in 2018, which ultimately ended in a loss.
“Do not panic,” said Abrams, who has since founded the voting rights outfit Fair Fight, during a virtual conference last week. “Make a plan to vote early. We know that in the 21st century rather than guns and dogs and billy clubs, what we see in voter suppression are administrative rules and bureaucratic barriers and lack of information, or worse, misinformation.”
Abrams noted that there are 45 states where voting by mail is currently allowed with “no excuse or with COVID as an excuse,” as well as 41 states where voters can go early in person, including key places like Florida, Wisconsin, and Nevada. “Regardless of which one you choose, the mission is to choose early. To make a plan, then have a back-up plan, then have a back-up to your back-up plan,” she said.
In addition to messaging, procedural and legislative battles are being waged at the state level, including in important swing areas. All Voting is Local, a civil rights voting organization, recently conducted a poll in its Pennsylvania chapter which found that “in predominantly white precincts, 31 percent of voters have requested their vote by mail ballots compared to 22 percent of voters in predominantly Black precincts and 17 percent in predominantly Latino precincts,” indicating a difference in voters’ preferences by race.
“There’s definitely a culture amongst African American voters of wanting to vote in person versus voting absentee,” said Deuel Ross, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s senior counsel, citing Black votes being “disproportionately likely to be thrown out when they vote absentee because of the voting rules that are in place in a lot of different states.” Ross pointed to Alabama as one example, where the fund successfully challenged a restrictive photo ID stipulation for absentee ballots.
The nature of coronavirus has, of course, significantly changed a range of in person activities on the ground. With that in mind, the Biden campaign has sought to highlight one positive aspect, arguing that voters have more choices now than in 2016.
“We’ve built an unprecedentedly large effort to encourage our supporters to vote early this year, educate them about their voting options, and ensure that their vote is protected,” said Michael Gwin, a Biden campaign spokesperson, in a statement. “Americans will have more easy and convenient options to vote this year than ever before, so we’re helping them navigate the process and we’re encouraging as many people as we can to take advantage of early voting and make their voices heard in November.”
That pitch is backed up by data independently conducted during the pandemic. According to a survey by the COVID-19 Consortium for Understanding the Public’s Policy Preferences Across States, more voters across the board said they are “somewhat likely” or “very likely” to vote by mail this election, compared to what they intended to do four years ago. The survey also notes that “in all 50 states, more respondents say that a [vote by mail] option would increase than say it would decrease their likelihood of voting for president in November.”
The likelihood of an influx in mail-in ballots, combined with Trump’s talk about a “Universal Mail-In Ballot Scam” that does not exist, has made the need for a more comprehensive framing around education and alternatives apparent in the final stretch.
“Black voters have seen the kind of messaging from the president specifically and they worry about ‘is my ballot going to be counted?’” Jackson said. “When you have the highest executive official in the country tweeting on a daily basis that mail ballots can’t be trusted, absentee ballots can’t be trusted, of course that’s going to raise fears.”