'Voting is Voice' initiative launched by Facebook encourages local voting in cities like Birmingham. Photo credit: City of Birmingham's Twitter page

Birmingham makes election day a holiday. Will that help show the power of the Black vote?

4 mins read

Birmingham is one of the cities activating the Black vote in close elections.

Fifty-seven years ago, police in Birmingham, Alabama released vicious dogs and high-powered water hoses on youth demonstrating to desegregate the city. That same year on a fall morning, a bomb rigged with a timer detonated under the steps of 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four Black girls. The attack by white domestic terrorists sent a clear message to African Americans, and those who supported integration and equal rights—for your liberty, we will give you death. 

Those who protested in the Birmingham Movement, a hyper-local campaign part of the larger Civil Rights Movement, focused on ending gaping disparities and abuses based on racial segregation. Those involved suffered many tragedies, but remained steadfast. For their liberty, they were willing to die. 

At the time of the Civil Rights movement, one of the calls to action was to implement voter protections. At the time, about 10 percent of the Black community were registered to vote in Birmingham. Today, it is 70.5 percent African American, and one of the predominantly-Black cities in the US that will determine the voting power and value of the Black vote.

| Read: New Yorkers rather wait in long lings for early voting

With growing issues of voting disruptions in areas where there are high concentrations of Black voters, some municipalities and organizations work to ensure voters continue to have access. In Birmingham, Mayor Randall Woodfin, an African American, named Tuesday’s major election day as a holiday. Tweeted Mayor Woodfin in a thread:

It’s always been my belief that a goal of every elected official should be to make voting easier, not harder. That’s why I’m officially making Election Day a city holiday in Birmingham. #VOTE

Making Election Day a day that is free from work should help those who are normally unable to take time off to go vote, particularly employees who work long shifts, have more than one job, and often must balance all of that with childcare.

The holiday grants those in the city the ability to miss work to vote in one of the highest recorded voter participations across the country. While it is not a paid holiday, it protects voters in a growing climate of voter suppression.

“Over the past few years, we have seen different tactics used to attempt to erode and make more difficult our ability to vote in this country. To me, that’s just plain unacceptable,” said Mayor Woodfin.

Early absentee, in-person voters wait to cast ballots in the rain at Jefferson County Courthouse. Photo credit: City of Birmingham Twitter page
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Since October 16, the city has opened up its courthouse to in-person, absentee voters. Thousands have participated, even many braving rainy days while standing outside to cast their ballots by hand.

For Alabamians, navigating tactics that make voting less accessible is not a distant memory, but a current reality. In a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, years of voter mismanagement have impacted the elderly, poor and communities of color. The report claims that the state and local jurisdictions have implemented practices, “that suppress the vote, including passing a voter ID law, closing polling places in predominantly Black counties and purging hundreds of thousands of people from voter rolls.”

Blacks make up 27 percent of the vote in Alabama, the largest minority vote that heavily casts their ballots as Democrat. However, they are 54 percent of those incarcerated in the state. In turn, convicted felons could not vote. But, right before the 2018 special senate election, the state restored voting rights for thousands of formerly convicted felons, priming residents who had not or never voted. 

In 2018, Black voters in Alabama were the source of Senator Doug Jones winning his seat in a tight race. Although Jones was considered a lackluster candidate in a battleground state, the Democratic machine backed him heavily. The main tactic was to activate the Black vote. By doing so, big-named notables such as Sen. Cory Booker and former Massachusetts governor, Deval Patrick, traveled to the south to canvas for Jones. 

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As well, social justice legal organizations challenged voter suppression practices. Greater Birmingham Ministries, the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP, and several Black voters sued Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill for the requirement to show identification with a photo to vote. The suit based its claims on the state grossly reducing its state operations to get a state-issued ID. However, the advocacy groups lost. 

Along with 98 percent of Black women casting their vote for Jones won. For the coming Nov. 3 vote, Jones is up for re-election in a tough campaign against former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville. For Jones, his competition is not that stiff, but his commitment to the voters who placed him there was as lackluster as his initial campaign. 

Shortly after his election, Jones was criticized for not hiring Blacks on his staff. From there, he brought on Dana Gresham, as one of two Black chief-of-staffs for Democratic senators. Following, Jones hired 13 more African Americans for an office of 44 staff members.

However, much of Jones’ votes align with Trump and conservative voting patterns, which comprises African American communities that make up much of the poverty and incarceration rates in the state. Included are the white majority leadership that maintains policy that disenfranchises Black communities, and maintains growing racial wealth gaps. In Jefferson County where Birmingham is located, 27 percent of African Americans live at or below the poverty line.

While African Americans overwhelmingly vote Democrat, and will be a critical voice in the campaign, how elected officials meet their needs are up for debate. Regardless, Birmingham is keeping the doors open to ensure all votes cast are collected and counted.

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