Trump takes up a lot of oxygen, but voting rights groups have a lot more on their minds

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Ninety-one. That's the number of felony counts former President Donald Trump faces in criminal cases spanning four states. It's the number that Edythe Ford, a longtime community activist in Detroit, said she can't get out of her head as she's begun canvassing and assisting voters for the 2024 presidential election.

Ford said Trump caused racial divisiveness in the country, made it harder for communities of color to get jobs and helped obstruct voting and women's rights.

"He's just caused so much pain and suffering. I don't want to... we can't go back to that," said Ford, a member of Detroit Action and community engagement director for MACC Development, a nonprofit. "The middle-class and low-income communities will suffer greatly – again."

Andrea Mercado, the executive director of Florida Rising, a nonpartisan nonprofit that leads civic engagement and helps to educate and register voters in Black and Latino communities, is just as blunt in her assessment of the leading GOP contender.

"(Trump) built a campaign stoking racial animus with a promise to deliver solely for white working-class voters, and we saw corporations and the rich get richer and others hurt in the process," Mercado said. "If he wins, we enter a new chapter in American history, as his playbook is no friend to marginalized people."

With the presidential election a year away, members of several grassroots voting rights groups say underrepresented people nationwide are concerned about the prospect of having Trump once again as commander-in-chief. But they’re just as worried about voter accessibility and suppression efforts, the rising cost of living, affordable health care, a continued lack of jobs and an uneasiness about whether President Joe Biden is paying attention to their concerns.

This all comes as many surveys of registered or likely voters, including a USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll last month, show a presidential race that is effectively tied. Meanwhile, a USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll of unlikely voters − those who are eligible to vote but say they probably won't − gives Trump a significant lead over Biden with one year to go.

"There is already a lot of noise out there that feels like a food fight in a high school cafeteria," said Julie Fernandes, associate director of the Rockefeller Family Fund, a nonprofit that manages the Democracy & Power Innovation Fund, which works with state-based organizing groups. "It can make some voters feel less powerful and less seen and heard on the issues that matter to them."

'Trump takes up all of the space in the room'

Some Americans from underrepresented communities said they are terrified about Trump winning and fearful of the policies he might enact if given another four years in office, said Ford. The Detroit activist said she is especially troubled after reading reports about a conservative presidential administration shaped according to the template set out in "Project 2025." Created by the conservative Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank led by several former Trump administration officials, Project 2025 seeks "to rescue the country from the grip of the radical Left" by reducing the government's independence on federal agencies and giving more power to the president.

She said that consolidation of power scares her, and many of the voters she represents.

"Trump takes up all of the space in the room," said Kendra Cotton, CEO of New Georgia Project Action Fund, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that works with historically marginalized voters. "When you ask about a second Trump presidency from most people's perspective that we work with, he's an existential threat."

Those concerns also come for voters in marginalized communities at a time when Trump is considered by the broader population as the second-best Republican president in modern history, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in July. Only Ronald Reagan ranked higher among the GOP presidents of the last 40 years, Pew found.

The survey was conducted after Trump was indicted in federal court in Florida on charges related to improper handling of classified documents but before he was indicted, in federal court in Washington, D.C., and in state court in Georgia, on allegations he attempted to overturn the 2020 election. The survey also came after Trump was indicted on 34 felony counts by a Manhattan grand jury in March, making him the first former U.S. president to be indicted in history.

Trump has denied wrongdoing in all of these cases. He has stated, without evidence, that prosecutors and officials in Washington, Georgia and New York are targeting his reelection bid.

Polls indicate that Trump will likely emerge as his party's choice for a rematch with Biden come next November.

Issues 'not necessarily' about Trump, Biden in Georgia

In a battleground state such as Georgia, where Biden beat Trump by slightly more than 12,000 votes and Trump urged Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to "find 11,780 votes," Cotton said, New Georgia Action members are finding that voters want candidates to address the issues affecting them every day.

