Last chance: US President Donald Trump at a campaign rally at Fayetteville, North Carolina, on Monday. Picture: Reuters/Carlos Barria
Last chance: US President Donald Trump at a campaign rally at Fayetteville, North Carolina, on Monday. Picture: Reuters/Carlos Barria

The intersection of a pandemic, racial injustice, systemic oppression, economic depression and climate crisis has heightened the centuries-old inequities that affect every facet of life for African Americans. The result in 2020 has been a perfect storm, where each day cities and forests on fire compete for headlines with stories of people desperate for food, jobs, health care — and change.

Insert into this Tuesday’s US presidential election, in which Republican incumbent Donald Trump faced off against Democrat Joe Biden. With about 101-million votes cast by the time of going to print — equivalent to 73% of the entire 2016 vote — it’s looking to be a record turnout. And it seems black votes could be key to the electoral map in some closely contested states.

Though the black voice remains a minority (13% of eligible voters are black, against 67% white), by the estimates of the Pew Research Centre, just over a third of all registered black voters live in nine of the most competitive states: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Black voters turned out in record numbers to re-elect Barack Obama in 2012, with 66.6% turnout (against an overall turnout of 58.6%). Four years later, with Obama no longer on the ballot and many certain that Hillary Clinton would defeat Trump regardless of their support, black voter turnout plunged to 59.6% (its lowest in 20 years) while the overall turnout rose to 61.4%, according to data from Pew and the US Elections Project.

The 2020 election may prove different again. The coronavirus pandemic, playing out against a backdrop of police brutality and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, has disproportionately affected Americans of colour. African Americans are almost three times as likely to contract Covid-19 as white Americans, and twice as likely to die of it (more, if numbers are adjusted for age), according to research from the University of New Hampshire and the APM Research Lab.

The pandemic-induced economic downturn has left millions unemployed, but black Americans are twice as likely to have lost their jobs. And they haven’t necessarily been able to access the same state aid. A study from Howard University, for example, found 13% of black workers without jobs between April and June received unemployment benefits, against 24% of white workers and 22% of Hispanic workers.

"The black population was severely hurt by the Covid-19 crisis — much more so than white Americans. Blacks have lost their jobs, their homes, and their lives, as essential frontline workers died due to the coronavirus," says John Stremlau, visiting professor in Wits University’s department of international relations.

"The fundamental issue that is at stake — which has always been at stake in America – is rooted in the original sin of slavery and the ideology of white supremacy that still infects and imperils American democracy."

It has become a rallying cry in an increasingly divided nation.

Social distancing: Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden at a drive-in rally in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on Monday. Picture: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
Social distancing: Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden at a drive-in rally in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on Monday. Picture: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

"Election day represents a collective political act and it’s a continuation of our struggle for full citizenship in this country," Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of BlackPAC, a left-leaning political action committee, told Associated Press. "Black voters are showing up in ways that they did not in 2016 and we can take heart in that."

That’s borne out in the numbers. According to Pew, 63% of registered black voters are "extremely motivated to vote" this year. And polling suggests they wanted to send a message to Trump at the ballot box.

Obama carried the black vote by more than 90 percentage points in 2008, and close to 90 in 2012. If Biden attracted that kind of support, he’d be looking good for 46th president of the US, according to a New York Times estimate.

Pre-election polls by, among others NBC News/Wall Street Journal, The Economist/YouGov, Fox News and The Hill/HarrisX last week suggested with a high degree of confidence that black voters would favour Biden on election day. Similarly, a Pew survey from September 30-October 5 put him 81 points ahead with black voters.

"Joe Biden and [his running mate] Kamala Harris are trying to unite the country, end the polarisation, and stamp out black-voter suppression," says Stremlau. "Biden’s candidacy to become the Democratic nominee suffered a series of early primary and caucus losses in predominantly white, non-Hispanic voting states.

"However, his general election prospects suddenly soared after gaining the overwhelming support of black Democrats in South Carolina. Biden owes a huge political debt to the black community."

His choice of Harris for vice-president also has served him well.

"Harris’s campaigning for Biden before election day was about getting out the older black women’s vote, proven helpful to him in the past," says Sithembile Mbete, senior lecturer in the University of Pretoria’s department of political sciences. "Harris was effective ... because she spoke to the issues that affect black women, in particular ... Harris shows genuine interest in the challenges black women face today."

At the stroke of midnight (eastern standard time) on Tuesday, election day officially began in New York, Washington, DC and Philadelphia. The ceremonial first votes were cast in Dixville Notch, New Hampshire (population: 12). Biden swept the board with all five of the votes cast.

