Article taken from The Face Volume 4 Issue 004. Order your copy here.
I was in a Brooklyn queer bar called Happyfun Hideaway when the air suddenly felt sucked out of the room. On the screen, as results poured in from around the US, the grim reality of what was happening began to settle: Donald Trump was going to be our next president. It’s been nearly four years since that moment and I still remember one of the lingering questions in the days and weeks afterwards: “How did this happen?”
The answer, as we discovered in the post-election haze, was a maddeningly thin margin of votes spread across three swing states where the voters don’t lean solidly Democrat or Republican. Despite the fact that Hillary Clinton won 2,865,075 more votes than Trump across the US as a whole, slim victories in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin handed him the keys to the White House.
In each of these states he won the popular vote by 0.2, 0.7 and 0.8 per cent respectively. Fewer than 80,000 votes (or just 0.06 per cent of the 137 million votes cast) changed the course of US history and proved the vital importance of swing states. Welcome to America’s complicated, controversial presidential electoral system.
Since the 1787 Constitutional Convention established it as the law of the land, presidents have been chosen not by a simple popular vote but through an electoral college system. To break it down as simply as possible (and avoid a pounding headache), it works like this: each state is given a number of electors in proportion to its population. There are 538 electors in total, and to become president a candidate must win the votes of 270 of them. In a perfect world this would give greater weight to small states while stopping larger ones from dominating the election – the kind of checks-and-balances approach ingrained in the Constitution of the United States.
Despite the criticism levelled at the system, of the 58 presidential elections so far, only five have seen the winner of the electoral college vote not win the popular vote as well. Still, despite this solid track record, it only takes one break from the norm to show how weak a system can be – and there may never be a more potent example of how catastrophic an election can be for the fate of the nation than the 2016 poll.
Trump’s corrosive influence on the US has felt like watching the fall of a modern Roman Empire, felled by a pathologically-lying, television-obsessed, burger-eating-only maybe-billionaire.
So the 2020 election may be America’s final chance to reverse its catastrophic course and salvage what shred of democracy – and dignity – still remains. And, just like in 2016, it looks like it may come down to a handful of swing states yet again. In a year in which anything can and has happened, there’s no way to know what will take place between now and election day, but it doesn’t hurt to try.
Ahead of November’s election we caught up with political organisers, voters and activists across the swing states of Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Wisconsin to hear what they had to say about the most important election in US history.
STATE 01: PENNSYLVANIA [LEANS BIDEN]
Field organiser for NextGen Pennsylvania, Lehigh Valley
A lot has changed in four months, let alone four years. The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the deep cracks in the country’s support systems for the underprivileged, while the murder of George Floyd has set off a new wave of protests across the US, including in small Republican towns throughout Pennsylvania.
For 22-year-old Malini Ray, the daughter of Indian immigrants, America’s deep-rooted racism had already inspired her to fight for anti-racist education because of the micro-aggressions
she’s experienced throughout her life. But it was her first forays into political activism that enabled her to realise that “equality is not feasible without real policy, comprehensive education and structural change”.
Now, as a field organiser at NextGen Pennsylvania (the state hub of a national political action group that aims to increase youth voter registration), she can feel the gravity of being in a swing state and see the massive obstacles that have been set up to block progressive voters, especially those who are BIPOC [Black,
Indigenous and people of colour] or from low-income families.
Even with Biden’s home-state advantage (he was born in Scranton, in the north-east of the state), voter suppression still poses a potent threat to him winning, and his opponent knows it. “Trump has already admitted that if more people are able to vote, Republicans will face more of a challenge in getting elected,” Ray explains. “He will continue to do everything in his power to ensure that progressive voters are left out of
It’s been four long years since Trump won Pennsylvania by a mere 44,000 votes. Promises to protect the middle class turned into prioritised protection of the wealthy, the corporate and the powerful. Now, these hypocrisies have woken Pennyslvanians up, energising them to organise and attempt to vote him out in November.
After such a stark slide backwards under his leadership, it’s clear to Ray that a Trump presidency cannot be allowed to last even another year longer. As she succinctly puts it: “Another four years of Trump are another 40 years backward.”
STATE 02: NORTH CAROLINA [TOSS-UP]
Mayor pro-tempore, Durham
Jillian Johnson is no stranger to political activism. She’s marched against US bombing raids in the Middle East, organised a trip to protest against George W Bush’s inauguration, has been arrested four times for civil disobedience and has spent two decades in Durham organising for everything from economic and environmental justice to Black and LGBTQ+ liberation.
Since being elected to Durham City Council in 2015, the 39-year-old activist moved into her ongoing role as mayor pro-tempore (she serves temporarily in the absence of an elected mayor) since being elected to the role in 2017. With two decades of experience in politics, she wasted no time digging into the pivotal presidential election this year and what it could mean for the future of her state and country.
“Over the last four years we’ve seen the devastating consequences of electing Donald Trump, a racist, misogynist, autocratic, far-right ideologue who lacks both the skills and the desire to effectively run this country. I honestly can’t think of a single aspect of quality of life in this country or around the world that would not be worsened by another term of a Trump presidency.”
The best hope for changing course has become Joe Biden who, while an imperfect choice and far from even Johnson’s 10th choice for a nominee, has become the only chance for change this election. “A Biden presidency is infinitely preferable to a Trump presidency, if only because he won’t fill his administration with unqualified cronies, members of his own family and avowed white nationalists.”
Like Pennsylvania and many other states around the country, the biggest obstacle standing between voters and a Biden presidency won’t just be a shift in demographics. It will be whether North Carolinians are willing to throw Trump and the Republicans out.
