DETROIT – Power. Respect. Finally.
When Eric Sheffield first saw Joe Biden take the lead in the vote count in Georgia, the 52-year-old Black man immediately thought about all the years he spent urging his Black friends and family to vote and all the times he saw his preferred candidate lose.
“Over the years, a lot of Black people have said, ‘Well, my vote doesn’t matter,'" the real estate development analyst in Atlanta said Friday. “This is proof that our vote does matter.”
Even as votes are still tallied, there's little dispute that Black voters were a driving national force pushing the former vice president to the winner’s column. By overwhelmingly backing Biden and showing up in strong numbers, Black voters not only helped deliver familiar battleground states to the Democrat, but they also created a new one in the longtime GOP bastion of Georgia — potentially remaking presidential politics for years to come.
Activists pointed to the results as a repudiation of the racist rhetoric of President Donald Trump and an endorsement of Biden's choice of Kamala Harris, the first Black woman on a major party presidential ticket, as his running mate. But they also credited their years of work organizing voters and signaled they intended to seek a return on their investment.
“We saw this early — we believed in us,” said Maurice Mitchell, a Movement for Black Lives strategist and national director of the Working Families Party — a progressive multiracial grassroots effort. “We believed in the power of Black voters and Black organizers in our movement."
Black voters made up 11% of the national electorate, and 9 in 10 of them supported Biden, according to AP VoteCast, an expansive survey of more than 110,000 voters nationwide. Both figures are about on par with 2016, when Democrat Hillary Clinton also overwhelmingly won Black voters' support but fell short of winning the White House, according to Pew Research Center estimates.
But when compared to Clinton, Biden drew more voters in critical areas with large Black populations. In Wayne County, Michigan, which includes Detroit, and in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, Biden added to his vote totals and his margins compared to Clinton, while Trump’s votes failed to match the Democratic gains. The increase in the Democratic vote in Milwaukee, about 28,000 votes, was more than the 20,000-vote lead Biden had in the state.
While votes are still being counted in Philadelphia, Biden had not surpassed Clinton's 2016 total vote tally in the county. Still, he received at least 93% of the vote in the city's wards where more than 75% of the population is Black, according to an Associated Press analysis.
But perhaps the most striking evidence for the influence of Black voters was in Georgia, where Biden's slim edge could make him the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the Republican stronghold in nearly three decades. The AP has not called that race.
So far, the Democrat has added 588,600 voters in Georgia compared to Clinton’s tally in 2016, while Trump saw an increase of only 366,900. Almost half of Biden’s gains came from the four largest counties — Fulton, DeKalb, Gwinnett and Cobb — all in the Atlanta metro area with large Black populations.
Biden acknowledged Black voters' role during his victory speech Saturday night, noting the “African American community stood up again for me.”
“You’ve always had my back, and I’ll have yours,” he said.
In 2008 and 2012, Black voters showed up in record numbers for Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president — setting a new high bar. But Black voter turnout dropped significantly in key cities in 2016, prompting debate within the party about why and a feeling among Black voters that they were being blamed for Trump’s victory.
But as Biden declared his candidacy and was competitive in the Democratic primary, it was Black voters in states such as South Carolina, Virginia and Alabama who aligned with the former vice president and helped him win the nomination.
The choice of Biden was a source of tension within the party — particularly among progressive activists who were critical of his role in the passage of federal criminal justice legislation in the 1990s that lengthened sentences for violent crimes, helped fill prisons and flooded Black communities with police officers. Others in the party were unhappy with his positions on health care, climate change and economic policy.
Polling suggests those tensions did not hurt Biden in the end. Black Biden voters were much more likely than other Biden voters — especially those who were white — to say they were casting their ballots for the Democrat rather than against Trump, according to AP VoteCast.
For many Black women, Biden’s choice of Harris, who will be the first Black woman and the first South Asian woman to hold the vice presidency, made their votes an extension of the legacy of civil rights workers Fannie Lou Hamer and Shirley Chisholm.
“This literally is what our ancestors have fought and died for — the freedom, liberation and survival that they knew they would never live to see, but they knew that it was so important for generations to come,” said Alencia Johnson, a political strategist and Biden adviser.
Behind that sentiment was massive voter mobilization.
Black Voters Matter Fund targeted more than 15 states, sending a fleet of buses on road trips across the nation. In Georgia alone, they reached more than 500,000 voters and sent nearly 2 million text messages.
The effort was helped in that state by implementation of statewide automatic registration when voters obtain or renew state IDs. Black voter registrations increased by 40% in both Fulton and Gwinnett counties, according to the Georgia secretary of state. The increase in the growing counties outpaced the 6% increase in the Black population over the same time period.
Turnout may also have been boosted by new rules making it easier to vote during the pandemic. After many Black voters experienced long lines during primary elections in Georgia and Wisconsin, many were motivated to take advantage of mail-in and early voting options, helping Biden's campaign bank those votes early.
Fair Fight, the voting rights group founded by Stacey Abrams, launched widespread voter education efforts and pushed back aggressively against GOP-led efforts to limit mail voting. Abrams, a former candidate for Georgia governor, said she saw the election as a critical moment to try to “mitigate harm” done under the Trump administration.
“It’s one of those few moments where we have this power to shape the future for ourselves, to insist upon at least attention to our plight," she said. "And to demand behavior that meets this notion that we have as a nation that there should be justice for all.”
Organizers and activists are now pivoting to plans to hold Biden accountable for promises of economic investment, tackling systemic racism, policing reforms and improved health care.
The Rev. William Barber II, a civil rights leader, said he expects Black poverty — a rate of 18.8% worsened by the coronavirus pandemic — to be an immediate priority for a Biden administration.
“We’ll be expecting follow-through,” said Barber, a leader of the Poor People’s Campaign. “Biden needs to have a 50-day strategy, not a 100-day strategy, for addressing the issues.”
Swift action on Biden's agenda, however, will be impossible without Democratic control of the Senate. That could be determined by the outcome of two Georgia runoff elections on Jan. 5.
Activists said they intended to keep up momentum and expected a flood of attention and money, giving Black voters another chance to demonstrate their power.
"We are going to put everything we have into them, just as much, if not more, than the presidential,” said Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter Fund. “The choice is clear and we don’t have a choice to sit this one out, and we’re going to highlight the fierce urgency of it.”
Morrison reported from New York; Kastanis reported from Los Angeles. Polling reporter Hannah Fingerhut in Washington also contributed to this report.