BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA — Outside Doug Jones’ campaign headquarters on Sunday, after the candidate appeared alongside Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL) to make a last-minute pitch to Alabama voters, I approached Birmingham City Councilor Sheila Tyson to discuss the race. Tyson had been doing outreach in black communities in 23 counties through an effort called Power of the Sister Vote. “Will black voters turn out?” I asked her.
“The problem isn’t going to be with the black voters,” she responded. “If Jones doesn’t win, it’s not our problem.”
Two days later at Jones’ election night party — after the results came in, the confetti fell, and Jones thanked the diverse coalition that made the historic moment possible — I bumped into Tyson among the still-teary and joyous supporters. She grabbed me by the wrists and pulled me close.
“Did I not tell you? Didn’t I tell you? I told you,” she said. “Ninety-three percent of black women that voted in the state of Alabama voted for Doug Jones… That’s the power of the sister vote.”
“93% of black women that voted in the state of Alabama voted for Doug Jones… That’s the power of the sister vote.” – Birmingham City Councilor Sheila Tyson pic.twitter.com/lTgP7saCxx
— Kira Lerner (@kira_lerner) December 13, 2017
Pundits will continue to spin the results of this special election in more ways than we can count. It’s a strong rebuke to Trump. It’s thanks to Jones’ unapologetic pro-choice stance. It’s an example of an effective ground game strategy. It’s because allegedly molesting children is a step too far, even in our current political climate.
Those points may have some truth to them. But when it comes to Tuesday’s results, one takeaway stands out above all else: Black voters turned out.
According to Washington Post exit polling, 98 percent of black women voted for Jones (Tyson’s initial estimate was conservative) along with 93 percent of black men. Black people make up a quarter of Alabama’s population, but they made up roughly 28 percent of the electorate — a turnout rate that hasn’t been seen by black voters here since President Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns.
Those rates prove what many black voters here have said all along: When they have the right candidate, they can and will swing elections.
“We’re gonna do it for the governor’s race,” Tyson said. “We’ll do it for the presidential election. This state is going to be a blue state from this election on.”
Jessica Norman, who coordinated get-out-the-vote efforts for the Jones campaign, told me that the candidate’s strategy was to get out into black communities and to speak to them about the issues that matter.
“Just calling, knocking on doors, talking to people face-to-face, letting them know why this campaign matters, I think that’s the reason we won,” she said. “You would be amazed — there were people who didn’t know about the election.”
Aided by groups like Tysons’ and the NAACP, the Jones campaign was able to reach out to voters who had never before been mobilized in Alabama. Local branches of the NAACP called every registered voter who did not cast a ballot in 2016. Paid canvassers went door-to-door. Jones visited black churches on multiple Sundays, speaking about health care and jobs and infrastructure.
“Everyone automatically thinks that with a Democratic candidate that you’re just going to get the African American vote, and I really believe that Doug Jones did not just take that for granted.”
Birmingham resident Blair Liggins, who celebrated the victory with his young daughter on his shoulders, said that he was witnessing history because of Jones’ efforts to reach black voters.
“Everyone automatically thinks that with a Democratic candidate that you’re just going to get the African American vote, and I really believe that Doug Jones did not just take that for granted,” Liggins said.
Cynthia Woodfin-Kellum agreed. “I’m 64 years old — I’ve seen a lot in Alabama,” she said, adding that black women like herself would have never thought this night was possible. “Alabama is a great state, from the top of the highest mountain to the lowest sea. Tonight, it’s the greatest state.”
Thirty-three year old Nuris Bigelow said she was moved this year to vote for the first time ever. Tearing up as she left the polls in southeast Alabama, she told me that casting her ballot felt “great.”
“My vote counts!” she said. “I was glad that I was able to vote. My vote counts. One more makes a difference.”
— Kira Lerner (@kira_lerner) December 12, 2017
Bigelow celebrated the moment Tuesday alongside Pastor Kenneth Glasgow — an Alabama voting advocate who has helped tens of thousands of people with criminal convictions register to vote since losing and then regaining his rights himself because of a drug charge. After Alabama’s GOP-controlled legislature passed a law this year defining the vague “moral turpitude” clause of the state’s constitution, thousands of people who were previously disenfranchised regained the right to vote.
Glasgow spent most of the day outside a Dothan, Alabama polling location, encouraging and helping dozens of people — including many first-time voters — to cast their ballots. Despite being harassed by some people who he characterized as GOP voters driving by and telling him what he was doing was illegal, Glasgow remained optimistic.
“They’re showing up. They’re coming out.”
“They’re making me proud,” he said. “They’re showing up. They’re coming out.”
Late in the morning, Glasgow helped two first time voters, Chazarius Harden and Kameron McGlown, get print-outs of their mugshots from the city jail because neither had the appropriate photo ID required to vote. Harden said police recently took his ID when he was stopped for walking on the wrong side of the street, and McGlown said he lost his in a house fire.
— Kira Lerner (@kira_lerner) December 12, 2017
“It feels real good,” McGlown said after the polling officials eventually let him use the mugshot, changing their minds after initially saying it was not a certified ID.
Last month, Anna Reynolds told me she had registered to vote but was worried she would be turned away because of court costs and fines on her record. Alabama law requires people pay off their court fees before regaining their right to vote, a stipulation that voting advocates call a modern day poll tax. But on Tuesday, Reynolds came up to me, proudly waving a piece of paper — a letter from the state indicating that she had been pardoned for the two charges.
“It feels good,” she told me as her “I voted” sticker blew away in the wind. Reynolds headed back inside to grab another one.
A successful strategy
Black voters told me over and over that Tuesday’s turnout is not a fluke — and doesn’t have to be an aberration. The same coalition of voters that turned out in Alabama on Tuesday, they said, can turn out and swing elections across the country. Democrats in other states can nominate candidates who have been working in the communities for decades, like Jones, or candidates that are not afraid to advertise on billboards in black neighborhoods. The winning candidate elsewhere could also be someone who isn’t willing to moderate his or her progressive views, they said.
In Alabama, it may mean more Democratic seats in 2018.
“Great things are in store for us,” Norman said. “I can’t say exactly what, but we have a new mayor in Birmingham, and with a new member of the Senate, I think great things are in store for us.”
Woodfin-Kellum said more of what we saw this year is in store in 2018.
“More voters registered, more voters out, more voters standing up for what they believe and sticking with it.”