“This is about doing what is best for our people. If you do not vote, you are just selfish,” Fudge said.
Fudge said she was pretty certain that most of the dozens of women – and a scattering of men – crowded into a meeting room at the Washington Convention Center would vote on Nov. 8. But she said she was concerned at the lack of enthusiasm among the electorate in general, including black voters, who in 2008 and 2012 turned out at a higher rate than white voters. Black women had the highest rate of participation of any demographic group, with 76 percent casting ballots in 2012.
Black women have consistently supported Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton at higher rates that other groups during this election cycle.
Donna Brazile, acting chair of the Democratic National Committee, said polls indicate that black women are optimistic about the future and that they should use that positive attitude to defeat the “doom and gloom” message from the other side.
“No one can win an election in American politics at the national level without our support,” she said, reminding them that their increased participation twice sent Barack Obama to the White House.
Fudge said it was inevitable that black voters would be less enthusiastic about choosing a president to succeed the first African American president, but they have no excuse not to go to the polls.
“My mother is on Medicare; I want her to have it,” Fudge said. “I know black women who are retired and their only source of income is Social Security. If you take them off of it, they will immediately go into poverty.”
Melanie Campbell, president of the Black Women’s Roundtable, recounted a conversation she had with a black man at the barber shop. Referring to Clinton, he said, “Miss Melanie, I can’t vote for her.” She said she “broke it down to him, in explicit terms” what was at stake if Trump won the election. “He said, ‘All right, Miss Melanie, I got you.’”
Campbell said a Trump presidency would “impact our children, our children’s children, because you have a nationalist candidate. I know a racist when I see one. I know a racist when I hear one.” She urged black women to “talk to our sons, talk to our men, talk to our folks.”
Other panelists included Julie Fernandes, advocacy director for voting rights and democracy at Open Society Foundations, who talked about recent changes in voting laws that could make it more difficult for voters of color to cast ballots. Another panelist, Michele Jawando, vice president for legal progress at the Center for American Progress, urged black voters to rely on social media and social networks, such as churches, sororities and fraternities, to stay informed about elections and voting procedures in their communities.
Younger women, who were the focus of a second panel during the session called “Black Women Lead,” said black millennials are frustrated with government and institutions and that yelling at them about how important the election is will not help.
Symone Sanders, former spokeswoman for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, cited a poll by the Black Youth Project at the University of Chicago that found 47 percent of black millennials saying they would not vote for Clinton, with 18 percent saying they preferred another candidate, 19 percent undecided and 2 percent supporting Trump.
“How do we move that 47 percent? What can we do to engage African American millennials and mobilize them to go to the polls in November?” she asked.
Brittany Packnett, executive director of Teach for America who was active in the protests in Ferguson, Mo., following the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer, said “condescension is not going to move that 47 percent.”
She said that young people see a system that “over and over again, you keep telling me I don’t matter. And not just at the hands of the police, but every single time I try to interact with the system: when I try to go feed my family. When I try to get gainful employment. When I want to send my children to a good school. When I want to put my family into permanent housing. That level of disenfranchisement pulls people down to a place where they say, ‘Well, what’s the point?’”
Packnett said candidates have to do a better job of specifically addressing the issues important to those voters. She said engaging young black voters was important not just for the presidential contest, but for Senate and House races, as well as contests for state and local offices.
Panelist Angela Rye, CEO of IMPACT Strategies and a CNN commentator, said black voters need to develop and fight for specific agenda items to which they can hold candidates accountable. Alencia Johnson, director of constituency communications for Planned Parenthood, said campaigns need to be more aggressive in reaching out to black voters.
The issues most important to black women were the subject of a poll released Wednesday by Essence Magazine and the Black Women’s Roundtable, during a session called “The Power of the Sister Vote.”
Older black women were more likely to say they felt it was their responsibility to vote, given the history of the battle for voting rights, although a sense of obligation also was the top reason for African American women under 35.
Affordable health care was the top issue for women who participated in the survey, driven by older women who chose that issue at 13 percentage points higher than younger women. Criminal justice reform was of equal concern to both age groups and came in 8 percentage points higher than in the 2015 survey.
“Our new Power of the Sister Vote poll shows criminal justice reform is increasingly a priority for black women voters in a very dramatic way,” Campbell said.
Essence is a national publication geared toward black women. The online poll of 1,257 women was taken last month and has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.