Is There African American Support For Soda Taxes?

Guest Blog by Larry Tramutola and Lolis Ramirez of the TOLA Academy.

In the past year, Philadelphia, Cook County, Illinois (Chicago), San Francisco, and Oakland were among the cities that passed taxes on sugary sweetened beverages. All of these cities have high percentages of African American and other minorities who suffer from diseases linked to the consumption of sugary sweetened beverages. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, African-American adults are nearly twice as likely to develop type 2 diabetes as white adults. Alameda County (Oakland) spends over $560 million a year in preventable diabetes related health care.

In November 2016, voters in the City of Oakland, California voted overwhelmingly to support a 1-cent per ounce tax on sugar sweetened beverages. Despite a vigorous campaign against the measure funded by the American Beverage Association (over $30 million in the San Francisco Bay Area), Measure HH received well over 60% voter approval.

Voters in 5 of the 7 Oakland Council Districts supported the measure, with Measure HH losing in only District 6 (51% no to 49% yes) and District 7 (56 % no to 44 % yes). In District 6, 61% of the voters are African American and in District 7, 58% of the voters are African American. These results have led some to suggest that African American voters did not support the soda tax.

While election results on soda taxes indicate broad voter support, do African Americans support soda taxes? An analysis of the election results reveals that African American voters, if spoken to directly, supported a soda tax, as much as their white, Latino and Chinese counterparts. So, the answer is Yes, but it is not automatic. It requires listening to individuals, rather than preaching at them. It requires significant face-to-face work to answer questions about the tax. It requires effort to inform people of the “facts” surrounding sugar sweetened beverages.

African American voters in other parts of Oakland overwhelmingly supported the soda tax while African American support in Districts 6 and 7 was more modest. Why the difference? We believe that this difference can be explained by understanding the strategy and deployment of resources used by the pro soda tax campaign.

In Oakland, African American voters are not isolated in Districts 6 and 7. In fact, 34 percent of Oakland voters are African American, and 33 percent of African American voters in Oakland live in Districts 6 and 7.

The Beverage Association targeted the African American community throughout Oakland with a barrage of negative advertising, including mail, TV and ethnic radio; advertisements in African American newspapers; and canvassers who went door to door. The No campaign featured local minority merchants who claimed the “grocery tax” (aka soda tax) would hurt them and their customers. What impact they had, we are not sure. We do know that most of our “field work” in targeted areas was spent answering the questions: “Is this a grocery tax?” and “How can I be sure money will be spent as promised?” — evidence that these voters had questions, but were persuadable if provided with accurate information.

The pro tax campaign strategy was to invest limited resources of time, money and people in the council districts with the highest percentage of likely voters in Oakland. District 1, for example has more likely voters than Districts 5, 6 and 7 combined. We were not convinced the presidential campaign would raise turnout among African American voters to the levels of the Obama presidential campaigns. With limited resources, our campaign focused our door-to-door work and telephoning in Districts 1, 2, and 4 initially. Once additional funding became available, we expanded our outreach to District 3 and portions of District 5. We made a strategic decision, given limited campaign resources and historically low voter density and low voter turnout, to limit the door-to-door and phoning activity in Districts 6 and 7. As we gained additional resources later in the campaign, mail was sent to voters throughout the city; TV and radio spots reached the entire city; but our field operation focused on Districts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 (all districts in which we won).

Polling conducted less than a month before the election, indicated the “No campaign” was having an impact on African American voters. 56% indicated they were going to vote no, and only 37% indicated they were going to vote yes. As a result, our staff volunteers and precinct workers focused on contacting African American voters living in the districts we had prioritized (1, 2, 3, 4 and 5). And due to limited campaign resources, we did not do additional “field” work in Districts 6 and 7.

We believe the work of the staff and volunteers in answering specific voter questions made a significant difference moving voters from no or undecided to yes.

The tables below provide a more detailed District/Precinct analysis that compares the election results for Measure HH in heavily African American precincts in Districts 6 and 7 (low voter contact) to similarly heavy African American precincts in Districts 1 and 3 (similar voter registration numbers, percentage of African Americans, and income levels, and high voter contact).

An even closer look at two predominately African American precincts in Districts 6 and 7 (362800 and 400600) indicate support for the soda tax. Both these precincts were targeted by Oakland Community Organizations (OCO) as part of their outreach in support of Measure HH.

African American Precincts with Low Voter Contact Effort

District 6

Precinct Number % African American Voters % Yes HH % No HH
362900 80% 45% 55%
364800 80% 43% 57%
362110 62% 40% 60%
362800 74% 58% 42%
365000 76% 46% 54%

District 7

Precinct Number % African American Voters % Yes HH % No HH
400700 86% 49% 51%
415900 71% 35% 65%
400600 80% 53% 47%
373100 64% 35% 65%
400800 73% 44% 56%
410400 70% 40% 60%


African American Precincts with High Voter Contact Effort

District 1

Precinct Number % African American Voters % Yes HH % No HH
310400 80% 67% 33%
310100 86% 68% 32%
310000 78% 66% 34%
310600 73% 70% 30%
311500 72% 66% 34%
311400 80% 70% 30%

District 3

Precinct Number % African American Voters % Yes HH % No HH
336200 75% 55% 43%
335700 61% 67% 32%
335100 73% 59% 39%
336500 76% 59% 39%
335900 69% 56% 42%
325400 72% 67% 31%


Our conclusion after doing this more in-depth analysis of the results is that in those precincts with a high percentage of African Americans where direct voter contact was conducted, support for Measure HH was strong. In contrast, in demographically comparable precincts where there was very little direct voter contact, Measure HH did not receive as much voter support.

What are some additional takeaways?
First, African American voters are skeptical but persuadable. African American voters need to be assured that the money will be spent properly and that their communities will benefit.

Second, direct voter contact is superior to mail and other means of communication if the goal is answering voters’ questions.

Third, the training of canvassers is key if the goal is responding to voters’ questions rather than “delivering messages” to voters.

Fourth, African American voters do not vote as a “block” on this issue and are receptive to outreach, persuasion, and personal contact.

Finally, had we been able to invest greater human resources in Districts 6 and 7, the results likely would have mirrored the city-wide results.

In short, African Americans will support soda taxes, if care is taken to reach out to them.