Getting More Black Men to the Polls

Mondale Robinson and his Black Male Voter Project are doing what legions of consultants and candidates couldn’t do.

Out of roughly 250,000,000 voting-eligible Americans, only around half actually vote. For Black men, in particular, nearly half who are registered to vote have not gone to the polls in the past five consecutive elections. Many can’t vote under state laws that disenfranchise Black men because of prior felony convictions or incarceration.

Meanwhile, the November election is poised to become one of the most pivotal in American history. An incumbent president embraces authoritarianism with impunity, some 200,000 Americans are dead from a virus made worse by an incompetent federal response and millions more are evicted, hungry, unemployed, or sick. The only way out of the darkness is through massive voter turnout.

Part of the problem may be that traditional campaigns are doing things all wrong.

This is why, after decades as a Democratic political consultant, Mondale Robinson founded the Black Male Voter Project, an organization devoted to bringing Black men into the electoral process for life. With a $7.9 million budget, this 501(c)(4) is funded like all other nonprofits–through individual donors and foundations, for the most part—and operates with a team of Washington, DC-based consultants, three full-time staffers and nearly 100 organizers working through the campaign season.

When Black men decide to vote, Mondale explains, they become “super voters.” Rather than giving the standard speech about the importance of voting to meta-problems like climate change or health-care reform, Mondale argues that the way to get non-voters to vote is to not mention voting at all, at least at the beginning.

Mondale, 41, is one of 13 children born in rural North Carolina. He describes his father, William Robinson, as a “super amazing creature” who could do anything—pave driveways, train dogs, and install roofs. Still, he says, “We were extremely hungry. I couldn’t understand why we were so poor because this man could do anything.”

William’s father was a sharecropper on Lotts Farm—a plot of land that’s still visible in Enfield, N.C. His mom’s family lived on Ward’s Plantation across the street. Slavery brought them there.

One day, a young white boy knocked Mondale’s paternal grandmother off a porch. Although the boy was not charged, Mondale’s dad faced a felony assault charge for punching back. With the Ku Klux Klan and law enforcement after him, he ran to Virginia. Mondale realized that this inequity—criminal “injustice”—was the status quo for Black men. His dad’s legacy motivated Mondale to fight for equality, and he’s been involved in that fight ever since.

White men have dominated politics for a long time. As Mondale sees it, even the well-meaning ones craft campaigns the same, tired way: by deciding what will be said, who will say it, and how often it will be said.

With a program he calls the Black Male Engagement Program (BEMP) Auditory Approach, Mondale, who has offices in Atlanta and Washington, D.C., has been turning that model on its head with remarkable success. This year, in Georgia’s primary, his organization was able to get 96,000 Black men who didn’t vote for President Obama in the 2008 primary—or any primary since then—to vote in 2020.

Step one is creating a platform that was carved out of more than 4,000 conversations in focus group settings deemed “Brothas Be Voting.” Only Black men are allowed in these sessions, which are different from traditional focus groups that try to provide a cross-sample of a demographic—say, undecided suburban women. Mondale intentionally didn’t invite many men who were politically active, instead of over-sampling for the sporadic and non-voters.

Step two is “overcoming the transactional nature of traditional campaigning.” It goes like this: Every election cycle brings white candidates to black neighborhoods–usually just a couple of months or weeks before balloting begins. First, there’s a knock at the door and then, Mondale says, comes a candidate spiel about “how this person is the greatest thing since sliced bread” and is “going to solve all the problems that you’re experiencing.” The campaign tells would-be voters what’s wrong in their lives. Nobody asks them what their problems are.

For many Black men, this pitch is, not surprisingly, unappealing. They have shorter life expectancies, are more likely to be tried as adults if arrested as children, are over-sentenced to prison, are least likely to get callbacks in job interviews, and are disproportionately treated as having special needs. Black men and their families need security and safety. Promises of self-fulfillment and clean energy mean nothing until voting produces clean water, proper food, stable housing, and an ability to simply rest once in a while.

So, for Mondale’s team, the first conversations are not about voting, elections, or candidates. They are about what’s important to Black men—what’s missing from their lives and their communities. Only after several of these conversations do things move to the second phase: using the information about what’s important to Black men to prompt civic engagement and produce supervoters.

What things tend to be important to Black men? Not abstract concepts about the importance of democracy or flaws in the Electoral College. Black men care about economic issues, pursuing trades that will produce good jobs, police brutality, cash bail, and over-sentencing of Black bodies. When the connection is made between unscrupulous police offers and mayoral elections, Black men begin to see value in voting. The same also goes for district attorneys who sit idly by while violent officers go unpunished. District attorney races are rarely competitive but offer opportunities for real change at the ballot box within Black men’s own communities.

At the end of the day, BMVP’s message is grounded in behavioral psychology and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The latter of which poses a model of human needs within a pyramid, with physiological needs at the most basic level, then safety, belongingness and love, esteem and feelings of accomplishment, and self-actualization at the apex. But it all starts with a simple concept. Food, water, warmth, rest. If campaigns began there, maybe we would see real change in America.” Striving for equity has never been easy,” Mondale says, “but neither is living life as an oppressed person.”

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Kim Wehle

 Kim Wehle is a Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore School of Law and author of two books, How to Read the Constitution—and Why, and What You Need to Know About Voting—and Why.