But the game only really gets going in Florida, the largest traditional swing state, which has 29 Electoral College votes at stake. Only two Democratic presidents have captured the White House without winning Florida.

Early voting in the state recorded a relatively even 3.5-million registered Democrats and 3.4-million registered Republicans casting their ballots, according to Florida’s Division of Elections.

However, Democrats were concerned that male Hispanic voters in Florida were leaning more to Trump.

According to Pew’s demographic breakdown, the eligible Hispanic voting population in Florida is 20%. And this election cycle, Biden has consistently polled below Clinton’s share of 65% of the national Hispanic vote in 2016, and 62% of the Florida Hispanic vote.

But black voters, comprising 14% of the eligible voting population, might still have positioned Biden to be competitive in the state, flipping Florida back to the Democrats.

The fundamental issue ... is rooted in the original sin of slavery and the ideology of white supremacy that still infects and imperils American democracy
John Stremlau

Former Democratic primary hopeful billionaire Michael Bloomberg raised more than $16m to help get up to 32,000 formerly incarcerated Floridians – specifically targeting 25,548 black voters – re-enfranchised.

About 775,000 Floridians cannot afford the combined millions of dollars they owe to the Florida department of corrections in lawyer and filing fees, according to the University of Florida. If they don’t pay back their arrears, they are not legally allowed to vote.

The re-enrolled black voters were projected, in a Bloomberg memo, to vote 90%-95% for Biden.

Next in importance would be winning back the "Blue Wall" – the states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin (46 Electoral College votes in total), which the Democrats lost by a percentage point each in 2016.

Biden spent most of the past two weeks campaigning in the three states’ biggest cities — this may turn out to have been vital to hold onto his slim advantage (three points in Pennsylvania, five in Michigan and seven in Wisconsin, says RealClearPolitics).

Of those, Detroit and Philadelphia are majority black cities, and so will be important to the final tally. Local election officials in Detroit projected a 50% voter turnout in the city, an improvement on 2016.

What could tilt the Michigan race to the Democrats is the effect of the pandemic on the state’s economy and jobs, most notably in Detroit. In August 2020, unemployment in Detroit hit 21% — up from 8.8% in 2019. In Michigan as a whole, unemployment ticked up from 4.1% in 2019 to 9% in August, says the Michigan Bureau of Labour Market Information & Strategic Initiatives.

Advance demographic data is in short supply in Pennsylvania, making it harder to call. It will also be the battleground state that takes the longest to call, given that mail-in ballots — favoured by vulnerable populations, particularly as coronavirus rates surge — will be accepted until November 6, according to a court ruling.

In a blow to Democrats, the courts have ruled against similar extensions in Wisconsin and Michigan.

The black vote in Georgia may also prove significant. By midday on October 31, 3.9-million votes had been cast in the state — equivalent to 56% of registered voters. At the time of going to print, Democrats believe they have a chance at winning the state and its 16 Electoral College votes for the first time since 1992.

Here, credit for black voter enfranchisement must go to former Georgian gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who started Fair Fight, a voter rights organisation that claims to have registered more than 800,000 new voters in the state — most of them black.

"If [Democrats] get many of those 800,000 or so folks to the polls, it would be game over," University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock told NBC News on Sunday. "Younger voters are notoriously difficult to get to show up, and efforts to get minority voters who have not participated in the past can be, too. But if [the Democrats] achieve those things at high levels, they will win."

It’s uncertain when the world will know who has claimed the 2020 presidential election. In addition to voter turnout that may eclipse historical US election records, there’s the logistics of counting mail-in ballots and ensuring every vote counts – not to mention threats of legal action in key swing states. Given the additional constraints brought on by the pandemic, this will be an election like no other.

EXPLAINER: The Electoral College

It is a quirk of the US electoral system that a candidate can win the popular vote but not the presidency, because the Electoral College actually elects the president.

So while Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in 2016, securing support of 48% against Donald Trump’s 45.9%, Trump won the majority of the 538 Electoral College seats.

Each of the 50 states and Washington, DC are awarded votes in the Electoral College roughly equal to their representation in Congress: each state has two senators, while the number of representatives is based on population. California, for example, with two senators and 53 representatives, awards 55 electoral votes; Texas 38 votes; and New York and Florida 29 each.

The smallest states and Washington, DC each award three Electoral College votes.

The Electoral College is based on a winner-takes-all system, which means that, with the exception of Maine and Nebraska, the candidate who wins the state secures all its votes. So, for example, while Trump won just 48.6% of the Florida vote in 2016, against Clinton’s 47.4%, he claimed all 29 of Florida’s Electoral College votes.

The candidate who wins the majority of the 538 Electoral College votes will be inaugurated the president of the US on January 20.

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