CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Black voters historically make up a huge voting bloc for the Democratic Party, and the Biden campaign is working to further motivate the key demographic even as it limits in-person events due to the coronavirus pandemic
With voting underway in North Carolina, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, along with the Congressional Black Caucus PAC, hosted a virtual rally focused on the state Friday night. The event commemorated Friday's inaugural National Black Voter Day, a day created by the National Urban League, BET, and many civil rights organizations including the NAACP and the Black Voters Matter Fund.
During the virtual event, Harris touched on topics sensitive to Black communities such as the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately affected Black and Latino communities.
"We are in the midst of an economic crisis people are likening to the Great Depression, and we are in the midst of a long overdue and a continual fight for a reckoning on race and justice in America," Harris said.
"Our work also means ensuring that we reform our criminal justice system. We demand that police departments be reviewed and monitored for how they are engaged in practices. Joe and I will outlaw chokeholds and carotid holds. George Floyd would be alive today if those were banned."
Harris went on to detail changes she and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden plan for the criminal justice system including creating a national standard for use of force, eliminating the death penalty, getting rid of mandatory minimum sentencing and ending cash bail - all of which disproportionately affects Black Americans. Harris also promised under a Biden-Harris administration, marijuana would be decriminalized and they would automatically expunge all marijuana convictions.
The main focus of Friday's virtual event was to increase potential Black voters' sense of urgency regarding voter registration and mail-in voting. Black voters make up 21% of all registered voters in North Carolina, according to the State Board of Elections. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence won the state and its 15 electoral votes in their 2016 Electoral College victory and will likely need to do the same to win reelection. Polling shows the state is a virtual tie at this point.
Black voters' participation fell from a record-high of 66.6% in 2012 to 59.6% in the 2016 election. The panelists acknowledged the Obama-era turnout as unique, but U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield of Wilson said Black voters understand the high stakes of the November election.
"We cannot take anything for granted - every single vote matters," Butterfield said. "There has been a long history of voter suppression here in North Carolina. Some very powerful forces are at play to diminish our vote. That's why we have to have a large turnout."
Butterfield and the panelists spoke about the stakes of the election just a few hours before the announcement of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death.
The rally comes on the heels of a week of virtual programming by the Biden campaign targeting Black voters. It released a new "Shop Talk" ad series that incorporates Black men participating in political discussions while at a Black-owned barbershop in Durham. The campaign also hosted a virtual HBCU Students for Biden event with U.S. Rep. Alma Adams of Charlotte and state Rep. Terry Garrison of Henderson in attendance. They, along with students from North Carolina A&T State University and North Carolina Central University, discussed the importance of HBCU students and young Black voters casting their ballots in November.
Harris said a Biden administration would forgive student loan debt for anyone who graduates college and makes less than $125,000 annually, as well as forgiving $10,000 of debt for students, regardless of income level. They also plan to make tuition free for students whose families make less than the $125,000 threshold if the student attends any public university or any HBCU, public or private.
An alumna of Howard University in Washington, D.C., Harris pledged she and Biden will invest more than $70 billion in HBCUs and minority serving institutions. Harris is the first HBCU graduate on a national ticket.
Adams, a graduate of N.C. A&T also participated in Friday's virtual event. She emphasized the importance of the Biden campaign's multipronged approach to solving issues that plague Black communities - primarily focusing on education.
"Education is the pathway. It has been for me as a first-generation (college graduate) and so many students who attend our HBCUs. I was certainly enlightened by the $70 billion (Biden) wants to invest in our HBCUs," Adams said. "I certainly hope that people take this election seriously. All of the things that Biden and Harris have outlined in their plan will be tremendously helpful to African Americans."
Since North Carolina is a battleground state, both campaigns are spending millions on advertising in North Carolina, but only the Trump campaign has organized major in-person events.
Gov. Roy Cooper's current executive order limits indoor events to 25 people and outdoor gatherings to 50 people, but it does not apply to political events which are covered under the First Amendment.
The Trump campaign has been critical in Biden's lack of in-person appearances in the state.
"Joe Biden avoids North Carolina on days that end in 'y', instead having surrogates dial it in via Zoom," Gates McGavick, the Trump campaign's North Carolina press secretary, said in a written statement. "Meanwhile, President Trump's rally in Fayetteville tomorrow will mark his fourth visit to the Tar Heel State in four weeks. You can't run for President by literally phoning it in, a lesson that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will learn the hard way in 46 days."
Trump has made in-person visits to North Carolina, with appearances in Winston-Salem and Wilmington. Pence stopped in Wake County twice, and other Trump surrogates like his children have visited the state.
Harris implored North Carolina voters to "please keep up that energy" when she mentioned the voting activities that are already happening in the state. Almost 900,000 absentee-by-mail ballot requests have been made as of Friday and more than 100,000 absentee-by-mail ballots have already been cast. More than 55% of those who have already cast their vote are registered Democrats, according to the North Carolina State Board of Elections.
"Voting early is going to make all the difference, in terms of the outcome of this election," Harris said. "There is so much at stake in this election - everybody knows it. While Donald Trump has failed us, we can't let his incompetence cloud our concept of government - or what government can do and what we can accomplish, together."
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