Nonpartisan groups register 87,000 in effort to engage black Missourians in midterms

This 2016 file photo shows Kansas City voters lining up to vote at the Lucile Bluford branch of the Kansas City Public Library.
This 2016 file photo shows Kansas City voters lining up to vote at the Lucile Bluford branch of the Kansas City Public Library. kmyers@kcstar.com

As U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill fights to keep her seat in a razor-close race that could determine control of the Senate, a coalition of nonprofits went on a drive and reports it has registered more than 87,000 predominately black voters across Missouri.

The nonpartisan coalition, called Missouri Black Votes, hopes to engage black voters after the state passed a “burdensome” new voter identification law. The coalition says it is not working on McCaskill’s behalf, but registration drive could benefit McCaskill, who captured 94 percent of the black vote in Missouri last time she was up for election in 2012.

This time around, McCaskill has been trying to woo black voters after sustaining criticism from Missouri lawmakers who said she has taken them for granted. The black vote could be crucial in what figures to be a close contest against her Republican challenger, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley.

It could also be important for campaigns working to raise Missouri’s minimum wage, legalize medical marijuana and pass a slate of ethics reforms and a redistricting proposal.

Volunteers from Missouri Black Votes’ nonprofit partners, including Missouri Faith Voices, Missouri Jobs with Justice and Shirley’s Kitchen Cabinet, have been knocking doors, manning tables and talking to their neighbors to add black Missourians to the voter rolls in droves. The effort is funded by the Black Progressive Action Coalition, an organization that mobilizes black voters, affiliated with BlackPAC, a super PAC that backed now-Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, and Lucy McBath, a Democratic candidate for the U.S. House from Georgia.

Angela Pearson, Missouri Black Votes project manager, said in Missouri “we have to be proactive in making sure that people have access to democracy.

“And part of that access is making sure that we find them, let them know that voting is important and that we’re here to help them register to vote if they like,” Pearson said.

In Missouri — where the Census Bureau estimates about 414,000 black people were registered to vote in November 2016 — it’s a sizeable bump.

“I think no matter how you look at it it’s a pretty hefty figure,” said Dave Robertson, chair of the political science department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Robertson said even if half of the registrants had previously been registered to vote and had moved — “a very conservative estimate” — the drive would be a significant bump to black voter registration.

The Missouri Secretary of State’s Office reported at the beginning of the month, the state had a net of nearly 68,300 new voters register this year. That includes all voters as the office does not capture demographic data.

Missouri Black Votes’ registration effort comes after voters, in 2016, approved a new Constitutional amendment requiring voters to show a photo ID at the polls. Critics of voter ID laws say they’re especially burdensome for minority and low-income voters who can’t get an ID.

With the new requirement in place, Pearson said the group wanted to give Missourians an opportunity to register and participate. That fits with the nonprofits’ missions to give voices to their communities, she said.

“Part of our job is to help remove one barrier, at least, when it comes to voting,” Pearson said.

Priorities USA, a Democratic-leaning organization based in Washington, sued over Missouri’s new voter ID law on behalf of a Jackson County woman this summer.

Caitlyn Adams, executive director of Missouri Jobs with Justice, called the effort unprecedented in her time working with the nonprofit. Missouri Jobs with Justice helped the labor-backed effort to repeal Missouri’s right-to-work law and is working in support of campaigns to raise the state’s minimum wage and pass Clean Missouri, a controversial slate of ethics reforms and a redistricting proposal.

“The investment in black voters is so critical and important, and the fact that people are seeing that and taking it seriously is exciting,” Adams said.

The next step, Adams said is getting new voters engaged over the long term to hold candidates and elected officials accountable to represent them.

If new registrants become regular voters, Rep. Brandon Ellington, D-Kansas City, said, candidates will have to include them in policy conversations. He expected issues surrounding affordable housing, criminal justice reform and removing marijuana from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Schedule I drug list would get more attention.

Robertson noted registration doesn’t automatically yield turnout and he guessed new registrants are “not a lot more likely or less likely” to vote than others.

“For this particular election, every vote matters,” said Robynn Kuhlmann, an associate professor at the University of Central Missouri.

A CBS News and YouGov poll taken earlier this month had McCaskill and a Republican Josh Hawley in a dead heat in a two-way race. Each captured 45 percent of the likely voters surveyed from Sept. 10 through 14. That poll showed 82 percent of black likely voters surveyed would choose McCaskill in a two-way race with Hawley.

The poll reported a margin of error of plus or minus 3.3 percent.

Black voters who responded to the survey reported being less likely to turn out to the polls than white voters, but both groups reported similar enthusiasm and strength of support for their chosen candidates.

McCaskill, however, has been criticized for what some see as a lack of focus on minority voters. Rep. Bruce Franks, Jr., D-St. Louis, called on McCaskill earlier this year to “show up” and earn support from minority voters.

McCaskill asked black leaders to sign onto a letter pushing back against Franks’ comments, but no one would.

Missouri voters are also expected to decide a number of ballot initiatives this fall that would raise the minimum wage, legalize medical marijuana and institute ethics reforms and a redistricting proposal — all seen as possible drivers of turnout.

“To me, any and every collection we get is a success because that means we’re giving one extra person access — one more voice to be heard,” Pearson said.