Democrats Fear Pandemic's Effect on Biden's Coalition of Black, Latino Voters

With long lines and hourlong waits to vote during the presidential primaries, the November election was already looking like a headache for voters. That was before the coronavirus pandemic.

Now, Democrats say sharply falling voter registration figures, fueled by the outbreak, in key states—along with the structural obstacles for voters of color, including voter suppression efforts—could be a problem for presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, despite his strong lead in the polls in recent weeks.

"I don't think the primary problem with the Biden campaign or Democrats going into November is a messaging problem," Cornell Belcher, President Barack Obama's former pollster, told Newsweek. "The primary hurdle is a structural problem: It is in fact franchising our younger electorate and our base electorate so they can participate and have a voice in the outcome in November."

An analysis by FiveThirtyEight showed that 2020 was on track to have possibly record turnout, based on how voter registration in January and February was outpacing those months in 2016. But the numbers fell off a cliff in March and since then, thanks to the pandemic shuttering popular in-person voter registration sites like department of motor vehicles offices. The affected states include ones Democrats are targeting intensely, like Florida, Arizona, Texas, Georgia and North Carolina.

Biden needs to turn sparkling poll numbers into active voters in the fall, and the African-American and Latino voters that represent a critical part of his base face obstacles to exercising their right to vote. Black voters wait 45 minutes longer to vote than white voters do, while Latinos wait 46 minutes longer, The Atlantic reported Tuesday, in a piece gloomily warning of "The Voting Disaster Ahead." In Florida, the piece said, an American Civil Liberties Union study found Latino and Black voters were twice as likely to have mail-in ballots rejected as whites were.

Mi Familia Vota, a national Latino grass-roots organization active in Arizona, Florida, Texas, Nevada, Colorado and California, has seen "unprecedented" challenges because of COVID-19, the group's executive director, Hector Sanchez, said.

But Sanchez said the group sees the 2020 election as a historic opportunity "to make our democracy more accessible, removing systemic barriers for Latinos and minorities to vote."

The organization, which has always had field capabilities in Hispanic communities, has had to revamp its digital program to reach voters. It is focused on mobilizing Latinas, who vote at higher rates than Hispanic men, as a wall against Trump, and young people, who it says must be given a reason to vote beyond just opposing Trump.

Despite national polls showing Biden with double-digit leads over Trump throughout June, Democrats are clear-eyed about the challenges in a pandemic-afflicted world come November.

Kristian Ramos, a Democratic strategist who specializes in the Latino vote, offered a hypothetical situation of a Mexican-American voter in Texas, who lives with and takes care of parents in the age of COVID-19 but forgot to register to vote by mail.

"You know, it's a three-hour wait to get into the voting booth and you'll probably be fine, but you have to weigh whether you should stand in line with the knowledge that you could take the virus home and endanger the life of your mother and father," he said. "Those are the sort of decisions people will be making this cycle."

In Texas, 400,000 Latinos were set to register, more than the difference between Beto O'Rourke and Senator Ted Cruz in their 2018 race, said Albert Morales, senior political director for polling company Latino Decisions. But, Morales said, there is "a level of distrust" toward mail-in voting in communities of color that are used to dealing with the well-worn obstacles they're at least familiar with.

The Florida Democratic Party said that hasn't been a problem. Democrats gained a 302,000-voter advantage over Republicans in vote-by-mail enrollment, according to state Division of Elections data.

Spokesperson Luisana Pérez Fernández said the party is countering obstacles to voting for communities of color by buying ads in newspapers that cater to the Black community and with appearances on Spanish-language radio shows in the Miami, Orlando, Tampa and Sarasota markets. During the shows, Democrats share voter registration information, direct people to a website to register and share their voter protection hotline, where voters can report suppression efforts.

Democrats told Newsweek you don't need to look ahead to November, because serious issues are already cropping up, like in New York's 15th Congressional District, where the candidate in second place, Michael Blake, said he won't concede while ballots are still being counted. In addition, he has alleged "very intentional Black voter suppression and undemocratic processes."

"It's almost a week after the election, and voters in the Bronx still don't know who their representative is," Belcher said. "That is a small picture of what is possible in November."

Earlier in June, significant issues with voting machines in the Georgia primary and breakdowns in the delivery of ballots to voters who asked to vote absentee caused concern among Democrats. The Biden campaign told Newsweek that "what happened in Georgia is unacceptable, and we're working hand in glove with the DNC to ensure that it doesn't happen again anywhere this fall, through a coordinated voter-protection effort that builds on their long-standing infrastructure in battleground states around the country."

But a source close to the campaign, who asked for anonymity to speak freely, said Biden's team is responding entirely digitally, with digital organizing tools to take the place of in-person registration and mobilization efforts. "No one knows how that will affect communities of color when you're moving in-person things online," the source said.

"The old saying is 'Money can't buy you time,'" Morales said, of the situation facing the Biden campaign. "They'll have to be strategic on what they focus on, with less than 100 days for voters to register."

mask voter
A woman wearing a mask and protective gloves leaves after casting her vote at the Miami-Dade Public Library during the Florida Democratic primary on March 17. EVA MARIE UZCATEGUI/AFP/Getty

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