Getting Out the Black Vote in Alabama

This article originally appeared on this site.

Larry and Laurie are an elderly white couple who live in Montgomery, Alabama. He’s a lawyer, she’s a doctor. (They asked that I not use their last names.) Over the past few weeks, they’ve been helping Doug Jones get out the vote in mostly black neighborhoods in their home city. Jones, the Democrat facing Roy Moore, the Republican candidate, in Tuesday’s unusually competitive special election to fill Jeff Sessions’s former Senate seat, told me on Friday that he has more than fifteen thousand volunteers around the state. Of Alabama’s major metropolises, Montgomery, where Moore’s controversial Foundation for Moral Law is based and where Sarah Palin rallied support for the Republican in September, appears to have the Jones campaign’s smallest footprint. On Sunday, after church, Larry and Laurie drove their Subaru Outback around Haardt Estates, a middle-class neighborhood on the south side with ranch-style homes dating back to the nineteen-fifties. Wreaths decorated their doors; snow was still visible in patches of afternoon shade. “This was an all-white neighborhood, decades ago,” Larry told me. “With fair-housing laws, all of a sudden a couple blacks moved in and all the whites moved and the prices plummeted. These folks here now got great buys.”

In 2011, Alabama passed a law requiring that voters present a photo I.D. at the polls. The law took effect in 2014, and, in 2015, the Alabama N.A.A.C.P. and Greater Birmingham Ministries, a multi-faith nonprofit, filed a lawsuit, arguing that the legislation is discriminatory. That same year, Alabama closed driver’s-license bureaus in eight of the ten counties with “the highest percentage of non-white registered voters.” According to the N.A.A.C.P., as of March, more than a hundred thousand registered voters in Alabama could not vote because they did not have the proper I.D. Most of those voters were black or Latino. (The lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial early next year.) Meanwhile, as a new article in Mother Jones notes, Alabama’s chief elections official, the Republican John Merrill, has said that voting should not be easy to do. “As long as I’m secretary of state of Alabama, you’re going to have to show some initiative to become a registered voter in this state,” he told a documentary filmmaker last year.

In Haardt Estates, Larry and Laurie pulled over and got out to knock on some doors. Laurie rubbed her hands together for warmth beneath a long-leaf pine. “People always said, ‘It’ll snow in Alabama before you elect a Democrat to the senate.’ Well, it snowed.” She pulled out her phone and tapped an app called MiniVAN, which sends lists of voters—names, ages, addresses, and their likely voting preference—to canvassers in the field. “The Democratic Party in Alabama is essentially nonfunctional,” she said. “So the campaign put this together. They have the technology.”

Larry and Laurie were forty stops in when they arrived at an old friend’s home. “Dolores!” they exclaimed, as a retired lawyer walked outside. Dolores told her friends that she’d had three signs stolen so far—that was the only reason there wasn’t one in the yard. This was happening to her neighbors, too, she said. But she seemed optimistic about the vote. “I didn’t make it to church today, but I understand our bishop gave an impassioned speech about Doug,” she said. “The progressive Democrats will be out. Everybody on this block is good.” She waved, heading back inside. “We just need to turn some of those Republicans.”

Courtney Dewhart told the volunteers, “Gimme one of them signs to put in my yard!”

Photograph by Dina Litovsky for The New Yorker

At the next stop, a reverend in a collared University of Alabama football T-shirt said he didn’t “do signs,” but that Jones already had his vote. As Larry and Laurie headed to the next house, a young woman in a car slowed down, then stopped and rolled down her window. “Gimme one of them signs to put in my yard!” she yelled. Laurie asked how many. After turning down her music, the woman said, “Stick whatever you want to in my yard.”

The next two houses wanted signs, too. “We understand it’s a bubble,” Laurie said. “We’ve been given a list of ‘likely democratic voters.’ But it’s encouraging to have really nice, energetic comments.” About a third of the self-described Jones supporters they spoke with took signs. “One man told me he was reluctant to put a yard sign out ‘for security reasons,’ ” Larry said. “It reminded me of the extent of cultural intimidation that still occurs. To support white supremacy, there was a closed society that intimidated folks with another view: run them out of the South or lynch them. We’ve still got a very narrow view of what proper political discourse is here. We don’t have a vigorous, open political debate.” He added, “Several people mentioned today that they didn’t want to show their neighbors how they were voting.”

“One man looked both ways, to make sure no one was listening, and then said, ‘I’m gonna vote for him, but I don’t want a sign,’ ” Laurie said. According to campaign records, this man’s neighbors were also registered Democrats.

Most of the people whom Larry and Laurie had spoken to over the past few weeks knew who Jones was. If they didn’t, Larry and Laurie found that it was more effective to say that John Lewis supports Jones than to say that Jones is a Democrat. “Lewis was the clincher,” Larry said. Issue-wise, voters most often wanted to know about Jones’s position on health care. Only a few volunteered an opinion of Moore. (One called him “that pedophile.”)

Later in the evening, I attended a party a few miles away in Cloverdale, an upper-middle-class neighborhood where a fairly diverse crowd of Jones supporters gathered over cocktails. Among them was a ninety-nine-year-old Alabamian named Henrietta MacGuire. She looked back on nearly a century of local politics. “Alabama never loses an opportunity to lose an opportunity,” she said. “This is one of the lowest points I’ve seen, with Roy Moore’s candidacy. Even for Alabama, it’s a low point.” MacGuire went on, “What is so depressing is that the perception the country has of this state, all of the clichés, are made to seem exactly correct: anti-intellectual, racist, all of it. But there are also lots of people here who are well-educated, well-read, widely travelled, liberal. They’re always kind of pushed aside and the only thing that comes forth is the stereotypes, the Roy Moores.”

The party had a throwback, salon-like quality, with doctors, lawyers, teachers, historians and others revelling in a historic moment. Jones is not favored to win, but, the party’s guests knew, he has a real chance. A retired preservationist named Ellen Mertins, who has lived in Montgomery her whole life, listed the three things she’s been most concerned about of late: the Senate race, climate change, and “giving vitamins to Ruth Bader Ginsburg.” She’d been canvassing and making phone calls, too. “I’m a historian and I look at the long view, but it’s hard not to be a little excited right now,” she said.

Nearby, Lynn Boyd looked contemplative. Boyd teaches counselor education at Troy University. “I vote in every election,” Boyd said. She went on, “This is the first real chance we’ve had in a long, long time. It’d be a gut punch if Jones lost. Not as bad as Hillary losing to Trump—I don’t have that much anxiety in my chest—but it would be a punch.” Jones, she said, is “speaking about education, building the military, health care. Issues that are relevant to me.”

Shawn Stewart worked the bar. “Even if it snows, I’m going to vote on Tuesday,” she told me. Unlike the party’s guests, she was not excited about either candidate, though she, too, had decided to vote for Jones. “It doesn’t look like much of a choice to me,” she said, adding, “It’s Russian roulette, just take a chance. But I’m voting in this one.”