Earlier this month, a Cambridge Analytica whistleblower told a U.S. Senate panel that former Trump campaign chairman Steve Bannon used the embattled political consulting firm to suppress black voters in certain swing states.
Former Cambridge Analytica employee Christopher Wylie told lawmakers the firm used “voter disengagement” tactics to discourage certain groups, namely African Americans, from casting ballots in an effort to help Trump win the election. At the time of his testimony, it was unclear what form those efforts took.
This week, details of that effort began to take shape. According to a Bloomberg report on Tuesday, Bannon, the conservative news site Breitbart, the Trump campaign, and other Trump supporters worked together to convince African Americans that it was not in their advantage to vote early — or at all.
“If you can’t stomach Trump, just don’t vote for the other people and don’t vote at all,” former Black Men for Bernie founder and activist Bruce Carter, who launched Trump for Urban Communities in the summer of 2016, remembers telling black voters.
The Bloomberg report also included an important detail about Carter’s effort to suppress black voters:
In the final weeks of October, Carter’s operation announced a ‘Don’t Vote Early’ campaign designed to convince black voters not to take advantage of early voting, which tended to build up banks of votes for Democrats.
Bloomberg explains that Carter set out to convince black voters in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Florida — three states critical for a Trump victory — that despite Trump’s white nationalist backers, they should support the GOP candidate. The campaign involved promising $1 billion in investments to restore urban communities and framing Hillary Clinton as an enemy to minority voters. And most importantly, it featured a direct appeal to keep people from the polls.
Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia offer at least some early voting opportunity, whether it’s in-person voting ahead of an election or no-excuse absentee balloting. On average, the states that allow early voting give eligible citizens 19 days to cast a ballot before Election Day (some states offer up to 45 days).
During that early voting period, when both candidates were actively campaigning across the country, the Trump for Urban Communities’ Twitter account counted down to the election and encouraged voters to wait until Election Day to cast a ballot. According to Bloomberg, the Twitter account was run by a colleague of Carter’s who was enlisted to tweet on his behalf, though more people likely tweeted from the account.
— TrumpForUC (@TrumpForUC) October 30, 2016
The effort to keep black voters from casting early ballots got a boost on October 28 when then-FBI Director James Comey announced he would be reopening the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. A few days later, the Trump for Urban Communities Twitter account repeated the appeal for voters to stay home, this time claiming that new, incriminating information about the email investigation could be revealed before Election Day.
She wants you to early vote before the FBI tells us what else they found. DON'T FALL FOR IT!!!!!!! https://t.co/I0V09Lg5Ot
— TrumpForUC (@TrumpForUC) October 31, 2016
And stressed voting early………. just in case FBI really does release anything [else] incriminating!!! https://t.co/pqyYTsBsJp
— TrumpForUC (@TrumpForUC) October 30, 2016
Carter and his group also repeated a common talking point among vocal Trump supporters like Roger Stone, who in the weeks before the election, were warning of the threat of potential voter fraud. Through Twitter, Trump for Urban Communities encouraged voters to go to the polls on Election Day in order to watch out for fraudulent activity.
Hope as many of you as possible will consider:
1. Vote in person on 11/8.
2. Work your local polling station.
Less chance to rig anything!
— TrumpForUC (@TrumpForUC) September 24, 2016
That appeal was made by other conservative Twitter accounts, including pro-Trump users @ghostrider050 with over 27,700 followers and @misspennymarie, who has more than 11,600 followers (According to the Botcheck.me tool, the former exhibits patterns of a political bot or highly moderated account tweeting political propaganda). The latter encouraged Trump voters to wear red to the polls to “fight voter fraud together!”
Just a few weeks later, Trump would call for his supporters to turn out en masse on on Election Day to monitor polling places for potential widespread fraud. Otherwise, he claimed, the outcome could be rigged. Meanwhile, voting advocates warned that hostile poll watchers could violate the Voting Rights Act or could hand critical swing states like Pennsylvania to Trump.
As the election approached, Carter’s strategy appeared to be working. Early voting turnout among black voters dropped significantly from 2012 in swing states. While that slump could be attributed to a number of factors, Breitbart reporter Dustin Stockton — the reporter who recruited Carter to aid the Trump campaign — claimed that Trump “vastly outperformed the projection models in the 12 areas Bruce [Carter] was targeting.”
Reports on black early voting turnout in early November were some of the first to point to the looming Trump upset. “Black Turnout Is Down in Early Voting. Does That Mean the Trumpocalypse Is Nigh?” read a headline in New York Magazine. The New York Times published a similar piece with the headline, “Black Turnout Soft in Early Voting, Boding Ill for Hillary Clinton.”
“I never like telling people not to vote,” Stockton told Bloomberg. “But from a tactical and strategic position, we looked at it: If you could get them to vote for Trump, that was a plus two.” If they didn’t vote at all, it was a “plus one,” he said.
Carter and his allies in the Trump campaign were targeting early voting for a reason — research shows that states that allow early voting see an increase in turnout among minority voters, people who are more likely to support Democrats. Black voters in particular take advantage of early voting because working-class voters often can’t make it to the polls on Tuesday, a workday. States that allow weekend voting see even higher turnout because of Sunday “Souls to the Polls” events, where black churches traditionally hold celebrations and encourage their parishioners to cast ballots the Sunday before an election.
That’s why in Georgia this year, Republican lawmakers launched an effort to prohibit voting the Sunday before an election. The effort failed when advocates and community leaders learned of the bill and encouraged constituents to contact their lawmakers.
Bannon has denied that he purposely sought out to suppress the black vote, blaming Clinton instead for the lower than expected turnout. “When you ask them why they didn’t vote for her or why they didn’t turn up, it’s because they didn’t like her policies,” he told Bloomberg last week.
But according to Bloomberg’s reporting, Bannon was instrumental in connecting Carter with wealthy Dallas financier, Darren Blanton, who helped Carter raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for Trump for Urban Communities — money that was used to pay for the “Don’t Vote Early” campaign.