The Morning Call (Sunday)
Black voters in Pennsylvania played a pivotal role in 2020 election, tipping Biden to victory
In the months leading to the election, Daphne McCoyspent Saturdays working neighborhood barbecues and community breakfasts to register new voters — young and old — and encouraging them to vote.
McCoy was amazed at the number of people in her Harrisburg community who had never voted in their lives.
“We met all these older people who had never voted,” McCoy said. “My eyes were really open. We knocked on doors. We met this gentleman who was 59 and had never voted. It was his first time to register to vote.”
McCoy’s social activism — and that of legions of other Black women — likely had a profound impact on the election of President-elect Joe Biden.
Political pundits had predicted that the Black voter turnout — a reliably Democratic voting bloc — would be crucial to tipping Biden over the margin to clinch the election. Those predictions were spot on.
Biden garnered 90% of the Black vote across Pennsylvania, according to exit polls and emerging voting data. Black women in the Keystone State even bested that with 94% of them breaking for Biden, helping to tip the state for him and securing the 20 critical electoral votes needed for the former vice president to win the race.
“I’m looking for some type of change,” said McCoy, the mother of LeSean “Shady” McCoy, the former Bishop McDevitt High standout who has gone on to a stellar NFL career with the Philadelphia Eagles and now the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
In recent years, McCoy has dedicated her time to running Shades of Greatness, the organization founded by her son, and dedicated to social and racial justice efforts in Harrisburg.
This time around she mounted a get-the-vote-out effort in her city, registering voters who had for decades remained on the sidelines of the election process.
“We had a handful of people that were in their 40s, 50s and 60s that had never registered,” McCoy said. “The good that comes out of all of this, I think, is that America is awakened. People’s eyes are open.”
For legions of Black women the 2020 election affirms their historical might in the Democratic Party, and serves as a reminder that Black voters play a pivotal voting block for Democrats.
“Black-led organizations led millions of votes in this county,” said Kadida Kenner, director of campaigns for the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, which runs the nonpartisan campaigns, We the People and Why Courts Matter. “We not only marched for justice in turbulent times, but we marched to the polls as well.”
Exit poll after exit poll shows widening margins between the number of Black voters who voted for Biden compared to those who voted for President Donald Trump.
The president, who had a formidable campaign ground game, appealed to Black voters, touting what he said was a significant body of policy and executive orders that directly benefited communities of color. Trump supporters cited steps such as restoring some funding to Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and authorizing the First Step Act, which shortened mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, the majority of whom were Black Americans.
But Trump seemed unable to overcome his negative public relations with Black America, fueled in part by his role in the birther movement against then-President Barack Obama; his reluctance to denounce white nationalists as well as get behind the Black Lives Matter movement.
“We know that Black voters were very critical in this election,” said Brittany Smalls, the Pennsylvania state coordinator for the national Black Voters Matter Fund, which launched a massive voter registration effort in the months leading up to the election. “Every headline and conversation made us aware that the election was dependent on our participation ... that would determine winning this election.”
Yet despite the fact that Black voters in South Carolina propelled Biden to clinch the Democratic primary, it was never a given that they would come out for him in the general. After all, 2016 saw Black voter turnout nationwide drop for the first time in 20 years in a presidential election, falling to 57% from a high of 67% in 2012.
The change agent was the last four years, Kenner said.
“That’s what’s different from 2016. The last four years,” she said. “We saw what happened those four years. The disrespect, the demoralization, the dehumanization of our community. We saw what others saw across the nation. The lies. The misinformation. We saw our issues not spoken to.”
Black voters, she added, were galvanized by issues dealing with police brutality, incarceration, unemployment and access to health care and education, but all were tempered by the rhetoric out of the White House over the past four years.
“There were so many things that happened in the last four years that pushed my folks to the polls,” Kenner said. “Whenever you are trying to disenfranchise folks, we are going to try to find every way possible to get out and vote.”
Having a woman of color on the ticket also helped to energize voters of color. Black women, in particular, said they were determined to support Sen. Kamala Harris, the first Black and Southeast Asian woman nominated and elected to the office of vice president.
“It’s a whole new day in America,” McCoy said. “I think back to all the kids ... you don’t see anyone who looks like you. That dream isn’t even there. You don’t think it can happen ... all those little girls.”
Voting advocates are tracking what they say is a record turnout of Black voters across the state, and in particular, in communities that have historically seen anemic voting participation.
“We are working on crunching numbers but we know that in some areas we had huge turnouts,” Small said. “We have a sense of what took place. There are parts of Pennsylvania such as Erie that saw some precincts have 100% turnout in small Black communities.”
Still, not all communities delivered what had been projected would be historic turnout numbers. Philadelphia, for instance, which saw record-breaking voter registration numbers, is not likely to break its recent voter turnout of 2008. The majority-Black city then saw a 64% voter turnout for Obama. Philadelphia is on track to post an estimated 62% turnout this year, compared to 59% in 2016.
Kenner welcomes this year’s turnout, even if it fell short of breaking the numbers posted for Obama, which saw Black voter participation surpass that of white voters for the first time in history.
“We know it was a huge turnout not only of Black voters but indigenous and other voters of color,” Kenner said. “We turned out in record numbers despite the fact that we had so many obstacles put before us to discourage our community. Voter suppression tactics. The disenfranchisement that came out. It just proves that people have a will to vote. They want to take part in democracy.”
McCoy, who arguably used the fame her name carries in the city to engage young people to vote, says she is now aware of the impact get-the-vote-out efforts and education can have on voting, particularly in historically marginalized communities.
“We found some people whose registration information was wrong,” said McCoy, who opened up the headquarters for Shades of Greatness on Third and Woodbine to host a slew of get-the-vote-out events. “Their address was 10 years old. We tried to make it as easy as possible. We gave them rides, masks and hand sanitizer. There was enough of us and we made sure wewere willing to take people where they needed to go to vote, especially if they were older.”
Kenner hosted webinars for students at Bloomsburg and Shippensburg universities, as well as high schools across the state. She spent months rallying and registering voters, reminding everyone of the importance of every vote.
“To be able to come out to the polls in the middle of a pandemic knowing the odds were stacked, it means everything,” Kenner said. “It means there was a reason to come out and vote. This was an opportunity to exhale ... knowing you’ve been through hell these last four years.”