It’s been 12 years since Barack Obama turned the state blue for the first time in decades and, for Johnson, there’s hope it could happen again. “I am hopeful that a resurgent progressive movement, increasing political awareness and access to the vote among youth and people of colour, and a strong backlash against Trump will get us the turnout we need to do so.”
STATE 03: GEORGIA [LEANS TRUMP]
Ever since Stacey Abrams came within 55,000 votes of becoming its first African-American governor in 2018, Georgia has been regarded as a potentially historic swing state in 2020. Abrams’ meteoric rise was just the most high-profile point in a long-simmering blue wave in the state: a year before her gubernatorial race, 32-year-old Liliana Bakhtiari, an openly queer Muslim woman, launched an historic run for a seat on Atlanta City Council. By the end of her race she had received 23 endorsements, raised $132,000 and received 49 per cent of the vote, ultimately losing the race by a narrow 252 votes.
It’s clear that the face of Georgia’s political landscape has shifted. As Bakhtiari points out, as the queer daughter of immigrant parents, who was born and raised in the American South, her existence “is in and of itself a political statement”. It is natural, then, that she has launched herself into political activism and become one of the strongest voices to speak up about the damage that could be wrought by another four years of Trump.
“I think there is already a deep distrust of the political process, and Trump winning will put us past the point of no return. But there is always hope, and there is still hope here. There are incredible strides being taken by everyday people and minorities right now to find their voices and to speak up and speak out. But I feel that if Trump wins, the cost will be too high, the fall from the ladder becomes too far and the damage becomes too great.”
That hope has already been seen this year. In the June state primary there was a record Democrat turnout, which reflects a move towards increased diversity. Overwhelmingly younger and more progressive voters have turned out to vote more people of colour and women into office. It’s this broad coalition running in elections at every level that reflects the future.
Joe Biden may be the best hope to defeat Trump, but for Bakhtiari “Biden isn’t the answer. No one person is. But he is a step in removing Trump, and that is a step in a much-needed new direction.”
STATE 04: FLORIDA [TOSS-UP]
Campaigner for Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton
Florida is no stranger to altering the course of US history. In 2000 the presidential election between George W Bush and Al Gore was decided in the Sunshine State by a mere 537 out of six million votes cast. It was the most razor-thin of margins and, since then, Florida’s role as a pivotal swing state has been cemented.
Now, two decades later, Florida is under the magnifying glass yet again, not only for the presidential race but for the political fate of the state as a whole. Just like in Georgia, it was in 2018 that the governorship nearly went to a Black Democrat, Andrew Gillum, before ultimately falling into the hands of Republican Ron DeSantis by only 32,000 votes.
For Florida residents such as Darnell Roberts, the DeSantis governorship has meant watching “a Trump sycophant who will do whatever he thinks will make Trump happy, regardless of the harm and destruction it causes”. This has meant a botched unemployment benefit system and an ill-advised Covid-19 response, proving that DeSantis and the Republican-controlled legislature are unfit to lead the state to prosperity. In a way, what is happening in Florida reflects the nation. As Roberts puts it: “No matter how ambiguous the headlines are on Fox News, the Republican-controlled Senate has done enough damage to last two presidential terms.”
All this led him to join the campaign of Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, who is running to be the next commissioner for Miami-Dade County District 1. Throughout her campaign Roberts has poured every bit of his mind, body and soul into fighting to repair the damage done to American democracy under President Trump.
Now, as we approach the most important election of our lifetimes, Roberts makes clear what’s at stake in November. “Never has our democracy been more attacked from inside our shores than it is now. We have a chance to balance the axis of our democracy, to be on the right side of history and shape the future of what the best of our ideals can be.”
STATE 05: WISCONSIN [LEANS BIDEN]
State director of NextGen Wisconsin
Since she began working for Hillary Clinton’s election campaign in 2016, 32-year-old Christina Carvalho has fallen in love with organising. Now she’s state director for NextGen Wisconsin, the group which is organising the youth vote across the US. “Everybody joins a campaign for their own personal reason, but at the end of the day we all want to make the world better,” she says.
In an era when President Trump seems to spend every day chiselling away at democracy, making the world a better place seems like a pretty good idea. And in Wisconsin there may be no better place to turn that passion into results than at the ballot box, given the state’s history of super-slim political victories.
It was here in 2016 that Trump won by just under 23,000 votes, a number that Carvalho is quick to point out is less than the enrolment at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. And in 2018 the governorship came down to just 30,000 votes as the Democratic nominee, Tony Evers, pulled off an upset against the Republican Scott Walker.
As we hurtle towards the 2020 election Carvalho says one big demographic may help Wisconsin make history again. In November, one in 10 voters will be from Generation Z (born after 1995), while one in four will be a Millennial (born between 1981 and 1995). If you’ve spent even a minute scrolling through Gen Z and Millennial social media accounts, it’s clear that they’ve been fed-up with the broken system for a long time. In the long months of the Covid-19 pandemic those feelings have only been exacerbated.
Back in March, 50 per cent of people aged 18 to 23 and 40 per cent of people aged 24 to 39 reported to the Pew Research Center that they or someone in their household had lost their job or took a pay cut because of coronavirus. In a year when every month feels like a decade, the situation in the US since then has only deteriorated, thanks to the toxic level of ignorance that the Trump administration has shown during the pandemic, forcing states to fend for themselves as the death toll rises.
It’s a terrifying thought to imagine what four more years of Trump could do to a country already on the verge of collapse, but if there were ever a demographic that could turn overwhelming despair into direct political action, it’s the youth. As Carvalho explains: “Young people are tired of seeing the president’s meltdowns on Twitter while the nation suffers.”