Abbie Yero, a 33-year-old black photographer, arrived at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville at around 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday. It was primary voting day, and the huge arena was the only polling place in all of Jefferson County, home to the largest black community in the state. Still, the lines moved swiftly.
Maybe Yero wouldn’t have been so early if it weren’t for her new normal — wearing a mask while voting, protests against police violence raging elsewhere in the city. The mother of two hasn’t been working since the start of the pandemic; she’s caring for her 8-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son. She’d usually be doing portrait and event photography, but now she’s relying on unemployment checks, the first of which she received on Monday.
Yero was just one of the projected 1 million-plus Kentucky voters to turn out for the primaries — a record for the state. It’s been a closely watched primary nationally, in large part due to the Democratic Senate primary, which pits favored candidate Amy McGrath, a retired Marine Corps fighter pilot, against Charles Booker, a state legislator. McGrath — who ran a competitive race for the U.S. House in 2018 against incumbent Garland “Andy” Barr — garnered national backing early on. But in recent weeks, high-profile Democrats, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), have endorsed the more progressive Booker. If either candidate were to pull off an upset victory over Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in the general election, they would make history: she as the state’s first female senator, he as the state’s first black senator.
Earlier in June, Yero went to a protest downtown with her kids: a march for Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old EMT and nurse who was shot and killed by Louisville police officers in her home on March 13. Only one of the four police officers involved in the incident — detective Brett Hankison — has been fired. None have been arrested. The city has been teeming with tension ever since, Yero says; you can feel it in the air. More than anything, she says, she wants justice.
So on Tuesday, with no job to report to, Yero headed to the exposition center. She’d filled out an absentee ballot weeks before, but she opted to drop it off in-person. She wanted to be 100 percent sure her vote was counted.
“Let me raise my hand and let you know — whether it’s a fist for black power or just an open hand for attendance, I’m here, my voice counts,” she says.
As of midday Wednesday, McGrath was leading Booker 44.7 percent to 38.5, with an estimated 15 percent of the vote counted. That hadn’t yet included Jefferson County, where Louisville is, and where Booker is expected to perform best.
“If it were just Louisville, Charles Booker would be in the Senate seat tomorrow,” Yero says. She was a Booker fan even before he started garnering national attention. She says that most people in Louisville know him — many have marched alongside him at recent protests against police violence.
Lawynda Easton, a health and wellness entrepreneur who has lived in Louisville her whole life, only became aware of Booker in recent months.
“I was for Amy at first,” she says. “But I didn’t know about Booker, I didn’t see him on the TV. I just started listening about what he wanted to do for the community, and I’m all for it.”
Easton, 34, is also a black mother of two. And she also showed up at the Kentucky Exposition Center around 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday. She says that she requested an absentee ballot about three weeks ago, but she never received it in the mail. That didn’t deter her: “As long as I was able to get there, I’m not going to complain about it. I got to vote,” she says.
Ahead of the primaries, national politicians and celebrities took to social media to raise the alarm over potential voter suppression in Kentucky. That followed reports that fewer than 200 polling places would be open for voters due to the pandemic, down from 3,700 in a typical election year, and that some voters had not received their mail-in ballots days before they had to be turned in.
At 6 p.m. on Tuesday, dozens of voters were temporarily locked outside the Kentucky Exposition Center; they knocked on the doors, begging to vote. Both the Booker and McGrath campaigns filed petitions seeking an extension of voting hours, and a judge shortly after issued an injunction to keep the site open until 6:30 p.m.
But the scene at the arena was peaceful and heartening in the morning, says Easton. The center was “well-organized,” with snacks, water, masks and hand sanitizer. “Everybody was just there to vote and to support that,” she says. “And that’s what we need more of.”
Although she liked some of McGrath’s policies, it bothered her that McGrath said she hadn’t attended protests in Louisville or elsewhere in the state. Booker’s campaign seized on that statement, running ads that questioned why McGrath wouldn’t publicly protest the killings of Taylor or David McAtee, a black Louisville man killed during protests on June 1.
Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), says that this primary will be a test of the current moment. Initially, McGrath had been seen as a strong candidate because of her military background and her ability to fundraise on a national level. But at the end of the day, it’s the people of Kentucky who are going to be casting the ballots.
“If you’re mobilizing voters in part around racial justice issues and he’s presented an effective contrast to say, here’s my record, here’s hers, then that hurts her,” Dittmar says.
Dittmar points out that the presumption has generally been that statewide contests in Kentucky favor conservatism or someone who is much closer to the center. The last time a Democratic senator served was in 1999; McConnell has served as a U.S. senator since 1984.
But the 2016 election has made everything unpredictable.
Take Carey Ann Atherton, a 43-year-old living in Owensboro, Ky., who has voted Republican her entire life. In the 1990s, she volunteered up to 40 hours a week for the Republican Party; she even met McConnell while helping to campaign for him. But she will not, under any circumstances, be voting for McConnell in 2020, she says: She can’t support anyone who’s so fervently behind President Trump.
That’s because, she says, her faith is the most important thing in her life: “Jesus taught certain principles — love, joy, peace, patience. And I don’t see where Trump, who is a professing Christian, espouses any of those.”
Atherton is just one of a growing number of white women who have been moving away from the Republican Party since the 2016 election. In that presidential race, 52 percent of white women voted for Trump. But by 2018, college-educated white women were helping usher in a Democratic majority in the House, and in recent months, non-college-educated and older women have started abandoning Trump, too.
This year, Atherton voted in the primaries via a mail-in ballot. She cast her ballot in the Republican Senate primary for Wesley Morgan, who had 5.4 percent of the vote on Wednesday, with about 15 percent of the expected vote counted. McConnell had 85.6 percent of the vote.
She knows that it’s more than likely McConnell will face McGrath or Booker in the fall.
McGrath is her pick so far — she likes her policies when it comes to the military, the economy and health care — but she hasn’t fully delved into either Democratic candidate. She hadn’t heard of Booker until the last couple of weeks.
Back in 2016, refusing to vote for Trump cost Atherton some friends; even family members “excommunicated” her. Looking to the 2020 election, she says, “I just really hope Americans, especially Kentuckians, have the courage to vote for country over party.”
For a Democratic candidate to have a real shot in the general, it’s going to take new voters, says CAWP’s Dittmar. She says she’s not sure a centrist message will mobilize the voters that are required “to take down somebody like [McConnell].” Dittmar points to Alabama’s special election in 2017, in which Democrat Doug Jones pulled a huge victory over Republican Roy Moore to fill Jeff Sessions’s Senate seat. Black women voters won the race for Jones, Dittmar says, and she imagines this voting bloc will be crucial in Kentucky, too.
For her part, Yero, the photographer, has never felt a more urgent time to vote. “Another person had to die in order for us to get it,” she says, referencing the recent deaths of Taylor, George Floyd in Minneapolis and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. “People died way before this moment to make sure our vote mattered. But now, we get it.”
Being a black woman, sometimes the world can seem stacked against her, Yero says. That’s why she showed up at the polls on Tuesday, making sure her absentee ballot didn’t get lost in the mail: