In the city of Detroit, voter turnout hit 49.6 percent this year. That’s a higher percentage than Clinton in 2016 but lower than Obama in 2012 (51 percent) and 2008 (53.2 percent). In terms of raw numbers, Biden received 963 votes fewer than Clinton; President Donald Trump's overall votes in the city increased by 4,972 votes. So, while it is true that Detroit and its population of predominantly Black voters were essential to Biden's victory in Michigan, we did not see a wave of Black voters turning out for Democrats in 2020. 

Where did those voters go? 

The Trump campaign capitalized on years of neglect in Black communities — and the cynical vision of politics generated by it. While the Democrats have largely ignored Black men, Trump invested in these voters, at least superficially. Endorsements by the rappers Lil Wayne and Ice Cube — who touted Trump’s “Platinum Plan” for Black America — appealed to some Black men. More substantively, the “Platinum Plan” spoke to their concerns over criminal justice reform and home ownership, even though its main policy proposals would reward corporations, not Black communities. Many Black Trump supporters who we spoke to in Detroit pointed to his “success as a businessman” or the stimulus checks that bore his name. Others spoke of feeling left behind by the policies of the Obama and Clinton eras — and argued that the author of the 1994 Crime Bill and a lifelong prosecutor would not solve the most pressing issues facing their communities.

Instead of working to flip Black men from Trump to Biden, Detroit Action focused on bringing Black men and other new or infrequent voters — young people, renters, the housing insecure, and formerly incarcerated citizens — to the polls by appealing to our shared values and vision. Our goal was to change the state of politics as much as to elect any one candidate by activating a base of voters — in this election and beyond. Though we still have work to do, we believe that our willingness to experiment with new tactics and our insistence on inspiring voters through substantive demands offer a model that the Democratic Party would be wise to follow. 


Like many organizations, we did not run our door-to-door program this year; instead, we relied on innovative digital organizing tools to reach voters on social media platforms and phone scripts designed to break the monotony of traditional political conversations. We ran a deep canvass phone and text bank, managed by our members, as well a paid phone bank. All told, we reached almost 200,000 working-class Black and brown metro Detroiters four and a half times; 20,000 of the first-time voters we spoke with completed a “Pledge To Vote” card. 

We invested heavily in our digital program — hiring two staffers to build out our online presence and move those we engaged online to show up to a meeting or volunteer at a phone bank. The goal of the digital program was to meet people where they were at — literally — even if it meant sliding into a DM or two. We used a viral “chatbot” that consistently shared content with subscribers to encourage them to take action. We also expanded where we advertised, using Youtube, Pandora, and the iHeartRadio apps to connect users to our online voter registration and ballot request portals.

Significantly, our digital ads didn’t shy away from our demands to defund the police, cancel the rent, or get cops out of schools. The ads featured videos and images from the summer’s uprising as well as footage of our members in action. We also showed our members and staff talking directly about their personal struggles — and why voting this year was so important.

Though centrists have argued that “defund the police” hurt Democrats down ballot, our digital ads received almost ten million impressions, hundreds of comments and shares, and 3,200 new sign-ups to our organization. It is true that many of the voters we spoke to were unfamiliar with — even alarmed by —  the idea of defunding the police. But these same voters were very interested in “refunding” our communities and reprioritizing municipal budgets to emphasize safety and common goods — and they wanted to vote for candidates who would fight for these issues. People were mostly amazed that we weren’t just asking them to vote for Biden but showed interest in their experiences and invited them to take action with us.

We also leaned into our cultural organizing and mutual aid programs as electoral activities. For years, we’ve supported homeless and low-income Detroiters in getting access to ID and birth certificates, and we’ve also supported a criminal diversion court. This year, we expanded our mutual aid offerings, hosting an unemployment insurance access clinic and providing direct cash giveaways to families in need here in Wayne County. We helped the participants of our mutual aid programs register to vote and asked them to reach out to their families using the Outvote relational organizing tool. 

Throughout the month of October, we held a series of early vote “party to the polls” called  "Freakin’ Vote Fridays," featuring performances from Detroit musicians and artists to educate voters on the issues while utilizing same-day voter registration and early voting. We also hosted a Detroit music festival, "Just F**kin Vote," to engage young Black and Latinx new voters and infrequent voters. Icewear Vezzo, a popular Detroit rapper, didn't know that he could register to vote despite a felony conviction. He learned of his rights when we invited him to attend our event — and was then able to speak to the importance of exercising the right to vote to his fans. 


So many of the election post-mortems this year have focused on whether the pause on door-to-door canvassing is to blame for the down-ballot losses.The correct question is: did our tactics and messaging meet this moment? As our communities face worsening economic and public health crises, are we actually inspiring them with something to vote for? 

As the Democrats drift further away from working people in favor of white suburbanites, organizations like ours have to do more of the work to organize working-class voters and mobilize them on the issues they care about. For the left to win in the future, we must invest in long-term infrastructure that extends beyond campaigns and in candidates who believe that persuasion shouldn’t be reserved for white moderates.  

The right is invested in building the long-term infrastructure and providing the vision that can win not just elections but deep and lasting commitments from voters. Progressives must invest in our people in the same way. For Detroit Action, this year, that meant connecting the spirit and demands of the protest movement to the election, innovating our tactics to meet the challenges of the moment, and demonstrating to our communities that we’re in it with them for the long haul.


Click here to read the entire Elections 2020: Strategy Debrief issue.


Created with Sketch.

Related Articles