'Whatever it takes': how Black women fought to mobilize America's voters

On-the-ground efforts led to huge turnout among people of color, particularly in cities that helped push Biden to victory

Democratic US Senate candidate Raphael Warnock and Stacey Abrams speak to voters at the Coan recreation center in Atlanta, Georgia, on election day.
Democratic US Senate candidate Raphael Warnock and Stacey Abrams speak to voters at the Coan recreation center in Atlanta, Georgia, on election day. Photograph: Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Getty Images
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Even before networks projected the presidential race for Joe Biden last Saturday, Wanda Mosley, a 50-year-old organizer based in Atlanta, Georgia, began to prepare to mobilize voters for her state’s two critical Senate runoff elections on 5 January.

After one of the most turbulent presidential elections in US history, the two races in the battleground state will determine if the balance of power in Washington will fall to the president-elect once he is sworn into office. Georgia has yet to be called for Biden, a Democrat, though he currently leads Donald Trump, which motivates organizers such as Mosley who until early December will continue to register voters planning to vote in the January runoffs.

“We understand fully how important these races are,” says Mosley, the senior state coordinator for Georgia’s Black Voters Matter, a nonprofit dedicated to voter engagement.

“We’re still here. We’re still working,” Mosley said.

Democrats have long pointed to Black voters, more specifically, Black women, as a crucial voting bloc, decisive to elections since former president Bill Clinton’s victories in the 1990s. But this November, successfully flipping the southern, Republican-led state of Georgia to the Democrats for the first time in 28 years has drawn attention to the organizational power of Black women, whose large-scale mobilization efforts appear to have resulted in massive turnout among people of color in those cities, experts say.

“What might have been different is the greater role of on the ground mobilization and voter registration efforts in states like Georgia, and I think that that was the effort that was largely built by Stacey Abrams and others on the ground,” said Jamil Scott, an assistant professor in the government department at Georgetown University.

Rather than rely on outside political consultants swarming into battleground states, Abrams, who lost to the Republican Governor Brian Kemp in 2018, led that charge in Georgia this year, says Aimee Allison, the founder of She the People, a national network advocating for women of color in politics. There was a 69% increase in voter turnout among women of color in Georgia this year compared to 2016, according to Allison, who cites data She the People analyzed from progressive data firm Catalist.

“You have a group of voters of Black women who are the most effective organizers on the ground because they are trusted voices and are working in organizations year round. They don’t come in six weeks before and kind of rent out a storefront, they’re actually invested in, long-term, empowering the community through civic and political action,” she said.

Campaign volunteers at an NAACP Hillsborough county voter drive in Tampa, Florida, on 1 November. The event aimed to push for stronger African-American turnout.
Campaign volunteers at an NAACP Hillsborough county voter drive in Tampa, Florida, on 1 November. The event aimed to push for stronger African-American turnout. Photograph: Octavio Jones/Getty Images

In America, this election year has not played out in a vacuum. Rather, it has been met with – and compounded by – America’s year of reckoning with police brutality and systemic inequality, which has driven even more people to vote.

Thousands of Americans took to the streets to protest against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s deaths earlier this year as the Black community also shouldered the disproportionate impact of Covid-19. The meeting of those moments spurred political mobilization among Black voters, says Tim Stevens, the CEO of Pittsburgh’s Black Political Empowerment Project, a non-profit voting rights organization based in Allegheny county, Pennsylvania, where Trump was swiftly defeated last week.

“The tragedies … made what was already present in the heart of Black people and people of color even more evident and more urgent,” said Stevens.

Those mobilization efforts were evident as ballots were counted in diverse urban centers in key states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, Georgia and Pennsylvania where large populations of Black voters in Milwaukee, Detroit, Atlanta and Philadelphia helped push Biden towards victory.

Then there were a number of prominent Black women in leadership roles – such as Abrams, Nikema Williams, who took on John Lewis’s congressional seat and is chair of Georgia’s state Democratic party, and Atlanta’s mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms – helped fuel mobilization efforts among Black women this election, suggests Dianne Pinderhughes, a professor of political science and the chair of the department of Africana studies at the University of Notre Dame.

One organizer in Pennsylvania points to the most prominent: the first Black and south Asian American vice-president-elect, Kamala Harris. “We had the same feelings we had when Obama was first elected,” says Brittany Smalls, the Pennsylvania state coordinator for Black Voters Matter. “We just never thought we would see the day that a woman in leadership looks like us.”

Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris)

I want to speak directly to the Black women in our country. Thank you. You are too often overlooked, and yet are asked time and again to step up and be the backbone of our democracy. We could not have done this without you.

November 9, 2020

Now, as Americans across the country shift their attention away from the presidential race and to the runoff elections in Georgia, organizers like Mosley say they are keen to build on their success, in an election that could ultimately determine what kind of presidency Joe Biden will have.

“This is the culmination of years and years and years of work, when other people didn’t think it was possible,” said Mosley. “We know how important the Senate is, and so if we can play a role in getting one – or possibly two seats – to try to shift that balance of power, you need to understand that Black women will do whatever it takes.”

This piece was published in partnership between the Guardian and The Fuller Project.