Cotton noted her organization said while voters are concerned about a rematch, they are just as concerned about how the economy affects their bottom line. Will their schools and neighborhoods be safe? Will they have a job a year from now?

Ebony DeLoach, right, a member of the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, a voting rights organization, talks to a Cincinnati resident, right, about registering to vote before the 2022 midterm elections.
Ebony DeLoach, right, a member of the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, a voting rights organization, talks to a Cincinnati resident, right, about registering to vote before the 2022 midterm elections.

"What I'm telling you is these 'kitchen table issues,' according to our polling, are top of mind for Black and brown voters, not necessarily about Donald Trump, not necessarily about Joe Biden," Cotton said. "Folks are saying to us, 'I’m trying to carve out a good life for myself, for my family.'"

Cotton said voters are also looking to her organization to help break down other issues they are not familiar with and prepare them for when candidates are dodging important questions.

"We try to arm them with good nonpartisan information," Cotton said.

Mercado, of Rising Florida, shares a similar sentiment about preparing voters to challenge candidates on the issues.

"It's important we push both political parties to take action, especially on behalf of working people, but we’re clear that we can’t negotiate with those who are fundamentally against democracy," Mercado said.

In Michigan, 'No voter's voice is going to be silenced'

Having "regular, everyday people be heard," is going to be a challenge in Michigan, said Art Reyes, the executive director of We the People Michigan, a left-of-center nonprofit that conducts voter canvassing and engagement across the state.

But Reyes said constituents of color are determined to make headway in the battleground state, especially now that Trump allies in Michigan are facing criminal charges that they tried to overturn the 2020 presidential election using a phony certificate to pledge the state's electoral votes to Trump.

"We haven't forgotten what 2020 looked and felt like with a very concerted effort from Trump and his allies to disregard Black and brown votes," Reyes said. "It didn't happen then, it won't happen now. No voter's voice in Michigan is going to be silenced."

Reyes said providing more affordable housing and making driver's licenses accessible to immigrants, regardless of their status, are key to voters, among other issues. People need to see candidates responding to issues like these if they expect voters to show up at the polls.

"There are significant chunks of our communities that haven't seen participation in elections as a pathway for improving their lives," Reyes said. "We need to change that perception."

'Trump is a symptom, but it's bigger than him' in Ohio

In Ohio, where election outcomes can have national implications, grassroots organizations like the nonpartisan Ohio Organizing Collaborative are facing broader issues in getting voter participation in underrepresented groups. Trump won the state in record fashion in 2020.

Prentiss Haney, a co-executive director of the collaborative, said grassroots organizers concerns extend beyond Trump, who he describes as "a symptom" of the problem. Haney estimates that there may be an "untapped electorate" of a half-million eligible but unregistered Black voters in the state.

Haney said the collaborative's recent research shows that Black voters in Ohio feel candidates are not in tune with issues that concern them, such as the lack of good-paying jobs and their declining quality of life.

"What we’re finding is that voters, especially underrepresented folks, are looking for someone who can represent them and fight for them," Haney said.

"They are searching for how they can have empowerment, period," he said. "They’re seeing that not every candidate is creating a path to see their political power.

"They’re not deciding between Trump and Biden," Haney said. "They are deciding on voting or not voting."

Concerns over Ohio's controversial voter-purge law looms

Haney also said his organization is concerned with how Ohio's controversial voter purge law affects underserved voters. In September, nearly 27,000 voters were purged from the rolls. He said people who were stricken and did not register before October 10 could not vote in Ohio’s closely watched election this month, in which voters approved a constitutional amendment protecting abortion rights.

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican, said such purges are necessary to prevent election fraud and said that voters get plenty of chances to remain on the rolls.

Based on his organization's research, Haney said Ohio has systematically disenfranchised Black voters, including purging more than 2 million voters from rolls in the past decade, having stringent voter ID laws, and pushing through extreme gerrymandering.

"It’s up to organizations like ours to make sure their voices are heard," Haney said. "We’re not doomed to be in this place forever."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Voting rights groups across the US are focused on more than just Trump