WASHINGTON – Sci-fi Jacque ‘Scott pulled out his mower, then spent four hours on a recent Sunday afternoon cutting voters’ steps at a polling station in Philadelphia. There were fades, queues, partial cuts and even a shave.
“Do you vote?” Scott asked people sitting on his black bar stool under a tent. “Do you intend to vote?”
Some who got the free cup, offered to promote the vote, had already voted. Others were heading to the voting site.
“Even if I had to get 10 people to vote, then I know I achieved my goal,” said Scott, 30, owner of Another Planet Barbershop. In the final days leading up to Election Day, Scott and other local activists teamed up with national non-partisan groups like When We All Vote, Black Voters Matter and others to promote exit-voting efforts for Black voters in the state of the battlefield.
Pennsylvania is a big prize for President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, and some activists say black voters could prove crucial in deciding who wins the presidential race and wins the country’s 20 electoral votes. State. Organizers expect social unrest, the disproportionate impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic on communities of color, and renewed national interest in the civil rights of black Americans will get more black voters to go to the polls in Pennsylvania than they did in 2016.
“There’s a lot of energy there,” said Stephanie Young, director of communications and culture for When We All Vote, a non-profit civic engagement group started in 2018 by Michelle Obama, Tom Hanks , Lin-Manuel Miranda and others. “All of the circumstances we have faced this year have truly created a more informed, more passionate and more engaged electorate.
To activate these voters, groups organize socially distant gatherings featuring local artists; organize home phone banks; the installation of information kiosks for voters during outdoor events; and lead caravans in black neighborhoods.
Trump and Biden both campaigned this week in the state. Last week, former President Barack Obama was perplexed for Biden in Philadelphia and Vice President Mike Pence for Trump in central Pennsylvania.
Trump narrowly beat Democrat Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania in 2016, but Biden now leads Trump there by 5.4 points, according to the USA TODAY poll average. The state is 76% white and 12% black, and had voted Democratic since 1992 before switching to the right for Trump.
“People are realizing the importance of the election and … that Donald Trump is such a polarizing figure,” said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League. “For a lot of us, he’s taken the country to a very dark place, very bad, very regressive, very hateful. There’s a lot of energy there, which is to stop Donald Trump, to stop the Trumpism. “
‘We are fighting for our democracy’
Brittany Smalls showed up around 6 a.m. last Saturday to set up metal barricades for the National Early Voting Day rally. The Black Voters Matter bus was parked at the Onley Mall, about three blocks from a polling station in Philadelphia.
More than 500 people attended the event, which featured local hip-hop artists, a popular deejay and election officials. There was also a food truck and a voter information table.
Since 2016, Black Voters Matter has scoured southern black communities urging people to register and vote.For the first time this year, he broadened his route to include Pennsylvania.
Smalls called 2016 a “missed opportunity” for candidates and other groups to engage more black voters there. She voted in Philadelphia but knows many who did not vote. She thinks that will change this election.
“We are fighting for our democracy,” Smalls said. “People are looking for justice. There is a lot of civil unrest at the moment. People’s eyes are open and they want real change. “
Non-partisan groups stepped up their efforts in Pennsylvania in part because of the tight race in 2016, when Trump won the state by 48.2% to 47.5%. The victory was decided by 44,000 votes.
“We knew we had to put more effort, more energy into a country like Pennsylvania to make sure these voters had the resources to make their voices heard,” said Young, of When We All Vote.
As part of its “Reclaim Your Vote” campaign, the National Urban League focused on half a dozen states, including Pennsylvania. It targeted voters in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Farrell, a small town with a black population of around 42%.
According to the non-partisan Pew Research Center, 65% of black voters in Pennsylvania live in Philadelphia, 14% in Pittsburgh, and 4% in Harrisburg.
Many groups have focused on Philadelphia, where black Americans make up 43% of the population.
The turnout in Philadelphia was 68% in 2008 and 64% in 2016, said Morial of the National Urban League. Nationwide, the black participation rate slipped to 59.6% in 2016 after reaching a record high of 66.6% in 2012, according to Pew. At the same time, the turnout for white non-college voters in Pennsylvania rose from 53% to 57%.
“This swing represented the margin of victory in Pennsylvania,” said Morial, who recently visited Philadelphia and other places in the state to help secure the vote. “People know that the turnout makes a difference on both sides of this equation.”
“ No accident, Barack Obama went to Pennsylvania ”
Trump and Biden, who regularly touts his roots in Pennsylvania, have been working in recent weeks to court black voters in the state.
Republicans created Black Voices for Trump Community Centers in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, said Paris Dennard, senior communications advisor for black media affairs for the Republican National Committee.
He said the group had also advertised in media targeting black audiences, surveyed neighborhoods, and organized rallies, Zoom events and MAGA meetups. Philadelphia was one of 15 cities where the GOP hosted events for National Black Voters’ Day.
“The RNC ground game is serious, the investments are historic and the results will be a victory for President Trump,” Denard said.
Republicans have focused their efforts on courting predominantly white rural voters, said Brigid Callahan Harrison, a political scientist at Montclair State University.in New Jersey. Trump held a rally this month in Johnstown, a GOP stronghold in Pennsylvania that is 76 percent white. Pence has also recently visited predominantly white counties in the state.
Since black voters are more likely to vote for a Democrat, it’s not in Trump’s best interest to try to get them out, Harrison said.
“He will be making most of his appeals to his base constituency in rural areas,” she said.
Biden’s campaign, however, is in a hurry to secure the participation of black voters in Pennsylvania, Harrison said. Historically, she said, voting patterns show that black voters are the Democratic Party’s most loyal constituency. Along with Obama, Biden sent U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, vying for the nation’s first black vice president, and her husband to campaign in Pennsylvania in recent weeks.
“It is no coincidence that Barack Obama visited Pennsylvania,” said Harrison. And with early voting underway, she said, “we also see organized workers working very, very diligently to get all union members out, but especially voters of color.
‘I know everyone cares’
Laqueenda Adu and her mother, Kim, went to a polling station near Philadelphia City Hall on Saturday to vote for the presidency for the first time. Adu, an 18-year-old student at Central High School, waited three hours.
A few days earlier, Adu and other members of the high school program, “My Vote at School,” emailed and called their peers to remind them to vote.
Only 33% of Pennsylvania’s 18-24 year olds voted in midterm 2018, according to When We All Vote.
Adu said it was important for her and other young people to vote, especially regarding the fact that COVID-19 is disproportionately killing black Americans, as well as the racial tensions following the killings by the police of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
In recent days, Philadelphia has been plagued by protests against the fatal police shooting of Walter Wallace Jr., a 27-year-old black man. Police said officers responded to a report of a person with a gun.
“I have seen the protests and I think a lot of people really care about these issues,” Adu said. “It’s just a matter of doing something other than protesting. If you care, you should vote.”
Organizers say long lines at Philadelphia polling stations which could turn into a historic black voter turnout this electoral cycle. Black voters could also play a key role in other battlefield states, including Florida and Wisconsin, according to the Pew Research Center.
Scott, the hairstylist, is excited about the early turnout so far.
“I know we’re going to get up and show off,” she said.
She hopes those who have had their hair cut will be among the millions of people voting in Pennsylvania.
“I wouldn’t want to do free haircuts in vain,” she says. “But that’s the only payment. That and a smile.”
Rebecca Morin contributed to this report.
Follow Deborah Berry on Twitter: @dberrygannett