Sherrelle Pritchette has always been a loyal Democrat. But this year, she said, the election feels like life or death.

Because death is something her North Philadelphia family has experienced a lot of in 2020.

In late March, Pritchette ’s mother and sister, who lived together, started to feel sick. They made tea and stayed in bed, trying to fight it off. But when her sister started struggling to breathe, they both went to the hospital. They were on ventilators within three days. They were dead within two weeks, early casualties of a pandemic that has killed more than 225,000 people in the U.S.

“We’re all still in shock," Pritchette, 61, said last month on the porch of the Olney home where her mother and sister used to live. “It’s unreal. It’s difficult to hear the news and the lives that have been lost because now we’re a part of that number and that number keeps growing.”

Pritchette has since moved in with her niece — her sister’s daughter — who shared a house with the two women but survived the coronavirus. She’s also helping care for her niece’s infant son. As Pritchette tries to heal her grieving family, the election has become even more critical. She feels like she’s voting for her mom and sister.

“Do I blame him personally?" Pritchette said of President Donald Trump. "Oh yes. Oh yes I do.”

“You didn’t put people in a position around you to help you do your job better," she said of his widely criticized pandemic response. "You do not deserve to be here another four years.”

Black women have long been the backbone of the Democratic Party. They vote for Democrats so consistently that their support is often taken for granted by the party, and by its candidates and campaigns. Some said they feel they’re getting long overdue recognition in Joe Biden’s selection of Sen. Kamala Harris (D., Calif.) as his vice presidential running mate.

But in interviews with more than a dozen Black women across the Philadelphia area, most brushed aside that historic moment for another: the pandemic they are living through, which has so disproportionately sickened and killed Black and brown people.

“This election is to save our lives,” said Pritchette, who is also of Italian and Indian descent. “We have to save our lives, our families' lives.”

Philadelphia City Councilmember Cherelle Parker, who hosted Harris for an event in her backyard last month, noted how Black women helped resuscitate Biden’s primary campaign in South Carolina. For decades, she said, they have been the political glue holding together fights for civil rights in the courts, through protest in the streets, and at the ballot box.

She told Harris that day that “our connection is not our complexion,” but rather policies and promises to help the lives of Black people. But at the same time, representation does matter, Parker said in an interview. “You cannot be what you cannot see."

Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris (center) with Councilmember Cherelle Parker (right) and actor and activist Sheryl Lee Ralph during a campaign stop in Philadelphia on Sept. 17.
Michael Perez / AP
Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris (center) with Councilmember Cherelle Parker (right) and actor and activist Sheryl Lee Ralph during a campaign stop in Philadelphia on Sept. 17.

The number of Black women eligible to vote in the U.S. has grown by 31% in the last two decades, and while they turn out at rates higher than most other demographics, 66% of them voted nationally in 2016 — down from 74% in 2012, when President Barack Obama won reelection. In Pennsylvania, turnout for Black voters fell only slightly.

But there are signs of an oncoming surge. Early voter turnout numbers appear on track to eclipse recent elections, and Black voters are voting early at rates higher than they did in 2016. In 2018, turnout among Black women nationally increased 16 percentage points compared to the 2014 midterm elections. And between a pandemic and protests, Parker said Black women are motivated like never before.

“When that guy said on television, ‘Bad things happen in Philadelphia,’ — listen, Black women in the city of Philadelphia are intent on proving him right on Election Day," she said, referring to Trump’s attack on the city as being politically corrupt during the debate last month. "And that means we have to vote like we’ve never voted before.

“We know our legacy. We know our history,” added Parker, 48. “We, quite frankly, are standing on the shoulders of the strength of our mothers … our grandmothers, aunties whose names you don’t know, whose names were not written down in history books.”

As Dawn Athy, 56, of Philadelphia’s West Oak Lane section, put it: “I say vote for your grandmother. If you don’t care, it doesn’t matter, just vote because of what they did to try to vote. Especially as a person of color. It’s an hour, two hours out of your day, just go vote.”

