Ever since Black Americans gained the right to vote, people afraid of their political potential have sought to disenfranchise them. But after the 2020 presidential election, at least one method isn’t likely to work anymore: convincing them that their votes don’t matter.
The idea behind voter discouragement, as the tactic is known, is to render people so uninspired by the process or by the candidates that they decide voting isn’t worth the trouble. The advent of social networks and targeted advertising has taken it to a new level: Campaigns can focus precisely on the people they want to discourage, tailoring messages and delivering them in ways that are hard for outsiders to detect.
The 2016 presidential election offered plenty of examples. The Trump campaign created an animation of Hillary Clinton saying “super predators,” with the aim of suppressing votes by delivering it to Black users on Facebook. Russian election meddlers posted numerous anti-voting memes on social media, including one that flat-out said “I Won’t Vote. Will You?” It’s hard to know whether they worked, but the Black vote was definitely down in 2016 after many years of increased participation.
In 2020, pro-voting forces were stronger and better prepared. The sheer divisiveness of the election ensured that more people would participate on both sides. Social media, and possibly intelligence agencies, were better at flagging questionable content and dealing with foreign propaganda. Activists such as Stacey Abrams, and organizations that register voters and sign up poll workers, did a heroic job countering the many forms of direct voter suppression that the NAACP Legal Defense Fund has documented — including intimidation, daunting voting conditions and robocalls offering false instructions.
The greater efforts and awareness might help explain why — despite ample attempts at discouragement, including doctored videos designed to repel potential Joe Biden voters — Black voters turned out like never before. In key states such as Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, Black residents of cities made the decisive difference, turning the tide toward Biden. And thanks to Republicans’ efforts to impede the counting of mail-in ballots, they were able to witness their influence in glorious slow motion, making the experience all the more unforgettable.
It’s safe to say that without Black voters, Biden wouldn’t be president-elect today. The message of the 2020 election is that they have power, particularly in the all-important swing states. Which leads me to believe that, in future elections, they just won’t listen when anyone tries to tell them their votes don’t matter.