Posted on June 2, 2020

Black Voters Don’t Trust Mail Ballots. That’s a Problem for Democrats

John Whitesides, Reuters, May 29, 2020

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.



The new coronavirus has killed and infected African-Americans at disproportionately high rates, in part because they are more likely to work in frontline service jobs than whites, and tend to have more chronic health problems. As of May 19, the mortality rate for black Americans was 2.4 times the rate for whites, according to the American Public Media (APM) Research Lab.

That could force a difficult choice on many African-American voters in November: Risk in-person voting or pivot to a mail system that many do not trust.

Tumultuous April 7 elections in Wisconsin offered a potential preview. The state shifted to a nearly all-mail format and drastically reduced the number of polling places open on Election Day amid concerns about coronavirus.

Milwaukee, home to more than two-thirds of the state’s African-American residents, had only five polling places operating, down from the usual 180 locations. {snip}


Even in states such as Pennsylvania, which last year made absentee voting easier for all of the state’s voters, African Americans appear to lag whites in signing up.

Ahead of Pennsylvania’s June 2 primary, Philadelphia County – the state’s largest with a population that is about 44% black – received 206,961 requests for mail ballots, according to state data as of May 26. That’s nearly 25% fewer requests than in the state’s second-most-populous area around Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, where just 13% of residents are black.