Why Black Voter Engagement is Driving Election Results

Voter_georgia.jpegThe New York Times recently wrote that Black voters are the Democrats’ only chance to save the Senate. That means that instead of accepting low midterm turnout among progressive voting blocs - including voters of color - as a bygone conclusion, we need to get serious about investing in the organizations and leaders who are driving electoral change in these communities. Kirk Clay, PowerPAC+ Senior Advisor, shares his insight with PowerPAC+'s Sophie Rane on why black voters will play a critical role this year.

This interview is Part 1 of our series on GOTV efforts in the 2014 midterm elections. Read the rest of Kirk's interview in "How to Authentically Engage Black Voters in the Midterms and Beyond."

Sophie Rane: Why will black voter turnout play such a major role in the 2014 midterms?

Kirk Clay: The black vote is critical because every midterm election has a pullback in the progressive vote share, especially in the Midwest and the South. That makes it extremely important to identify “clutch voters.” What do I mean by clutch voters? It’s the voters who tend to vote for the progressive candidate at a higher rate, including voters of color. That means that for every progressive voter you lose, a voter of color can help make up the difference.

What states, regions or specific races will be particularly shaped by black voter turnout?

The four states that I would look at are North Carolina, Arkansas, Louisiana and Georgia. I would consider that the “firewall” for the Senate. The Michelle Nunn Senate race in Georgia is the best case study. Black voters are a tremendous portion of the electorate, and they typically experience a decrease in voter turnout in the midterms. Yet we have seen how key black voters have been in the presidential elections. Because they are so key in a state like Georgia, and they are such great progressive voters, this is really a case study in terms of what could happen if their vote share grows in the South.

In Arkansas, people of color have historically made up the difference in terms of the vote. In Louisiana, people talk about Mary Landrieu and what tough times she’s going to have this year at the polls, but her entire career people have considered her an “underdog,” and every single year she wins because of the people of color vote or the black vote that turns out in massive numbers to carry her over the top. So you see progressive candidates like Mary Landrieu, Kay Hagan in North Carolina, and Mark Pryor in Arkansas really looking at the African American vote and planning a lot of their strategy around that path.

What work is being done on the ground to drive black voter engagement? How are the strategies this year different from previous elections?

One of the things that I’ve seen implemented this year that I haven’t seen before is an innovation that PowerPAC began working on back in 2013. I call it the “123” series. It began as New Jersey 123, and they worked on it in 2013 to try and figure out what would happen if you did a cross-platform social media organizing strategy around really notifying and reminding people that it was time to vote. That whole process was picked up and spun off in Georgia, and now it’s called GA123, or “Get Active 123.”

Basically, they’re asking people to do three things: one, register to vote; two, vote early; and three, help someone else vote on Election Day. To get the message out, they’re asking hundreds of volunteers to hold up three fingers and take a selfie, and then post that to their social media site. In doing so, they’re getting people who are active online to be more active offline, and the people who are active offline to be more active online. The reason why that’s important is because for people of color, communicating with each other on a consistent basis is key towards producing a high turnout. Now, of course, that’s not going to work if you don’t do the traditional stuff, like direct mail, door knocks, and of course phones. But with all of those different pieces, if you add this consistent communication of a cross-media platform, that is really where the “sweet spot” is, and that’s where you’re going to produce that extra turnout. I’ve seen that moving in Georgia pretty well.georgia123_logo.jpg For example, GA123 did a Power Check action on July 2nd where social media users shared their voter registration status and sounded off on issues using the hashtag #GA123. The hashtag was seen over 5 million times by 1.5 million potential voters. That’s a seismic move to really mobilize people and get them going. 

The other piece of why this is very important is Atlanta is known as the social media capital of the U.S. Atlanta and Washington, D.C. battle every year to be considered the most active in terms of social media and Atlanta’s usually on top. So social media is very important for Georgia. Also, African-American women are among the highest social media users, if you look at the Pew Research’s Center social media study from last year. So if you’re looking at increasing black voter turnout in a place like Georgia, then African-American women are one of the groups of people that you want to engage. Those voters are extremely active in social media, so that’s why we’re very confident that a program like GA123 is going to potentially be able to ignite Georgia’s progressive electorate in 2014.

What is it going to take to motivate black voters to turn out at the polls this year?

There are issues that are really, really motivating people of color at this point. The Ferguson piece, and what happened to Michael Brown is one. Right now, what I’m hearing in the community is a call to voters that is stating and reminding people that Michael Brown can’t vote, but you can - and so you should. That is really taking hold and people are actually taking that to heart. They’re pointing to the fact that the folks in Ferguson have such a low voter registration and voter turnout rate that a lot of the issues that they’re experiencing could be addressed through just voting, just through civic engagement. Read more at "Georgia Democrats Counter Voter Suppression with Ferguson Message."

The other piece is folks like Stacey Abrams, who is a trusted messenger doing an excellent job of getting out there with her organization, the New Georgia Project. They are mobilizing like nobody’s business, and they’re registering people to vote. What you’re going to see is that a good message from a trusted messenger is going to be the gold standard for mobilizing people of color from here on out.

What people don’t realize is that President Obama is no longer going to be at the top of the ticket from here on out.  He pretty much was that trusted messenger, and his machine provided that great message. Since he’s no longer going to be around, progressives are going to have to figure out how else to speak to people of color in a way that’s authentic, with a voice from an authentic person within the community that’s going to help mobilize them.


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