The day after a historic turnout, seven states were still counting votes Wednesday. Biden was battling with Trump in Pennsylvania and Georgia, where the majority of votes that remained to be counted were mail-in or absentee ballots from Democratic-leaning counties with large Black populations.
The former vice president also flipped Wisconsin and Michigan, after outstanding ballots were counted from greater Milwaukee and Detroit — two other areas with a concentration of Black voters.
“The truth of the matter is, once again, it’s African American voters, Black people, that have to step up and save our democracy. There is not a more loyal and dependable voting bloc in the country,” said Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist in South Carolina. “And if you look at when we show up, we win elections. This election is just further proof of that, in spite of the voter suppression, the misinformation and disinformation and the lies that target our communities election after election.”
Nationally, Black voters overwhelmingly backed Biden by a margin of 87 percent to Trump’s 12 percent, according to exit polls. But Black women were even more loyal to the Democrat, with 91 percent voting for Biden and 8 percent for Trump.
Cliff Albright, co-founder of the nonprofit Black Voters Matter, said the group started right after the primaries trying to convince Black voters to vote by mail or return their absentee ballots early, which they saw as safer alternatives to voting in person on Election Day. The effort targeted states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, and involved helping some Black voters to overcome their suspicions of not voting in person.
Albright said it paid off as the results began rolling in Tuesday night.
“It became clear to me and some others last night that, given the margins that exist in Wisconsin and with Milwaukee still not in, that Black voters were going to determine which way Wisconsin went,” Albright said.
Black voters were also galvanized this year by protests for racial justice following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. In Kenosha, Wis., the August police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black father of three, sparked widespread unrest in the city.
“I feel it all came to a head with what happened in Kenosha,” said Fayomi “Femi” Agbongbon, a nursing assistant from Milwaukee who was active in get-out-the-vote efforts targeting her fellow health-care workers in the state, many of them people of color.
“We knew this election was important. We knew that our basic human rights were at stake here. You know, it wasn’t a hard decision for us to make to get out here to these polls and represent for our community,” Agbongbon said.
She said she felt confident that the outstanding ballots in Milwaukee would swing for Biden because of their efforts.
“We showed up. We showed up to the polls. We came together,” Agbongbon said. “Here in Milwaukee, Black and Brown people turned out in record numbers this year to make our voices heard.”
The Biden campaign identified early on that winning Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin would be their “easiest” path to the 270 electoral college votes needed to win the election. In public remarks Wednesday, Biden asserted that when all the votes are counted, he will have won Wisconsin and Michigan by more than Trump won them in 2016, and that he was on track to earn more votes overall than any candidate in history. Absent, however, was any mention of the Black votes that would have comprised a significant portion of that support. Trump has vowed to legally challenge votes in several battleground states, signaling a long, drawn-out battle ahead.
Since he declared his candidacy, Biden has campaigned on an urgent need to “restore the soul of our nation” and cast himself as the candidate who could unify a divided country. In the Democratic primary, the polls backed him up for much of last year — but primary voters handed him a series of early disappointments. Biden finished fourth in the Iowa caucuses, a result he described as a “gut punch,” followed by a fifth-place showing in New Hampshire.
On the campaign trail, Biden frequently mentioned his friendship with Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president, and played up his own popularity with Black voters, counting on a strong finish in South Carolina to regain momentum.
“Up until now, we haven’t heard from the most committed constituency of the Democratic Party, the African American community,” Biden declared shortly after New Hampshire.
Just before the South Carolina primary, Biden received the influential endorsement of House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) and wound up winning nearly two-thirds of the Black vote in the state. The result resurrected a campaign that had been in serious distress.
After Biden became the nominee, he named Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) as his running mate, a historic choice who would be the first Black and first Asian American female vice president. Biden, Harris and Obama all appeared at events targeting Black voters in the final weeks of the campaign. In the months before, however, some Black leaders and activists criticized him for taking the Black vote for granted.
“I kind of complained to the [Democratic National Committee],” said the Rev. Greg Lewis, executive director of Souls to the Polls, a faith-based movement to register and educate voters. “I said you’re not fighting hard enough . . . you can’t assume that they’re automatically going to go out and support you. They don’t believe that this system cares about them.”
Albright, the voting rights advocate, felt Biden could have pushed back harder on Trump’s efforts to peel away Black male voters, especially young Black men, by raising issues like economic development and criminal justice reform. (Trump has cited work on those two fronts to falsely claim he has done more for the Black community than any president since Abraham Lincoln.)
“I don’t think [the Biden campaign] really went hard enough on some of the issues that Trump was trying to highlight,” Albright said. “I think that there were some opportunities where the campaign could have done more not just to be on the defensive around that but to actually be on the offensive, to actually use those issues against Trump.”
Ultimately Lewis, who estimates he contacted more than 500 faith leaders to mobilize more than 50,000 voters, said the motivation to get to the polls had to come from “building a voting bloc” in the community — not necessarily only to support Biden.
“I said, ‘Let’s vote for power,’ because everybody was not crazy about the candidates,” Lewis said. “It’s about building a bloc, about having the agenda being adhered to, about having influence and leverage to make people do the things that are needed in our community . . . now we can make demands with our vote.”
The same grass-roots activism that has helped engage new Black voters also could play a big role in Georgia, another state where the presidential race has not yet been decided because of outstanding mail-in ballots.
Two years after Democrat Stacey Abrams came with 1.4 percentage points of becoming the first Black and first female governor of Georgia, record turnout helped make the Peach State a true battleground state this year.
“We’ve come close time and time again,” Abrams said at a Tuesday afternoon rally in Atlanta. “Every time is a building block, and we’re building toward a blue wall in Georgia.”
Abrams got more votes than any Democrat ever running statewide in a 2018 gubernatorial contest that was marred by allegations of voter suppression, lawsuits and disputes over counting absentee and provisional ballots. She never conceded to Republican Brian Kemp, who became governor, and she never stopped criticizing laws and procedures that she argued made it harder to people of color, as well as young people and poor people, to vote.
After her campaign, Abrams launched Fair Fight Action, which raised and spent millions of dollars helping Democrats around the country develop voter protection programs.
Lauren Groh-Wargo, who managed Abrams’s gubernatorial campaign and is now executive director of Fair Fight, said it wasn’t demographics alone that put Georgia in reach for Democrats.
“Demographics are not destiny, they’re just an opportunity,” she said, quoting Abrams.
Lewis added that Black voters saw Trump and heard his rhetoric for what it was.
“Black voters, they see the division, the racism that the president was really energizing and just fanning the flames of discord, all those things,” Lewis said. “Nobody’s dumb. We see.”
On Election Day, in Atlanta, Dejah Wright said she wasn’t excited about either presidential candidate this year. During the campaign, she felt like both Biden and Trump were posturing to win support from Black voters like her, and neither seemed genuine.
But after sitting out the 2016 election, the 28-year-old Atlanta resident cast her first presidential ballot for Biden — but really, she said, it was a vote against Trump.
“I don’t like the way Trump represents,” Wright said Tuesday outside a polling location south of downtown Atlanta. “Since he’s been in office, politics has become a big joke.”
Thebault reported from Atlanta.