Black voter mobilization efforts begin to bear fruit

A woman holds a sign saying "Protest Then Vote" during a mock funeral procession in Hallandale Beach, Fla.
A protester in Hallandale Beach, Fla., during a police-escorted mock funeral procession in tribute to those who lost their lives to systemic racism.
(Lynne Sladky / Associated Press)

After troubling signs this year that the COVID-19 pandemic had sharply cut into new voter registrations, stepped-up efforts by Black voter-mobilization groups have begun to show success.

In early June, citing protests as a driving inspiration, HeadCount, a national voter-mobilization nonprofit group that stages registration drives at concerts and other events, collaborated with the Black Voters Matter Fund, music industry leaders and grass-roots organizations to launch March on Ballot Boxes (M.O.B.B.). The initiative — its name drawn from a 1965 speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — seeks to educate and empower Black voters to show up at the polls in November and is particularly focused on swing states.

“People I’ve been trying to work with for years through HeadCount are coming out of the woodwork,” said Mollie Farrell, HeadCount’s director of artistic relations. “The time is now.”


M.O.B.B. is part of a constellation of voter-mobilization initiatives that have popped up nationwide to tap into the energy unleashed by the protest movement after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Among other efforts, LeBron James launched his group More Than a Vote; more than a dozen Black celebrities including Beyonce and Solange Knowles joined Mothers of the Movement in demanding stronger election support in a letter to Congress; and the Atlanta Hawks partnered with Fulton County in Georgia to construct the largest polling station in the state.

An activist holds a clipboard asking passersby to register to vote during a protest in Washington in June 2020.
An activist holds a clipboard asking passersby to register to vote during a protest June 4, 2020, near the White House over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Floyd died after being restrained by police officers.
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

Collectively, they’ve had an impact. According to data gathered by TargetSmart, a Democratic firm that tracks potential voters, registration surged in several states in the days after protests began. California is among those that have seen a surge in registrations by young people and voters of color, the firm’s numbers show.

Through United We Vote, HeadCount’s initiative, the organization provided voter registration tools — text messaging and QR codes, which protesters could print and display on their signs. By scanning the code with a smartphone, protesters could immediately register to vote.

“It was our rapid response to the protests,” Farrell said. “We all came together for an organization-wide brainstorm and tried to figure out what tools we could provide, and how to package them in a way that was going to bring in added results to the protests beyond value-signaling issues.”

In June, in the weeks after Floyd’s death, HeadCount and its affiliates registered 14,898 new voters. Four years ago, the organization registered only 1,204 new voters in the same month.

Among other efforts to mobilize Black voters, M.O.B.B. aims to bring a sense of celebration to polling stations and registration events. During the June 23 primary election at the Kentucky Expo Center, where residents waited in hours-long lines in Jefferson County’s only polling station, M.O.B.B. provided food and coffee trucks. The event, funded by pop star Ariana Grande, has since been replicated in other cities.

On July 16, HeadCount joined with Atlantic Records, the first major label to partner with the organization, to launch ATL Votes, a digital voter registration campaign focused on mobilizing and encouraging young voters.


Since its inception in 2004, HeadCount says that it has registered 600,000 new voters through various events. But this year, the push for voter registration is particularly crucial because the pandemic has disrupted or obliterated many traditional voter registration efforts.

HeadCount and other groups are seeking to take advantage of a historic surge in activism.

“The current uprisings — the flooding of the streets with protesters at the level at which it’s been sustained — are the largest we’ve seen since the 1960s,” said Alaina Morgan, an African diaspora historian at the University of Southern California.

Even before Floyd’s killing, voting rights activists had ramped up their efforts to counter voter suppression tactics, such as flawed voter-roll purges, criminalizing of voter registration drives and voter ID requirements that disproportionately affect Black voters.

although the recent surge in voter registration numbers is promising, Farrell stresses there is a slate of immediate work to be done. In a normal election year, HeadCount would be setting up voter registration stations at concerts and music industry events, gearing up for National Voter Registration Day on Sept. 22, which Farrell said has been the organization’s biggest registration day of the year since 2012.

But this year, with pandemic restrictions, waiting until the fall will be too late.

“There’s a lot of concern that if you wait, the systems are going to be overloaded,” she said. “Right now is crunch time.”

This article is part of a reporting effort by the GroundTruth Project on voting rights in America, with support from the Jesse and Betsy Fink Charitable Fund, Solutions Journalism Network and MacArthur Foundation.