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Some Black leaders say engagement outside election cycles would drive voters to the polls

A portrait of Dr. Frye
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Dr. Lester Frye, president of the Baptist Ministers Conference of Richmond and Vicinity is photographed on Wednesday, March 6, 2024 in Richmond, Virginia.

The turnout gap between white and nonwhite voters in Virginia increased between 2020 and 2022.

Some Black political leaders differ on how to increase participation in the upcoming elections. But they agreed that engagement with Black voters outside of the election cycle would drive turnout.

For decades, Black voters have been part of Democrats’ core constituency; they also make up 20 percent of Virginia’s population — including in the state’s two most competitive U.S. Congressional districts. In the run-up to the midterm elections, a variety of national and international media questioned Black voters’ enthusiasm for President Joe Biden.

Historically, among the most important institutions for Black voter mobilization and engagement has been “Souls to the Polls” efforts, buoyed by Sunday voting in Virginia. During a primary sprint for a special congressional election in 2022, one of the main contenders said he was relying, in part, on a network of pastors to turn out voters.

Rev. Lester Frye, the president of the Baptist Ministers Conference of Richmond & Vicinity, said churches today are having more trouble reaching younger people due to decreasing religiosity and doubts about the utility of voting.

“It's a tough sell only because down through the years in history, a lot of people didn't see the vote being something that was beneficial to our community,” he said. “When people are getting and receiving, and doing things, then they have more of an open mind to actually want to get out and vote.”

He described a chicken-or-the-egg situation: Some voters are less inclined to vote during state elections, which are held in off years, when federal offices aren’t on the ballot.

“It's a pyramid effect. You got to have all the pieces in order to actually get there, to pass everything down and get what you need,” he said.

'A lot of times, we don't see some of them again until it's time to vote again.'
Monica Hutchinson, Women of Color Coalition

Monica Hutchinson, the vice president of government relations with the Women of Color Coalition, said that voter turnout driven by delivering policy results to communities also should involve elected officials inquiring about solutions.

“Everybody wants to hear what our issues are. But when the election is over, there's not that many people coming back saying, ‘Please, have a seat at the table, so we can work on these issues together,’” she said. “A lot of times, we don't see some of them again until it's time to vote again.”

Alexsis Rodgers — political director at Black to the Future Action Fund, and a former candidate for Richmond mayor and for the state Senate — said elected officials need to build relationships with voters outside of election cycles.

Additional information and connections to candidates might impact voter turnout.
Man holding I Voted stickers

“People want to know that they have a real connection to their elected leaders and that they're actively working every day to solve their problems,” she said, pointing to elected officials holding coffee shop office hours or town halls throughout the year.

“There's a strategy from the [Democratic National Committee] often where they want to go after the moderates,” said Rodgers. “But there are a lot of elected officials here in the local community that I'm really proud of that are showing up in April, because it's not about turnout. It's about real relationships in our communities.”

Rodgers’ organization polled Black voters in Georgia, North Carolina and California, and found that one of the main reasons they hadn’t voted was a lack of information about the candidates.

While the participation gap between Black and white voters has grown since 2012, it did more quickly in jurisdictions the U.S. Department of Justice listed as having a history of racial discrimination, according to The Brennan Center for Justice.

Virginia’s turnout gap between white and nonwhite voters was among the lowest for those jurisdictions covered by the DOJ list: 2% in 2020 and 3.5% in 2022.

Hutchinson worried that a narrative being set up points to Black voters being the missing piece to a Biden victory over former President Donald Trump in this year’s general election.

“When Democrats win, it's never, ‘Oh yeah, Black voters turned up and turned out at the polls.’ But when Democrats lose, ... you will see all these breakdowns for Black voters: the drop off of Black voters, and then Black men, and then Black women,” she said.

Jahd Khalil covers Virginia state politics for VPM News.