Athy said she relishes being a voter Biden is counting on, and thinks his selection of Harris is recognition “of how powerful and significant our vote is.

“I don’t feel taken for granted. Take us for granted. You know what I mean? That means you depend on me,” Athy said. "Please, depend on me.”

She called Biden “a regular guy who has empathy."

“He lost his son, his wife,” she said. "He knows tragedy. Trump, he never lost nothing but his mind.”

Dawn Athy near her Philadelphia home in September.
ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Dawn Athy near her Philadelphia home in September.

In Pennsylvania, 99% of Black women voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, according to exit polls, compared to 83% of Black men. In most surveys, Biden performs about 10 percentage points better among Black women than with Black men.

Trump’s campaign has tried to grow support among Black men, featuring several of them at the Republican National Convention in August. There are some signs it’s working. Trump’s support among young Black voters 18 to 44 has jumped from around 10% in 2016 to 21% in some recent polls, driven largely by young Black men.

Trump supporters often point to the failures of both parties to better the lives of Black Americans and credit the president with a good economy before the pandemic.

At a virtual “Sister to Sister” event attended by Philadelphia-area elected officials and U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood (D., Ill.) last month, Underwood called Black women “the democracy defenders.”

“We are the change makers and we are the ones that will lead our country forward,” Underwood said.

Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris (center in the back) at the end of a "Sister to Sister" campaign event Sept. 17 in Philadelphia.
Michael Perez / AP
Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris (center in the back) at the end of a "Sister to Sister" campaign event Sept. 17 in Philadelphia.

Julie Haywood came to hear Jill Biden speak in Montgomery County earlier this month. She said the stakes in 2020 aren’t high just because of the pandemic, but because of the direction a more conservative Supreme Court could take women’s rights and civil rights.

“I think our Democracy is really at stake," said Haywood, who chairs the Cheltenham School Board and is married to State Sen. Art Haywood.

She worries what a president who can’t acknowledge systemic racism or say “Black Lives Matter” means for already escalating racial upheaval in America.

“We really wield a lot of power," Haywood said. "We need to exercise that power to vote.”

Being motivated to vote doesn’t necessarily mean being very enthusiastic about Biden. Theresa Lewis-King, a retired middle school teacher from the Overbrook Park section of Philadelphia, articulated what a lot of women said about the former vice president. “I don’t think we need a charismatic savior right now," she said. “I don’t look at him as a leader of the Democratic Party going into 2024 but in this transition period, I think he’s the kind of person we need. We need a little bit more compassion.”

Over the last month, Trump has contracted the virus himself, recovered, told Americans not to let it “dominate” their lives, and returned to falsely insisting the U.S. is “rounding the turn” on the pandemic despite rising case counts in Pennsylvania and across the country.

But for Pritchette, almost every moment is wrapped up in memories of her mother and sister, and her final moments with them.

“The most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life was being this close to my mother’s bed and not being able to touch her,” Pritchette said. “I couldn’t stroke her hair. We couldn’t kiss her. We couldn’t touch her bedding.”

Sherrelle Pritchette outside her Philadelphia home on Oct. 1.
MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer
Sherrelle Pritchette outside her Philadelphia home on Oct. 1.

After hospital staffers removed her mother from the ventilator, Pritchette went to see her sister Linda down the hall. She pulled up FaceTime so Linda’s daughter could say goodbye.

“They gave us gloves and I held up the phone," Pritchette said. Her sister was sicker than her mother and unconscious for the call. But Pritchette leaned in just in case, and whispered: "'Mommy’s gone, Linda, and if you’ve gotta let go, let go.'”

Pritchette said she and her mother used to talk for hours about the state of the country and politics. A religious woman, her mom would question God’s intent amid so much chaos, illness, and death.

“I would say, ‘Mom don’t you blame God for this,'" Pritchette recalled. “God didn’t do this. Man did this. Man interfered. And now we have to. We have to vote him out.”