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100 Years On, Black Women Are Still Fighting For Voting Rights

by Jessica Washington August 18, 2020

On a hot summer day in June, Jennifer Lumpkin and dozens of other organizers and volunteers rode through the streets of Cleveland, Ohio in a caravan of brightly colored Jeeps, handing out cloth masks and registering people to vote in the historically Black neighborhood of Buckeye-Shaker. 

“[Masks] weren’t being provided even though the number of people that were dying of [COVID-19] were disproportionately African American,” says Lumpkin, 37, head of civic engagement at Cleveland VOTES, a non-partisan organization founded and led by Black women. 

The event was held on the Saturday after Juneteenth, the holiday marking the emancipation of enslaved people in the U.S., and organized to promote voting as well as aid with public health awareness amid the pandemic.

“It was a way to engage people in a way that was culturally relevant,” Lumpkin says.

Over the span of about four months, Lumpkin and her team have distributed roughly 60,000 masks to community members at sites across the city while providing information on how to vote, and in some locations, registering people to vote as well. 

The pandemic has “mobilized democracy literally and figuratively,” Lumpkin says. 

100th anniversary of the 19th amendment

Voting rights for women of color in the United States have come into renewed focus as the country marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment against the recent backdrop of a public health crisis and a reckoning with systemic racism and police brutality. Though the 19th amendment legally provided the right to vote for women in the U.S., in practice it primarily protected the rights of white women and did not guarantee voting access to women of color. The right to vote extended to women of color, in some instances, many decades after the ratification of the 19th amendment.  

Black women from Sojourner Truth, a nineteenth century abolitionist and women’s rights activist, to women like Lumpkin have a long history of protecting and expanding access to the voting booth in the United States. Activists like Mary Church Terrell, the first president of the National Association of Colored Women, a women’s suffrage organization created by and for Black women in the late 1800s, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a pioneering Black female journalist and suffragist, fought for women’s suffrage while working to hold their white counterparts in the suffrage movement accountable to the concerns of Black people.

“Black women have generations of leadership on expanding democracy,” says Aimee Allison, Founder and President of She the People, a national organization dedicated to elevating the political power of women of color. “Black women, who have been the critical center of a multiracial coalition of voters, are now really standing up in leadership and in power to lead the country forward in this moment.” 

In the 2018 midterm elections, women of color – and Black women in particular -fueled a 33 percent increase in voter turnout from 2014 by mobilizing their networks to go to the polls, according to an analysis conducted by the Asian American Pacific Islander Civic Engagement Fund. The U.S. House of Representatives elected a record number of women that year.

In 2008 and 2012, Black women voted at a higher rate than any other demographic bloc, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. In the Alabama Senate election in 2017, Black women were able to push the democratic candidate Doug Jones over the finish line. In 2016, an estimated 94 percent of Black female voters voted for the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, according to exit polls from CNN (although the group’s voter turnout was lower than in the last two previous presidential elections, reporting from the Center for American Women and Politics suggests). 

“When you look at Black women in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Texas and Florida, Black women who are eligible to vote have enough numbers to close the gap in order to flip those states from red to blue,” Allison says.

Working around the limitations of COVID-19

Pre-pandemic, the turnout strategies of organizations like Cleveland VOTES and Black Voters Matters relied on face-to-face interaction, whether that was knocking on doors, engaging potential voters at church, or hosting voting “salons” in their living rooms in their communities. Now, the leaders of these organizations have had to get creative and work around the limitations on physical contact. Due to the virus, there were sharp declines in new voter registration across 11 states in March and all 13 studied in April when compared to last year, according to data from the Center for Election Innovation and Research. But closures could encourage new approaches to encouraging voter participation, according to the organization’s analysis. Following the Black Lives Matter protests in June, voter registration among Democrats and unaffiliated voters greatly increased from the month prior, according to TargetSmart, a Democratic political firm. 

“While new voter registration deficits may be difficult to overcome, they could spark a push to make up for lost time as states reopen,” it said in a June report.  

Despite the challenges, Lumpkin says that she is still optimistic. “We’ve been able to access people safely,” she says, “we’re putting ourselves in locations where we know the need for democracy-building is not yet met.”

Organizers are hopeful Senator Kamala Harris, the first Black and South Asian woman on a major party presidential ticket, will help ratchet up community enthusiasm even further, as it was during President Barack Obama’s nomination in 2008 and 2012 (Editor’s note: the reporter of this article held an unpaid internship for Senator Harris in 2017)

“[Black women] have always been in the fight doing the work.”  

Wanda Mosley, Black Votes Matter

Black Voters Matter turned their much-lauded bus tour, which previously crisscrossed the country encouraging people to vote in the 2018 midterms and 2020 election, into an online town hall. The organization is looking at safe ways to help their grassroots partners who are adapting popular programs like souls to the polls initiatives, where religious communities organize rides to polling locations. Finding ways to continue to serve rural communities is another large concern of organizations like Black Voters Matter. 

“Rural areas are often ignored or missed when it comes to [voting] resources,” says Wanda Mosley, the organization’s senior state coordinator in Georgia. “So we are very intentional about not just reaching out to areas with huge populations.” 

Roughly 30 percent of rural Georgians lack consistent access to broadband internet, according to the 2018 Federal Communications Commission Broadband Deployment report. Instead of relying on reaching potential voters in-person, Mosley’s organization plans to give local groups at least 100,000 door hangers to distribute across the state with a guide on how to vote by mail—a solution which doesn’t require the internet or speaking to people face-to-face. 

“I have no doubt that we will be able to exceed the record turnout that we saw for the same election in 2016,” says Mosley. “We already did that in the primaries that had to be rescheduled twice… And yet, we came out in record numbers and so I fully expect that trend to continue in November.”  

Working on creative ways to engage voters and expand access is personal, Mosley says.

“I’ve always been someone who’s taken voting very seriously,” she says, “[Black women] have always been in the fight doing the work.”  

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