For Black Americans, the right to vote has never come easy. After centuries of systemic legal exclusion, our ancestors marched and shed blood time and time again for the right to cast a ballot and secure a place in American democracy. Nearly six decades after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, this struggle continues, with a rising tide of authoritarianism that deploys voter suppression as one of its most insidious weapons.

Today, Black men are major targets. In 2008 and 2012, with Barack Obama on the ballot, a record number of Black men turned out to vote. In response, the far right spread disinformation across major social media platforms to discourage Black voters. As a Senate inquiry concluded, Russian operatives and troll farms targeted “no single group … more than African-Americans.” Black voters saw messages like, “Our Votes Don’t Matter” and “Not one represents Black people. Don’t go to vote.”

It worked. In the following three cycles, participation plummeted.

People For the American Way’s “Defend the Black Vote” program is not only fighting authoritarianism by increasing voter turnout, but we are doing so by focusing specifically on low-propensity Black male voters. Our rationale for targeting the most exceptionally hard-to-turn-out group is that while they are targeted for suppression efforts, they are often neglected by other GOTV efforts. Their power as a voting bloc has been ignored and undervalued for far too long. To make our democracy stronger, we need to intentionally include communities that have been most heavily targeted for exclusion. When we find innovative solutions for the most vulnerable, following the “curb-cuts effect” for equity, those lessons can effectively mobilize voters and strengthen democracy for all.

A Data-Driven Approach

To learn more, we commissioned independent researchers to analyze a pilot project we ran in the fall of 2022, a direct-texting program that—with a modest investment of less than $150,000—included 1.7 million Black men, encouraging them to vote and including important information to help them make a plan to do so (the election date and a link to find a polling place). We focused on infrequent Black male voters, ages 18-60, in 15 states, who had voted in none or only one of the last three national elections; with the help of independent researchers at the Analyst Institute, we sought out answers to several key research questions, including the total cost to successfully activate one person to vote, the comparative success rates of different kinds of motivational messages, and the comparative effectiveness of texts that came from either automated or human sources.

While voting rates fluctuate with every election, there has been a persistent turnout gap across racial lines, with higher rates of turnout among white voters over Black voters. In 2022, that gap widened to 12 percent, with a turnout rate of 57.6 percent in white Americans compared to a 45.6 percent rate in Black Americans. There is also a gender gap, with Black women voting at higher rates than Black men consistently for the past 30 years. This gender gap is present among voters of every race, but it is the widest among Black Americans.

Read the full article about voter suppression by Roger Vann at Stanford Social Innovation Review.