In fierce presidential battle for Pennsylvania, Black voters could make all the difference

WASHINGTON – Jacque’ Sci-fi Scott whipped out her clippers, then spent four hours one recent Sunday afternoon cutting voters’ hair steps from a polling site in Philadelphia. There were fades, line-ups, partial cuts and even a shave.

“Are you voting?’’ Scott asked folks sitting on her black bar stool under a tent. “Do you plan to vote?”

Some getting the free cut, offered to promote voting, had already cast their ballot. Others were headed to the polling site.

“Even if I were to get 10 people to vote, then I know I’ve done my purpose,” said Scott, 30, owner of Another Planet Barbershop. In the final days leading up to Election Day, Scott and other local activists teamed with national nonpartisan groups like When We All Vote, Black Voters Matter and others to promote get-out-the-vote efforts for Black voters in the battleground state.

Pennsylvania is a top prize for President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, and some activists say Black voters could prove crucial to deciding who wins the presidential race and earns the state’s 20 electoral votes. Organizers expect social unrest, the disproportionate impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic on communities of color, and the renewed national focus on civil rights for Black Americans will spur more Black voters to show up at the polls in Pennsylvania than they did in 2016. 

“There’s a lot of energy out there,’’ said Stephanie Young, chief officer for communications and culture for When We All Vote, a nonprofit civic engagement group launched in 2018 by Michelle Obama, Tom Hanks, Lin-Manuel Miranda and others. “All of the circumstances that we’ve been faced with this year have really created a more informed and more passionate and a more engaged electorate.”

To activate those voters, groups are hosting socially distant rallies featuring local artists; conducting phone banks from home; setting up voter information booths at outdoor events; and leading caravans through Black neighborhoods.

Jacque’ Sci-fi Scott, owner of Another Planet Barbershop in Philadelphia, gave free hair cuts Oct. 18, 2020 as part of an effort to promote voting. “This is a crucial time. We have to make our voice heard,’' she said.

Trump and Biden both campaigned this week in the state. Last week, former President Barack Obama stumped for Biden in Philadelphia and Vice President Mike Pence for Trump in central Pennsylvania.

Trump narrowly beat Democrat Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania in 2016, but Biden is now leading Trump by 5.4 points there, according to USA TODAY’s polling average. The state is 76% white and 12% Black, and had voted Democrat since 1992 before it swung right for Trump. 

“People realize the importance of the election and … that Donald Trump is such a polarizing figure,” said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League. “For many of us, he’s taken the country in a place that’s very dark, very bad, very regressive, very hateful. There’s a lot of energy out there, which is about stopping Donald Trump, stopping Trumpism.”

A voter in Philadelphia stops to get information at an event hosted by When We All Vote on Oct. 18, 2020.

‘We’re fighting for our democracy’

Brittany Smalls showed up around 6 a.m., last Saturday to set up metal barricades for the National Early Vote Day rally. The Black Voters Matter bus was parked at the Onley Shopping Center – about three blocks from a polling site in Philadelphia.

More than 500 people attended the event, which featured local hip-hop artists, a popular deejay and election officials. There was also a food truck and a voter information table.

Since 2016, Black Voters Matter has traveled through Black communities in the South urging people to register and vote.For the first time this year, it expanded its route to include Pennsylvania.

Smalls called 2016 a “missed opportunity” for candidates and other groups to engage more Black voters there. She voted in Philadelphia but knows many who didn’t vote. She thinks that will change this election.

“We’re fighting for our democracy,’’ Smalls said. “People are looking for some justice. There’s a lot of civil unrest happening right now. People’s eyes are open and they want true change.”

Nonpartisan groups have ramped up their efforts in Pennsylvania in part because of the close race in 2016, when Trump won the state 48.2% to 47.5%. The win was decided by 44,000 votes.

“We knew that we needed to put more effort, more energy into a place like Pennsylvania to ensure that those voters there had the resources to make their voices heard,’’ said Young, of When We All Vote.

As part of its “Reclaim Your Vote’’ campaign, the National Urban League has focused on half a dozen states, including Pennsylvania. It targeted voters in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Farrell, a small city with a Black population of about 42%.

According to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, 65% of Black voters in Pennsylvania live in Philadelphia, 14% in Pittsburgh and 4% in Harrisburg.

