The missing Black voters

African Americans who sat out 2016 explain why they’re voting this year
Jason Hooper of Greensboro, N.C., says that in 2016, “I didn’t like either of the candidates.”

After Donald Trump won in 2016, anguished Democrats wondered how they could recapture the White voters in the Midwest who swung heavily to his campaign, turning states that had long been safely blue into red on electoral maps. But this fall’s election might hinge on a different demographic, one that was overshadowed by the focus on working-class Whites: Black voters who sat out 2016.

Black turnout declined in 2016 for the first time in 20 years, falling from 66.2 percent of eligible voters in 2012 — a higher share than for White eligible voters in that election — to 59.6 percent. Black voters overwhelmingly back Joe Biden; Washington Post-ABC News national polls conducted late last month and early this month found Biden leading Trump among African American likely voters, 92 percent to 8 percent. So if Black voters who stayed home four years ago turn out this year, Biden could swing back the states that Trump narrowly won against Hillary Clinton, no matter what happens with the White vote.

Democrats have focused on this task. “In one of the states that determined the outcome [in 2016], the winning margin averaged out to just two votes per precinct,” former first lady Michelle Obama said at the party’s national convention in August. “And we’ve all been living with the consequences.”

To get a sense of what’s on the minds of some of the people who could determine who the next president is, Outlook editors spoke with some Black voters who had answered Post-ABC News poll questions this year and didn’t vote in 2016. Edited excerpts of those conversations follow.

“I don’t see the Democratic Party as very moralistic,” says Louis Johnson of New Orleans. (Camille Lenain for The Washington Post)

Fifty-fifty — that’s how I felt about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. I wasn’t too high on either one at the time. I have no problem with a woman being president, but I did not trust Hillary, and I didn’t know much about Trump. So for the first time ever, I did not vote in the presidential election.

I will definitely be voting this time. President Trump hasn’t really affected my life — he hasn’t done anything to hurt me as an African American, and the economy is good; anyone who wanted to work in the last four to eight years could. I’m 64 and work part-time as a handyman (the Bible doesn’t mention retirement).

Even though I have been a registered Democrat my entire life, I am also a conservative Catholic, and I don’t see the Democratic Party as very moralistic. President Barack Obama sank the party when he allowed same-sex marriage. Trump has protected us from that; he has some strong religious views and is protecting the church as we know it. Anyone with Christian values has to vote for Trump, as I will, in person on Nov. 3. Joe Biden is like the Titanic iceberg: I see the tip. I don’t want to see any more.

— Louis Johnson, 64, New Orleans

“Come hell or high water, I was going to vote this year,” says Gloria J. Young of Woodbridge, Va. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Throughout most of my life, I wasn’t a regular voter. I had just moved in 2016 from Jacksonville, Fla., to an assisted-living facility in Woodbridge, Va., so I could live closer to my daughter. When I moved, I didn’t make registering to vote a priority. But I wish that I had — now I would give anything not to see our current president return.

So that’s what I did: I registered before the 2018 midterms, and that year I voted in person. Now, with the covid-19 pandemic, I don’t get out. But a representative from the League of Women Voters came to the facility where I live. Back in the summer, she provided me with the right form to request an absentee ballot. I filled it out, signed it and sent it in. I got my ballot, and a couple of weeks ago, I voted.

Come hell or high water, I was going to vote this year: President Trump is incompetent, ignorant, insensitive, racist and disgusting. I feel responsible for not voting in 2016 — like my vote might have made the difference. And I know that by voting this year, I’m honoring my mother, who volunteered for many years as a poll worker in Gary, Ind., before she died in 2013. I haven’t always been focused on the importance of every citizen exercising their rights, even though she always was. But Mom, I don’t plan to make that mistake again.

— Gloria J. Young, 69, Woodbridge, Va.

I registered a long time ago, but the first time I voted was in 2018, when Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp were running for governor in Georgia. People tell you that you need to vote, but in the presidential race you can win the popular vote, and it doesn’t matter, because it’s based on the electoral college. That to me is kind of asinine.

When Trump won, I didn’t have anything against him — I mostly knew him from his TV persona. A lot of things he said he was going to do, he hasn’t done. A friend told me he voted for him because he was going to reduce immigration. But they aren’t deporting people. Politicians always say they’ll do things they don’t. It’s like a circle of bull. It’s really about the haves and have-nots, and the special interest groups.

I don’t like the way Trump addresses people: He says a lot of crass stuff. The simplest way to put it is that he’s politically incorrect. I do customer service, and you have to be inclusive of everybody. You can’t put some people below others.

But, ugh, Biden. It’s a double-edged sword: Who is the worst — him or Trump? But I really don’t want Trump to be reelected. The comments he has made about Kim Jong Un and other countries that threaten the U.S.? Not that I care that they don’t like us, but sometimes you have to be diplomatic. He could cause World War III.

