Voting rights activists – as well as Democrats – are pinning their hopes for a big turnout in this year’s election on mail-in voting. But some voters in Black communities don't plan to just sit back and mail it in.
On a Saturday afternoon in early October, voters in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood were lined up to vote early and drop off their mail-in ballots at one of the county’s satellite elections offices. But it doesn’t look like a typical election site.
“You see the sound stage and disc jockeys, we have food trucks, we have coffee, donuts,” said Dewitt Walton, Allegheny County Councilor and coordinator for PA Black Votes Matter, as he surveyed the scene.
“We realized that this election was critical for the future of America, and we recognized that African-American votes very well may be the margin of success for the issues that are on the ballot that most importantly impact poor and working people,” he said.
PA Black Votes Matter wants to get as many Black voters to the polls as possible. And so far, it seems to be working.
“I’ve seen today people bringing their children, people bringing their parents,” Walton said. “This encourages engagement.”
The pandemic forced the county to consolidate polling places this spring, which sparked confusion for voters across the county, including Homewood. That, coupled with concerns about a slow U.S. Postal Service and a new mail-in voting system, fueled anxiety and distrust for a lot of people, including many voters of color.
“I think people are definitely concerned about potential voter suppression,” said Maryn Formley.
Formley is the founder of the Voter Empowerment, Education and Enrichment Movement. Since 2017, she’s been working to boost voter participation in Homewood, which has seen lower turnout than the county has in recent elections.
Historically, Black communities in Pittsburgh have voted at lower rates than their neighbors -- and so far, at least, voting by mail hasn’t done much to change that. In the June primary, 36 percent of voters turned out across the county, but only 29 percent voted in Ward 13, which overlays much of Homewood. Formley said early, in-person voting is a good solution for some voters.
“We understand that people have a complete aversion to voting by mail,” she said. “We have some people going to the satellite offices and we have people who are voting on Election Day saying, ‘You can't tell me anything different, I'm going to go stand in line. I don't care how long it takes I'm going to go cast my vote.’”
For many Black Americans, voter suppression is inseparable from voting itself. In 1965, the Civil Rights Act barred tactics like poll taxes and literacy tests that were used to turn voters of color away from the polls. But voting rights activists say that voter ID laws, and the consolidation of polling places in urban areas even before the pandemic, are just the latest tactics in a long history of suppression.
“It’s historical,” said Dr. Gena Gunn McClendon, Director of the Voter Access and Engagement Initiative at Washington University in St. Louis. “You know there's a reason why they don’t trust that system. They'd rather be there in person – and this has been going on for a long time. This isn't anything new, but it's more pronounced now.”
In total, nearly 5,000 people returned their mail-in ballots or voted early in person at elections offices in mostly Black parts of Pittsburgh. Allegheny County Councilor Dewitt Walton believes the voting options embraced this year could shape habits permanently.
“It demonstrates in a clear manner that those impediments can be removed,” he said. “The great thing about this is, I don't think we will ever return to the system of old,” -- at least not without other options available.
But Maryn Formley noted that while some Black voters feel a duty to vote, others don’t see a point in participating in a system that doesn’t fully recognize them.
“There's this very real feeling of – ‘You want me to do everything. You want me to lay down and take whatever happens to me. You want me to be quiet, you don't want me to protest. And now you want me to save the country.’”