Democrats worry Black turnout hinges on voting rights bills. Can Biden deliver?

A woman takes a photo before President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke about voting rights at Clark Atlanta University on Tuesday. Ben Gray/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS

Could Black voters in California and across the country sit out this year’s midterm elections if Democrats in Washington can’t strengthen rapidly eroding voting rights protections?

That’s the fear some Democratic Party and civil rights leaders are airing as President Joe Biden campaigns this week for voting rights protections.

Promoting turnout has long been a challenge in the Black community for a variety of reasons.

But there was fresh hope for important changes after Biden and a Democratic-controlled Congress were elected in 2020 arguably because of huge Black voter majorities.

Today, though, there’s growing concern that the Democrats can’t deliver on voting rights, an issue that for decades has been of crucial importance to the Black community.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer “understands that if they don’t get this done it will have a chilling effect on voter turnout,” said Aimee Allison, Oakland-based president of She The People, a political network of women of color.

The big push to reverse Republican-inspired efforts to tinker with — Democrats say suppress — voting rights in some states got a fresh, high-level boost Tuesday.

Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, accompanied by civil rights leaders and members of Congress, traveled to Atlanta to reiterate their support for stronger voting rights protection against state efforts they say will make it more difficult to vote.

Biden called for changing Senate rules to make it easier to pass those protections. The Senate later this week is expected to try.

Senate voting rights advocates are considering two bills. One, named for the late Rep. John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat and veteran civil rights leader, would reinstate Washington’s ability to act against discriminatory state voting laws and practices. Separately, the Freedom to Vote Act would establish a nationwide system of voting standards aimed at making voting easier.

But the challenge to pass meaningful legislation remains, as not all Democrats back support Senate rules to limit debate on the bills and ensure they get a vote.

Black voting trends

Black turnout nationally in the 2020 election was 62.6%, compared with 70.9% of whites, according to Census Bureau data. That gap was the largest since 2012, the last time President Barack Obama, the nation’s first and only Black president, ran.

A September 2020 survey by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found that while 65% of non-Hispanic whites were likely to vote, only 54% of African Americans were expected to do so.

Sacramento’s Black community is watching closely, but there’s a long history of skepticism and distrust of government to overcome.

The disparity is partly because underserved communities have not been adequately educated on civic responsibilities and duties because of the belief that their vote doesn’t matter, activists said.

“Everything in this country is deeply rooted in systemic racism, including the current system of voting,” said Jamilia Land, a Sacramento activist who advocates for restorative justice. “We have been socially indoctrinated and conditioned to believe that our votes don’t matter.”

There’s concern that if turnout continues to lag, it could have a notable impact on local races.

People don’t hear “about the necessity to be civically engaged specifically with voting unless it’s a presidential election. We don’t talk about the school board races, we don’t talk about the city council races, we don’t talk about the district attorney nor the sheriff, which is an elected official,” said Land.

In addition, Samual Brown, co-founder of the Anti-Violence Safety and Accountability Project, a nonprofit organization in Sacramento, said voting is not a top priority for underserved youth who are dealing with foster care, incarceration, hunger, and a lack of resources.

“People who are still deeply entrenched in poverty, people addicted to substances and in and out of the prison system, voting is not something that people value, it’s not something that they are concerned about,” said Brown.

Can Biden, Senate deliver?

The sweeping voting rights bill Democratic leaders are pushing needs 60 votes to go forward. That’s impossible at the moment, since 50 senators are Republicans and oppose the effort.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told the Senate Tuesday that Democratic leaders are simply “using fake hysteria about 2021 state laws to justify a power grab.”

Tuesday’s push by Biden continued an effort among those leaders to change Senate rules to allow 51 votes to limit debate (Harris would break a tie), but Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona are reluctant to agree to that change.

Some analysts see Washington’s battle as a spur to get more Black voters to the polls.

“People have a great sense of the importance of the time we live in and will try to do what they can to make their voices heard,” said Mark Baldassare, Public Policy Institute of California president and CEO. “Yes, there’s disappointment, but that doesn’t speak to the fact people will do what they can to be part of something consequential.”

Brown believes that there’s a broader development, a different way voters are seeing what Washington may do.

“A revolution starts with the mind state and then also giving people something of value so they feel connected, understand the power that they hold and why it’s important to wield it and not let it be manipulated by every politician or person that comes along claiming that they will do something in their best interest,” said Brown.

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