I don’t know how they found me, but the Democrats send me so many emails and texts. I had planned on voting in person because of all the shyster stuff going on with the post office, but the lines were so long that I voted by mail.

— Tamicka Lowe, 52, Mableton, Ga.

Robert McClain of Lamar, S.C., thinks “the country is going in the wrong direction.” (Nora Williams for The Washington Post)

In 2016, I didn’t vote, because neither of the choices was acceptable to me. I didn’t care about either of them. I did vote when Obama was running, but it went downhill after that. I think Biden is better and that he’s going to deliver.

So much has changed since 2016. The country is going in the wrong direction. We have a racial problem that is not being taken care of — it’s being made worse. We need to bring the nation together, but instead of being brought together, we are being separated.

I think a lot of the people who are running the country are not doing their job. They are not doing things the Constitution tells them to do. That’s why I want to try to vote them out. Then you’ve got covid, which wasn’t handled the way it shouldn’t have been. There was a plan left for them, but they ignored it. They didn’t take the plan seriously.

I think we have a president in there who doesn’t care about the American people: We have more than 200,000 people who have died, and he has not placed any importance on that. He’s said they would have died anyhow. That’s not good for a president. I had the virus myself — I got over it. But one of the ministers in my church died from it.

And I’m going to vote in person, like I normally do. I live in a small town, so crowds won’t be a problem.

— Robert McClain, 65, Lamar, S.C.

I don’t know why I didn’t vote in 2016: I just didn’t. I had a baby the year before, and that was my second kid. I was just doing stay-at-home-mom stuff. I just didn’t vote. Now I regret that, because Trump sucks. He’s terrible. I don’t even understand why people are behind him. It makes no sense. That man makes no sense.

This time around, I’m already registered — I’ve already been registered. I’m ready to vote, in person if I can.

Now, I am not going to lie: I don’t pay much attention to politics most of the time. That’s my fault. I should be more aware of that. And I don’t know much about Kamala Harris, to tell you the truth, but I think Joe Biden would have plenty of experience because he was vice president under Barack Obama. And he just seems like he has the country’s best interest at heart and is not selfish. He’s not an idiot. He’s actually worked in politics and government before.

— Lisa Rossum, 32, Longview, Tex.

“I really wish Bernie Sanders would have won the primary for Democrats,” says Jason Hooper of Greensboro, N.C. (Alycee Byrd for The Washington Post)

I didn’t like either of the candidates [in 2016]. I just didn’t like the things that they were talking about. It didn’t strike me as if they were going to even attempt to try to fix things that I feel like are important. So I didn’t vote for Trump for that reason, and his presidency proved me right. But I also thought that Hillary Clinton wouldn’t have done any better. I just felt no need.

To me, Trump purposely puts on a circus act with some of the things he’ll do on social media to garner attention, and some of the things he says. Looking back, I don’t think Clinton would have been that bad, but do I regret that Trump is president? No. Not if the other alterative was Hillary, because I don’t think it would have been much different economy-wise.

I’m an independent, but I really wish Bernie Sanders would have won the primary for Democrats. I listen to all the candidates, and if I don’t like anybody, I don’t vote. But I will vote now because I do think it can get a little bit better. I coach middle school boys’ basketball, and I think there are certain values you have as a leader, and you should try to make everybody feel you have their best interests at heart. I would never say anything publicly or act out publicly to make you feel like I wouldn’t care. Do I wholeheartedly believe that Biden will? No. But do I think he may? Yes.

— Jason Hooper, 39, Greensboro, N.C.

I didn’t vote in 2016, because I was unsatisfied with the presidential candidates from the two major parties, and I didn’t follow the third-party candidates well enough to make a decision to vote for one of them. I did not regret that decision, but I decided that I needed to link up with like-minded individuals in the electoral arena next time. When I identified the party that spoke to me and my political values, I thought I’d make it official: In 2017, I registered with a political party for the first time ever and joined the Green Party. I first got interested in them after Cynthia McKinney ran for president in 2008. Back then, I was unable to vote because I was living in a temporary location.

I do plan to vote in November. I just feel like I have another option now. In the general national election, I plan to vote for Howie Hawkins. He is the co-founder of the Green Party, so he embodies the values and the platform. He was the first candidate to run on a Green New Deal, in 2010, and I’m really excited about that as an economic and ecological program. That’s critical in this time, I think, because the U.S. withdrew from the Paris agreement under Trump. My polling place is just around the corner, and I have the graveyard shift, so I’m confident that I’ll be able to cast my ballot.

— Jubalyn ExWilliams, 38, Harrisburg, Pa.

We noticed you’re blocking ads!

Keep supporting great journalism by turning off your ad blocker. Or purchase a subscription for unlimited access to real news you can count on.
Unblock ads
Questions about why you are seeing this? Contact us