Young Black Americans may stumble in move to ballot boxes from street protests

Wednesday, 21 October 2020 20:55 GMT

Black Lives Matter protestors gather in New York City's Union Square for the police killing of Breonna Taylor on September 24, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Matthew Lavietes.

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From laws in U.S states preventing people with felony convictions from voting to the closure of polling stations, Black Americans can face greater barriers in going to the ballot

By Matthew Lavietes and Anastasia Moloney

NEW YORK, Oct 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - First-time voter Rosie Lebron has been protesting in the streets of New York City to end racial injustice, following in the footsteps of her great-grandmother who marched sixty years ago.

"My great-grandmother, she protested during the civil rights movement. She's like 'Why is my baby still doing this?'" said Lebron, 21, during a march against police brutality.

"It's been too long, way too long. We're still here after years," Lebron told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Not only did the police killings of Black Americans like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd spark mass protests, but the sense of injustice has galvanized first-time Black voters like Lebron to vote in the Nov. 3 presidential election.

Some are young, and this is their first shot at casting a ballot. Others never bothered before, and still others were not allowed to vote, such as felons whose convictions previously banned them from voting.

Black Lives Matter protestors march in Downtown New York for the police killing of Breonna Taylor on September 24, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Matthew Lavietes.

Grassroots advocacy organizations are hoping to nurture new-voter enthusiasm, motivate turnout and overcome what they say are not insignificant obstacles thrown in the path of Black would-be voters.

In the 2016 election that put President Donald Trump in office, nearly 12 million eligible Black voters did not cast ballots, said Sabeel Rahman, head of Demos, a think tank focused on voting rights and racial equity.

Black Americans face entrenched and historical barriers, even though the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed more than a half century ago, Rahman said.

"There are myriad barriers in our electoral system that are essentially designed to make it harder for people to vote, and that burden falls especially disproportionately on people of color, especially Black voters," he said.

"Voter suppression targeted at Black Americas ... is hugely consequential in terms of swinging the result."

Critics argue that restrictions are aimed at Black voters who tend to be Democratic supporters, but some Republicans say restrictions like voter identification and dropping infrequent voters from the rosters are necessary to prevent fraud.

VOTING BARRIERS

One obstacle has been laws in many states that prevent people with felony convictions from voting, which disproportionately affects Black men, campaigners say.

One in every 16 African-Americans has lost their voting right due to felony disenfranchisement laws, compared with one in every 59 non-black voters, according to the Sentencing Project, a U.S. research group.

Since the 2016 election, such laws changed in eleven states and the District of Columbia, allowing ex-felons like former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson, who lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, his first chance to vote.

Tyson served three years of a six-year prison sentence for rape in 1992.

"This election will be my 1st time voting," Tyson tweeted on Sept. 22. "I never thought I could because of my felony record. I'm proud to finally vote."

Such laws have a huge impact on Black communities, where men are six times more likely to be behind bars than are white men, according to the Sentencing Project.

Black Lives Matter protestors march in Downtown New York for the police killing of Breonna Taylor on September 24, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Matthew Lavietes.

Of the nearly 2.3 million people in U.S. prisons, 40% are Black even though just 13% of the population is Black, according to the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative.

"Our history of disenfranchisement of people of color is really rooted in our history of racial oppression and generally woven into the fabric of our system of mass incarceration," said Amanda Zarrow, senior legislative counsel at Voting Rights Lab, a U.S. voting advocacy group.

Tennessee has a lifetime voting ban for certain convictions, including murder and rape, and other states require former prisoners to complete parole or probation, pay off court debts and legal fees or petition to restore their voting right.

"Because of the massive racial disparity in mass incarceration and the number of Black Americans who have some type of felony or misdemeanor or some type of involvement with the criminal legal system, this is a huge barrier," Rahman said.

POLLING STATIONS

It can also be harder for Black Americans to vote when polling stations are closed or in short supply, advocates say.

States across the American South have closed nearly 1,200 polling places since the Supreme Court weakened an anti-discrimination voting law in 2013, according to a 2019 report by The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a nonprofit.

Campaigners cite Georgia's 2018 election, when Democrat Stacey Abrams, who sought to become the nation's first female Black governor, narrowly lost as a case of voter suppression.

Advocates pointed to rash of voting machine failures, closed polling sites, rejected ballots and purges of voter rolls in Black districts.

Abrams founded a voting rights group, Fair Fight Action, that has filed a federal lawsuit over the election.

Black voters could determine the outcome of the election, said Jennifer Epps-Addison, co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy, a rights group using volunteers to text and telephone millions of Black and Latino voters in swing states.

"We are asking them what is their plan to vote, ... helping them to check if they are registered," said Epps-Addison.

The group is targeting battleground states such as Wisconsin and Michigan, where Trump won by narrow margins that were far smaller than the number of eligible but unregistered Black and Latino voters, she said.

But she is worried young Black Americans are disillusioned.

"It would be dangerous to assume that the energy we have seen ... translates automatically to record voter turnout and votes for Biden."

Leclerc Ambre Darguin, a 34-year-old comedian in New York, said many Black Americans have no confidence in the political system, but he decided to vote because there is so much at stake with racial tensions and police violence. "I registered to vote because too many of my people have died and fought for the right to vote, and I feel like it's irresponsible to squander that right and not use that power that we have," he said.

Related stories:

Native Americans fear votes in remote tribal lands could go uncounted

Drawing voting lines: Can algorithms make U.S. elections fairer?

End racial injustice? Abolish prisons, some U.S. activists say

(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney; Matthew Lavietes; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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