Many groups have focused on Philadelphia, where Black Americans make up 43% of the population. 

Voter turnout in Philadelphia was 68% in 2008 and 64% in 2016, said Morial of the National Urban League. Nationwide, Black voter turnout slipped to 59.6% in 2016 after reaching a record-high 66.6% in 2012, according to Pew. At the same time, turnout among non-college-educated white voters in Pennsylvania increased from 53% to 57%. 

“That swing accounted for the margin of victory in Pennsylvania,’’ said Morial, who recently visited Philadelphia and other locations in the state to help get out the vote. “People know that turnout makes a difference on both sides of that equation.”

Black Voters Matter hosted a get-out-the-vote event in Philadelphia Oct. 17, 2020.

‘No accident Barack Obama went to Pennsylvania’

Trump and Biden, who regularly touts his Pennsylvania roots, have worked in recent weeks to court Black voters in the state.

Republicans set up Black Voices for Trump Community Centers in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, said Paris Dennard, senior communications advisor for Black media affairs for the Republican National Committee.

He said the group has also advertised in media targeting Black audiences, canvassed neighborhoods and hosted rallies, Zoom events and MAGA meetups. Philadelphia was among the 15 cities where the GOP held events for National Black Voter Day.

“The RNC ground game is serious, the investments are historic and the results will be a victory for President Trump,” Denard said.

Vice President Mike Pence on Oct. 19, 2020, in New Cumberland, Penn.

Republicans have focused their efforts on courting mostly white rural voters, said Brigid Callahan Harrison, a political scientist at Montclair State Universityin New JerseyTrump held a rally this month in Johnstown, a GOP stronghold in Pennsylvania that is 76% white. Pence also recently visited predominately white counties in the state.

Since Black voters are more likely to vote for a Democrat, it’s not in Trump’s best interest to try to turn them out, Harrison said.

“He’s going to make most of his appeals to his base constituency in rural areas,’’ she said.

The Biden campaign, however, is pressed to ensure Black voters turnout in Pennsylvania, Harrison said. Historically, she said, voting patterns show Black voters are the most loyal constituency for the Democratic Party. Along with Obama, Biden has sent U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, running to become the nation’s first Black female vice president, and her husband to campaign in Pennsylvania in recent weeks. 

“It’s no accident that Barack Obama went to Pennsylvania,” Harrison said. And with early voting underway, she said, “we also see organized labor working very, very diligently to get all union members out, but in particular union voters of color.”

Former President Barack Obama took aim at President Donald Trump's COVID-19 response at a rally in Philadelphia for Joe Biden.

‘I know that everybody cares’

Laqueenda Adu and her mother, Kim, went to a polling site near Philadelphia City Hall Saturday to cast her first-ever vote for president. Adu, an 18-year-old student from Central High School, waited three hours.

Days before, Adu and others from the high school program, ‘’My School Vote,” emailed and called their peers reminding them to vote.  

Only 33% of the 18-to-24-year-olds in Pennsylvania voted in the 2018 midterms, according to When We All Vote.

Adu said it’s important for her and other young people to vote, especially with concerns about COVID-19 disproportionately killing Black Americans, as well as racial tensions in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

In recent days, Philadelphia has been gripped by protests over the fatal shooting by police of Walter Wallace Jr. , a 27-year-old Black man. Police said officers responded to a report of a person with a weapon.

“I’ve seen the protests and I think a lot of people really care about these issues,” Adu said. “It’s just a matter of doing other things besides protesting. If you care, you should vote.”

Laqueenda Adu, (right) and her mother, Kim, voted in Philadelphia on Oct. 17, 2020. "There are a lot of important issues that we need our elected leaders to pay attention to and to address,'' said Adu, 18.

Organizers point to long lines at polling sites in Philadelphia as signs of what could turn into a historic Black voter turnout this election cycle. Black voters could also play a key role in other battleground states, including Florida and Wisconsin, according to the Pew Research Center.

Scott, the barber, is excited about the early turnout so far.

“I know we’re going to stand up and show out,’’ she said.

She’s hoping those who got a haircut will be among the millions voting in Pennsylvania. 

“I wouldn’t want to do free haircuts in vain,” she said. “But that is the only payment. That and a smile.”

Rebecca Morin contributed to this report.

Follow Deborah Berry on Twitter: @dberrygannett

Leave a Reply