Synethia Pettaway heard there was some trouble down at the polling station. The all-white crew of Alabama polling officials at the Woodrow Avenue firehouse in Selma was turning away a black mother, she said, apparently because she couldn’t carry her baby indoors to vote in Tuesday’s U.S. Senate special election.
So Pettaway, the chairwoman of the Dallas County Democratic party, held the infant outside and waited while the mother completed her ballot.
When Pettaway, who is black, heard another African-American voter was turned away even after presenting her government-issued photo ID — a state law requirement criticized for suppressing minorities’s voting rights — she said she demanded that inspectors refer to Alabama’s voting guidelines.
“They said [the woman’s credentials] showed her old address. They still tried to tell her she couldn’t vote,” Pettaway said. “Until the probate judge’s office found out I was there.”
The 52-year-old’s get-out-the-vote efforts in Selma, a city synonymous with the U.S. civil-rights struggle, were rewarded on election night.
In spite of race, in spite of partisanship, and in spite of voter suppression laws, it was black voters in Alabama who delivered an astonishing victory for Democratic senator-elect Doug Jones on Tuesday night.
Jones, a civil-rights lawyer best known for prosecuting Ku Klux Klan members behind the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, knew who to recognize first in his victory speech.
“The African-American community. Thank you,” he declared from his Birmingham headquarters.
His gratitude was well placed. Black people clearly spoke out at the ballot box; they numbered about 30 per cent of those who turned out to vote, according to CNN exit polling. That share of black voters was even higher than Barack Obama-level support during the 2008 and 2012 elections.
About 96 per cent of black voters filled out ballots for Jones. Exit polling data showed 98 per cent of black women backed Jones.
Revulsion over Jones’s Republican rival Roy Moore, who is embroiled by sexual assault and molestation accusations, “definitely brought the women out,” Pettaway said. She said Moore’s denials only strengthened voters’ resolve against him.
“The more you talk about you don’t believe in women, I think that just stirs us up a little more.”
With Jones in office in Washington, African-Americans will expect to be heard, said 49-year-old Thomas Coley, a Democrat from Alexander City in north-central Alabama.
“Never take the African-American vote for granted,” he said.
Black voters demonstrated on Tuesday how door-knocking campaigns and an infusion of Democratic party funds could help turn traditionally Republican turf into a state that’s about to send a pro-choice Democrat to the U.S. Senate.
It’s the first time in 25 years that Alabamians elected a Democrat to the upper chamber.
“And I don’t think he will forget us,” Pettaway said. “I think we need to stick close to him. And I think he needs to stick close to us. To never lose touch with us.”
The high turnout among African-Americans in Alabama “might suggest that we will see similarly energized voters in other elections,” said Joseph Smith, chair of the political science department at the University of Alabama.
The effectiveness of on-the-ground canvassing is proven, he said. If Alabama Democrats can continue to tap into that kind of effort again, Smith suggested, “they can copy the organization efforts” and apply them to future elections.
The wave of Democratic black support that swept Jones into power in one of the reddest states in the U.S. was a “wake-up call” for people about the African-American electoral sway, said Alec Barnett, president of Baldwin County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“Man, we came out in droves,” he said. “We did phone banking, canvassing, word of mouth, churches; we had 17 drivers taking people to the polls. But it’s not over, man. We still got a long fight here in Baldwin County.”
Barnett suspects that an undercurrent of perceived bigotry from Moore was too much to overcome for African-American Republicans. Moore’s remarks, in which he reflected warmly on the pre-Civil War era as a time when families were strong, “even though we had slavery,” turned his stomach.
“Really? That was the good times? It wasn’t a good time for African-Americans when they were getting hung; their kids were getting sold; our women were being raped, being murdered,” he said.
Those were the types of eye-popping statements that may have galvanized black voters’ support.
But Tobe Johnson, a professor emeritus who teaches politics at the historically black Morehouse College, cautions against Democrats believing the Alabama model could work in other state-wide elections or in 2018. Johnson said the grassroots campaigning and channeling of funds to Alabama worked precisely because Jones’s Republican rival, Roy Moore, a former judge embroiled by sexual molestation accusations, was facing such an unusually disturbing scandal.
“The Democratic party put those resources into Alabama because they saw an opportunity that was opened up by the character of a Republican nominee. That was a kind of anomaly, but you don’t just throw resources willy-nilly out there,” he said.
By 2020, when Jones is up for re-election, Johnson expects the political sands to have shifted back to normal in the fifth-reddest state in the country.
“That opportunity is not going to exist for an eternity. Not unless Moore runs again” he said. “They won’t make the same mistake.”
As much as the higher than usual turn out of black voters was critical to electing Jones, there is special significance to the fact that much of the support that helped him neutralize Moore’s lead came from Selma, in Dallas County, a part of Alabama’s “Black Belt” region that takes it name from the area’s rich topsoil.
The 1965 Selma to Montgomery march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge was a watershed moment for the civil-rights movement, and its relevance was not lost on Eric Hutchins, a civil-rights lawyer from Alexander City.
“It’s like a mecca of voting rights. It’s like a holy place,” he said.
Likewise for Pettaway, the Dallas County Democratic chair, Selma was a fitting place for black residents to notch a historic victory for a Democrat at the polls, potentially changing the dynamic of the Senate.
“One thing I always encourage Selma voters to do is to live up to our name and our history from 1965, when we stood up against segregation and we stood up for our right to vote,” she said. “We’ve earned that right, so now we exercise our right for our own good today.”