What the end of the election cycle means from a Black organizer in Pennsylvania

Opinion by Mikayla Tillery
Nov. 10, 2020, 10:24 p.m.

In the most exciting election of my lifetime, I decided to take a gap year so I could work to elect progressives in Pennsylvania. The last four years have radicalized me in ways that I could not simply volunteer with the Democratic Party to revert back to the status quo in 2016. Instead, the Working Families Party hired me to be a digital organizer in Philadelphia. Here, my focus has been to dismantle the systems of patriarchy, white supremacy and capitalism that create this perpetual lesser-of-two-evils election process in the United States.

Every organizer in Pennsylvania was briefed on what would happen on Election Day and beyond: Biden would start strong, Trump would take the lead and the Philadelphia County mail-in ballots would be the difference in Biden narrowly winning back Pennsylvania. Months and years of voter outreach and advocacy would all end in a blue Pennsylvania, and Black organizers would continue to define what’s next. 

When most people think about Pennsylvania (which, if you’re not from here, I assume is not very often), they picture two cities with not a lot in between. This is entirely true. To break it down statistically, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia make up nearly 61% of the population, and these two cities are overwhelmingly Democratic. Going by this alone, there is no reason why a Republican could be competitive in Pennsylvania with a strong voter turnout of these groups. Historically, voter suppression in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh has manifested in gerrymandering, felon and misdemeanor disenfranchisement and voter roll purging

That is why, when organizers were strategizing in Pennsylvania, the question was not “How do we convince more swing voters to vote Biden?” but rather “How do we get more historically disillusioned and disenfranchised Philadelphians to vote?” That meant thousands of people from across the country would have to mobilize through phone banking, text banking and socially-distanced events to get out the vote in Philadelphia.

Most of the obstacles we faced were created by a Republican legislature that did everything to suppress votes. The immediate consequences were present in the primary election in June, which was marked with poll closures and consolidations on a massive scale, an inappropriate police presence at polling locations in Black communities and a preview of the chaos that was to come with mail-in ballots. 

To start off, Pennsylvania did not have the infrastructure to support mail-in ballots on a large scale in June, and many of those issues carried over into the presidential election. In fact, 2020 was the first year that Pennsylvanians could request a mail-in ballot without a medical or location excuse. The first issue that arose was the “naked ballot” controversy. This meant that all ballots had to be put into a secrecy envelope and that envelope had to be put in another envelope or the ballot would not be counted. During the primary elections, this created a situation where 5% of mail ballots were thrown out in one county. In a state like Pennsylvania where Trump only won by 44,000 votes — less than a percent — the purging of otherwise acceptable ballots was worrying. 

From there, 2.4 million Pennsylvanians requested a mail-in ballot for the presidential election, and many never received one. Personally, I requested my mail-in on Aug. 14 and did not receive my ballot until Oct. 23. This is especially problematic as many organizations suggested submitting ballots by Oct. 20. For those who requested a ballot but never received one, they were required to either early vote or request a provisional ballot on Election Day. In the end, there were countless restrictions on voting that did nothing to actually address voter fraud. Instead, these precautions made voting harder and fueled misinformation. Especially for the older and disabled voters who would be most at risk for COVID-19 at crowded polling locations, the complexity of the mail-in ballot process made voting in 2020 nearly inaccessible. 

This is all to say that going into Nov. 3, organizers and voters alike understood the odds we were up against. We understood that lines would be long, people would be frantically calling to ask about voter ID laws and we would have our eyes glued to the Associated Press website for days to come. And when I saw Philadelphians celebrate on Nov. 7, it had less to do with rejoicing for Biden and more to do with a city that had been ignored in the 2016 election finally having a voice. Without the dedication of Black organizers in cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Biden would likely not have been any more successful than Clinton was in 2016. 

Nov. 7 feels like a win until I have to confront that I’m not really from Philadelphia, or Pittsburgh, or Harrisburg, but a tiny county where Trump won by 33 points. When Black organizers say that there is still work to be done, we mean that Biden winning by a hair is not enough to change the minds of 3,313,146 Pennsylvanians. We mean that progressive policies will never erect from the “pragmatic and electable” candidate. We mean that every person that promoted Biden, defended Harris and fought for a blue wave must continue the momentum. At a time like this, I don’t feel safe in my own hometown, and the election of Joe Biden will not save me from the prejudice of my neighbors. What will save me and organizers like me is political action that goes beyond voting. 

Black organizers have begged the last four years and beyond for structural change that a Biden-Harris ticket does not satisfy. I have seen the praise for Stacey Abrams, for Angela Davis, for Shirley Chisholm, but it feels vapid when they are accredited only for registering voters, not how their revolutionary spirits awakened a sense of hope in those who had been systemically disillusioned. When it comes to voter suppression, apathy is not a new issue, but one that has steeped in 150 years of oppression. For myself and my peers, it is voter ID laws. For my great grandmother, it was a poll tax. 

I understand that this summer has awakened many to the scariest parts of political action. They found fascism hiding behind a country that bellows freedom. They found villains in those who were sworn to protect. After months of campaigning, phone banking and pleading with our families to vote with a conscience, it feels like Trump’s loss is a win, it feels like now is time to celebrate. I know that voters in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are chanting in the streets right now, but as Black organizers, we haven’t let out a breath yet. There is no sigh of relief when we still have work to do. 

Contact Mikayla Tillery at mtillery ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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