Cliff Albright is a co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund.
“Does that bus say ‘Black Voters Matter’?” asked a Georgia resident who saw our bus tour of eight southern states before the midterm elections. “Yes it does,” responded LaTosha Brown, my friend and co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund. “Because we do!”
There are many reasons that’s true. But as we look at this week’s electoral math, there’s a simple reason it’s important to everyone who believes in progressive policies: When black voters matter, progressives win.
Even in the South, candidates who are unapologetically progressive and who motivate their base of black, brown and young voters can claim victory. Take for instance, Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, where in 2017 Jon Ossoff lost a special election by three points to Republican Karen Handel. Although Ossoff received support from progressives nationwide, his campaign was not particularly progressive, and some argued at the time that his outreach to black and brown communities was lacking.
Fast forward to Tuesday and Lucy McBath, a black woman whose son was killed in a racist shooting. Her bona fides as a gun-control advocate and a “Mother of the Movement” helped her gain the victory Ossoff was unable to achieve.
Results are still coming in from some of the highest-profile races — including those in Georgia and Florida that may still prove to be historic. But no matter what happens, Stacey Abrams, Andrew Gillum and Beto O’Rourke have shown what’s possible when you ignite communities that have been ignored.
And they did this in the face of daunting levels of voter suppression. Imagine what they could have achieved if their states actually had free and fair elections.
The election also demonstrated something else — that Democrats’ traditional red-state strategy of running “safe” candidates who attempt to win over the mythical, persuadable conservative white voter doesn’t work.
Tennessee’s U.S. Senate race is instructive. Phil Bredesen followed the traditional path of a reasonable Democrat who could potentially attract some Trump voters. His campaign, Republican lite from the beginning, took a sharp turn to the right when he announced his support for Brett M. Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court justice. Judging from Bredesen’s 11-point loss, not only did that fail to win the conservative vote, but also it undoubtedly destroyed his chances of generating the necessary support from the Democratic base, including black voters.
The power of mobilizing progressive voters in general, and black voters in particular, is evident in some Southern races that did not receive much national attention. Jefferson County, Ala., where Bull Connor once terrorized black residents, just elected its first black district attorney and its first black sheriff. In Nashville, voters listened to black community leaders — particularly women — who campaigned for citizen review of police, and approved the establishment of a community oversight board. And in Harris County, Tex., 19 black women won judge positions.
It is for all of these reasons that Black Voters Matter has been saying, ever since Democrat Doug Jones’s surprise 2017 victory in Alabama, that “the South is rising.” We aren’t echoing that old line about the South trying to rise again — rather, we see a new South in which black voters, along with other voters of color and progressive white voters, are reshaping not only political realities but also political possibilities.
They still face significant obstacles in the form of voter suppression. Florida just reduced one such obstacle by voting to restore voting rights to more than 1 million residents with felony convictions who have completed their sentences, which disproportionately affects people of color. But a plethora of other obstacles remain around the country.
This election cycle, Georgia has been the epicenter of voter-suppression tactics, as Republican Brian Kemp refused to step down as secretary of state, the state’s highest official overseeing elections, even as he was running for governor. In plain sight, the state blocked voter registration forms, closed polling places and much more. More than 1 million voters have been purged from the rolls since Kemp took office in 2010.
It is important to note that Kemp has not acted alone. He has been supported by an entire state structure, as has been the case in every state that has restricted access to the ballot.
Vote suppression can often backfire. Attempts to suppress a voter often lead to that voter becoming even more engaged and committed. Such was the case with a senior citizen who was kept from riding our bus to go vote in Jefferson County, Ga. She decided not only to hop in her car and drive herself to the polls but also to pick up a friend to double her impact.
But we can’t count on suppression always creating that kind of equal and opposite reaction. Such a response requires nurturing, excitement and investment of time and money. It requires an understanding of the culture and environment in which voter suppression takes place and a commitment to build relationships and uplift communities 365 days a year. But because black voters absolutely matter, it’s worth it.
Adam Bonica and