Sharon Fason used to accompany her mother to their south Chicago polling place every Election Day as a little girl, watching as she joined their African-American neighbors in the hard-won right of casting a ballot.
Now 47, Fason says she always votes in person, a ritual she has no intention of changing even if the deadly coronavirus still rages in November.
“I will put on protective gear and I will still walk in and cast my ballot,” said Fason, a black public librarian in Chicago.
The Democratic Party is pushing mail-in voting as the safest way to cast ballots amid the coronavirus pandemic. But the party is struggling to persuade a bedrock constituency: African Americans.
Their votes will be crucial if Democrat Joe Biden hopes to unseat Republican President Donald Trump on Nov. 3. In 2016, turnout among black voters declined for the first time in 20 years, aiding Trump’s surprise win over Democrat Hillary Clinton.
During the most recent national elections, the 2018 congressional midterms, only about 11% of black voters cast their ballots by mail, according to Census figures. That’s the lowest percentage of any measured ethnic group, and it’s just under half the rate of white voters.
There are a variety of reasons. For African Americans such as Fason, striding to the polls is a powerful act, both symbolic and substantive. Some black voters fear their mail ballots might get lost or rejected. African Americans are more transient than other racial groups and have high rates of homelessness, government statistics show, major barriers to mail voting.
That could pose a problem for Democrats if in-person voting is severely restricted in November and many polling stations closed because of coronavirus worries. That was the case in recent primary elections in Wisconsin and Ohio, crucial battleground states where turnout was down by double-digit percentages from 2016.
In Georgia, a once solidly Republican state that polls show could be competitive in November, early requests for mail ballots in the state’s June 9 elections show voters of color have been slow to embrace the process.
As of May 19, 25% of white registered voters in Georgia had requested mail ballots in Georgia, compared to 17% of black voters and 11% of Latino voters, according to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice.
Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger sent all of the state’s 6.9 million active voters an application for an absentee ballot, a move that was widely applauded in a state where more than 1,900 people have died of COVID-19.
But Raffensperger also formed a task force to investigate absentee ballots with irregularities such as mismatched signatures, a move he said was needed to combat fraud. Many Georgia Democrats criticized that as an intimidation tactic that could lead to more challenges of mail ballots and a suppression of Democratic votes.
Trump and his Republican allies say mail voting is prone to fraud and favors Democrats, even as numerous independent studies have found little evidence of either claim.
Democrats “are using a pandemic to completely destroy the integrity of our elections,” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said.
Some Democrats fear such efforts to discredit mail balloting, coupled with a possible reduction of in-person polling places if a second wave of coronavirus hits this fall, could depress African-American turnout and doom Biden’s chances.
“It’s unfortunate the Republican Party would rather play games with people’s health and people’s votes just so they can try to come out on top in an election,” said Nikema Williams (NYSE:WMB), the first black woman to chair the Georgia Democratic Party.