Jamia Wilson is supremely proud of this fact: In 2008 and 2012, black women voted at a higher rate than any other group. Four years ago, 74 percent of eligible black women went to the polls — and 96 percent voted for President Obama.
Some pollsters and pundits are betting against a three-peat of that level of turnout in this year’s election because Obama, whose historic campaign and presidency electrified black voters like never before, will not be on the ballot. Wilson and other black women active in politics are determined to prove them wrong.
But they aren’t looking to the political candidates for inspiration. In interviews, they said the motivation to head to the ballot box will come from the energy generated by efforts to confront racism and other forms of economic and social inequality. The Black Lives Matter movement (which was launched by women), the campaign for higher wages in low-paying industries dominated by women of color and various online spaces in which women are sharing information and opinions all feature black women organizing, motivating and fighting to retain their political influence.
“Sisters are going to represent,” said Wilson, a writer who also works for a nonprofit women’s organization. “We are in a time of urgency and we have to take urgent action.”
The importance of black women in the Democratic Party is not lost on the candidates, notably Hillary Clinton, who has built a network of volunteers, surrogates and paid staff members to reach out to these voters. It was black women and other women of color who were responsible for Obama winning the female vote in 2008 and 2012; most white women (and white men) voted for the Republican presidential nominee in each of those years.
Less clear is whether candidates’ efforts will be the motivating factor.
Last month, more than a dozen black women, including Debra Lee, the chief executive of Black Entertainment Television, and former labor secretary Alexis Herman hosted a $1,000-a-head fundraiser for Clinton in New York City. The campaign has scooped up many of the strategists who mobilized black voters for Obama, including several young African American women. LaDavia Drane, 32, is director of African American outreach for the Clinton campaign.
Last month, nearly 1,000 women dialed into the campaign’s first conference call for “African American Women for Hillary.” An invitation from Drane read in part: “We’ll hear from some inspiring black women leaders from around the country, including a few of our most successful sorors and some very special guests, like Representative Marcia Fudge, Cicely Tyson, Star Jones and Glenda Glover. Then we’ll talk about next steps for how we can all reach out in our communities to get more black women involved in this campaign.”
Drane, in a recent interview, said Clinton has done events at six historically black colleges and universities, including one in the fall at Clark Atlanta University in which the crowd filling the bleachers in the school’s gym was overwhelmingly female. Before the rally, Drane said she met with students from Spelman College, a historically black women’s school.
“Everywhere I go on behalf of Hillary Clinton I meet with black women,” Drane said.
Bernie Sanders does not have as robust an outreach operation, but he has still managed to catch the attention of some black women. Even at Clinton’s rally in Atlanta, some women in the audience said they were intrigued by the Vermont senator’s unapologetically progressive positions on such issues as income equality and criminal justice reform.
Bryanta Maxwell heard Sanders speak about criminal-justice reform at a forum sponsored by 20/20 Leaders of America, a bipartisan group of black leaders, November in Columbia, S.C. She said her son is only 9, but she wants a candidate who is committed to addressing police shootings of black males.
After watching Sanders speak, “I said, ‘You know, I think he kinda resonates with me,’ ” she said. Maxwell, 31, a county government worker who lives in Columbia, now co-chairs South Carolina Young Leaders for Bernie and also is president of the state’s Young Democrats. Referring to Clinton, she said: “I have nothing against her. I don’t want to say she’s playing it safe, but he’s not playing it safe. He’s speaking out and being extremely vocal on issues that are really bothering me now.”
Black voter turnout in presidential elections has been rising steadily since 1996, long before Obama ran. A decade ago, black turnout was about 47 percent. It peaked at 69 percent in 2008 and was just over 67 percent in 2012, according to an analysis of census data by Michael McDonald, a politics professor at the University of Florida who studies voter turnout.
Black women have consistently voted at a higher rate than black men, says McDonald. Their 2012 turnout rate of 74 percent was 10 percentage points more than white women and 14 points more than white men and black men.
Those numbers are crucial for the eventual Democratic nominee, who is likely to receive the overwhelming majority of the black vote in the general election. The higher the turnout among black voters, the likelier it is that the Democrat will win. Those numbers will be especially crucial in the swing states with the largest black populations: Ohio, Florida and Virginia.
“We’re going to take our power to a level you’ve never seen before,” said L. Toni Lewis, chair of SEIU Healthcare, the arm of the Service Employees International Union that represents 1 million nurses, doctors and health-care workers. “We have so much to lose, and we know our worth — because people keep talking about it, touting how great our numbers were in ’12 and ’08. . . . Therefore, we’re going to make sure we own our power in this one.”
Jessica Byrd, a former manager at Emily’s List who now runs her own consulting firm, Three Point Strategies, sees that energy, too.
“The activism and focus on racial justice and mobilizing people around black lives in the last two years is really setting a tone for the importance of getting out the vote,” Byrd said. She noted that black people still see a government role in achieving justice, and she doesn’t expect them to give up on the political process, because they still see it as a tool to effect change.
“It would be really easy to say black people are sick and tired of their government, but what I actually think we’re seeing is a multi-dimensional approach of having meaningful conversations about race that will happen at the ballot box, too.”
Some political scientists, including McDonald, don’t think black turnout will drop dramatically this year.
“Black women had the highest turnout rate among any combination of age, gender and race in the 2008 and 2012 elections. While their participation may have been stimulated by Obama’s candidacy, even in 2004, black women had turnout rates only slightly lower than white males. Thus, it is likely they will be among the highest participatory groups in the 2016 election,” McDonald said.
Hillary Clinton is looking to inherit that coveted bloc of voters.
Wilson, 35, is a volunteer with Clinton’s campaign and is planning to canvass for her in Iowa. “There are black Iowans,” she said. “Our narratives in states where we represent a small percentage of the population are often left untold. So I’m looking to engage with young women of color out there.”
If individual candidates don’t get to a voter, other operations — including labor organizations, sororities and other women’s organizations, grass-roots community groups and well-financed special interest concerns — will reach out to encourage that person to register to vote and show up at the polls.
The issue of unarmed black people dying at the hands of police and other law enforcement officers came up repeatedly in interviews with black women, who made a point to note their role in the Black Lives Matter movement — including pressing the Democratic candidates last summer to support police reform.
But some activists said they aren’t looking to be more involved in the election by endorsing candidates or rallying people to vote.
Lindsey Burgess, a senior at Spelman College who is supporting Sanders, said she is concerned about the anti-politics message of some Black Lives Matter activists.
“I think at this point in time it’s really critical that we are politically engaged,” said Burgess. “We can scream and protest, but this is a democracy, and to some extent you have to operate within it and try to reform politics.”
Burgess, 21, urged skeptical students to consider Sanders’s anti-establishment campaign. The Memphis native, who is majoring in history and international studies, has stumped for Sanders on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, as well as on her blog, Noire Cosmopolite. And she has plenty of company on social media. “Every time I log onto Facebook, it’s the faces of black women I see sharing stories and their opinions about the presidential election or politics in general.”
She said that even if black women don’t set a new record in this year, “I firmly believe we will still rank high among other groups.”
Scott Clement contributed to this report.