Democrats face a tough fight to win back the White House in November, and with anti-racism protests raging nationwide, the coronavirus pandemic threatens the voting rights and turnout of their most powerful voting block: Black Americans. While they are 14% of the population, African Americans make up a third of all Covid-19 cases.
In Florida, a recent rise threatens turnout as Black people make up 13% of eligible voters. The state already ranks second in the nation in income inequality. But the pandemic, and recession that followed, worsened existing economic and healthcare disparities between white Americans, and Black communities.
With one in 1,000 Black Americans having died of the virus, progressives such as Angie Nixon are rallying voters ahead of the 2020 presidential election. Running uncontested, she’s the next state representative for Florida’s 14th congressional district representing Jacksonville and its outer suburbs.
“I think it’s really important that we work on legislation that addresses systemic racism and that is not just Band-Aids,” she said. “I’m pregnant. Yes, I have a degree. I have a good-paying job and I have healthcare, but I’m still concerned that if I go into the hospital, will I be listened to?”
As cases surged in Jacksonville, Nixon’s canvassing evolved into community wellness checks. Shortly after, she contracted the virus while pregnant before transmitting it to her mother. She said her “most mentally taxing experience” is a wake-up call for Democrats to get aggressive in facing the issues affecting their most loyal voting bloc.
“I don’t want [my daughters] to continue to fight for the same things that my mom and my grandmother had to fight for,” she said. “We’ve been the ones that have been turning out for the longest and we are going to lead this movement,” she said.
Nixon is part of a record number of Black women and women of color to run for office across the country. While she called on more to claim their political power and demand “a seat at the table”, she acknowledged that not all Black voters move left.
“[Black Americans are] not a monolithic people and we’re never going to get anything done if we come in just pushing this hardcore left agenda,” she said.
While the outbreak forced Republicans to move their national convention from Jacksonville to the White House lawn, the party still aimed to lure disaffected Black voters. Black conservative speakers predicted “the days of blindly supporting the Democrats are coming to an end”, and some moderates and conservatives look to alternatives to Democrats and Republicans.
“Black women have definitely been a strong voice in voting, but what has that done for us?” one Black independent voter from Jacksonville told the Guardian. Unmotivated by both candidates, she’s exercising her right not to vote at all.
“It is very American to choose not to exercise your right to vote,” she said, asking not to be identified due to backlash. “It is also very American to choose which side you want to be on, despite your heritage, despite the color of your skin.”
Pandemic complicates voting rights fight
In Florida, the pandemic and racial justice protests haven’t exactly translated to big victories on election day. In August, Sybrina Fulton, the social justice activist and mother of slain teenager Trayvon Martin, lost her race for office in Miami-Dade county, Florida and by just 331 votes.
Turnout can dramatically shape the political trajectory of emerging leaders and policy initiatives. That’s why voting rights activist Desmond Meade rejects calls to sit this election out, insisting “people are getting an up close and personal view of the consequences of voting or not voting”.
“If we shouldn’t vote or our vote didn’t matter then why are there so many forces investing resources to try to stop us from voting,” said Meade, a legal scholar.
As founder of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, Meade advocates for returning citizens, people with prior felony convictions, gaining jobs, housing and healthcare – as well as restoring their right to vote.
Across the country, states have varying laws on felony disfranchisement, but an estimated 5.85 million Americans with prior felony convictions are barred from voting. In Florida, returning citizens had been stripped permanently of the right to vote until 2018, when residents voted in favor of a ballot measure known as Amendment 4 – temporarily striking it down.
Along with the coronavirus outbreak complicating the organization’s outreach efforts, Meade says, state and federal attempts to limit access to voting underscore the difference politician and public servants.
“When politicians are involved, people die. There’s division, there’s hate and fear,” he said. “But when public servants are involved in the community, they have an opportunity to thrive and people have a chance to live.
For Meade, the victory was personal. As a returning citizen, Florida’s primary marked the first time he voted in more than 30 years.
“When I went into that voting booth, I took the spirits of my ancestors with me thinking about how many people have died, hung on trees. They overcame all that,” he said. “Covid is nothing compared to what our ancestors went through to be able to secure the right to vote for all of us.”
But in September, a federal appeals court ruled to uphold a Republican state senate bill requiring returning citizens pay restitution and court debts before casting their ballots. Activists now fight against what they called the latest effort by conservatives to suppress the vote.
Fellow activist Rosemary McCoy cites disinformation, not the virus, as their toughest challenge. Trump has already perpetuated false claims of voter fraud and ballot fixing, going as far as to call on supporters to intimidate voters at the polls in the first presidential debate.
“The public believes that they can go out there and they can vote,” she said, calling the bill unconstitutional. “It is a set up so that the president can turn around and say that this is fraudulent.”
McCoy noted that as Trump refuses to guarantee a peaceful transition of power, suggesting 1.5 million Floridians wrongfully voted would only fuel his accusations of a rigged election.
With the election just weeks away, recent polls showing the former vice-president and president are locked in a tight race for the battleground state. As Democrats fight to turn out the vote, Meade’s virtual outreach is amplified by athletes and celebrities who, in recent weeks, have raised millions to clear returning citizens’ debts.
He likens the unprecedented moment to Juneteenth – or 19 June 1865. On that day, two years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, the last remaining enslaved African Americans on a plantation located in Galveston, Texas, learned of their freedom.
“Coincidentally, we’re coming up on the second-year anniversary of the passing of Amendment 4,” he said. “And there are still people who do not know that they are free.”
Meade’s own freedom was delayed after a board deferred his appeal for clemency in September. Still, he said the fight continues as Black voters across the nation exercise their freedom to hold Democrats, Republicans – and everyone in between – accountable to their vote.
“We’re not going to be just voting for someone because they have a ‘D’ or an ‘R’ next to their name,” he said. “We’re going to be voting for someone who recognizes and respects our humanity.”