Setting the record straight on Black voter turnout

editorials, October 2019

By Rashawn Ray and Mark Whitlock Brookings.edu


People always criticize Blacks for not voting. For example, the recent Popeye’s chicken sandwich craze harkened back to post-Reconstruction and Jim Crow stereotypes. What most people don’t realize is that some of these stereotypes about Black food choices, laziness, and ineptness are not only about colonial enslavement and Black resistance; these stereotypes also were used to justify restricting Black peoples’ ability to participate in the political process. Though people of all racial groups eat chicken, this recent craze was framed as if it is only a Black thing—similar to low voter turnout.

One teenager, David Ledbetter, used the long lines at the chicken restaurant as an opportunity to register people to vote. This was admirable, but the reaction on social media was that his political activism was particularly important because Black

people do not vote. We find the place where Ledbetter engaged in his political activism to be noteworthy—North Carolina, a state where files were found showing how members of the Republican Party discriminated against Black voters to prevent them from getting to the polls. In a state that has always had a thriving and growing Black middle class, this act of discriminatory gerrymandering should not be viewed as surprising or isolated.

Black people not wanting to vote simply isn’t empirically true relative to other racial groups. We must take into account the ways that Blacks are systematically denied the ability to vote. With the rolling back of the Voting Rights Act, we are seeing from North Carolina to Texas and the upper Midwest the ways that Black voters are targeted. So, before we chastise Black people, can we address voter disenfranchisement and gerrymandering and set the record straight on voter turnout?

Regarding presidential elections, voter turnout for the U.S. population has stayed relatively stable since 1980 (with the exception of a slightly higher turnout in 1992 and a dip in 1996 and 2000). While whites traditionally have the highest voter turnout relative to other racial groups, Blacks have higher voter turnout than Hispanics and Asians. In fact, Black voter turnout was within 1 percentage point of whites in 2008 (65.2% compared to 66.1%) and was actually higher than whites in 2012 (66.6% compared to 64.1%). In 2016, voter turnout for Blacks dipped to 59.6%. While that number was lower than whites (65.3%), it was still higher than Asians (49.3%) and Hispanics (47.6%).

Some city and state elections further debunk the stereotype that Blacks don’t vote. Cities electing their first Black mayors, such as Little Rock’s Frank Scott and Birmingham’s Randall Woodfin, had high voter turnouts, particularly among Blacks. In fact, Brookings’s Andre Perry reported that the high turnout of Black voters, especially Black women, in Birmingham actually propelled Doug Jones to the Senate. In the governor races in Georgia and Florida, involving candidates Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum, respectively, voter turnout among Blacks was also high. Noting this in Florida is particularly relevant since an amendment restored voting rights to over 1 million state residents. Nearly one-quarter of Blacks in Florida could not vote before the November 2018 midterm elections. Research notes that incarceration for Blacks has also been used as a form of voter disenfranchisement.

Now, one conclusion is that Black candidates increase Black voter turnout. While research shows that Black state legislators help to increase voting participation among Black disengaged voters, we argue that it is more about the issues than the racial background of the candidates alone. In this study, what made the difference was that Black disengaged voters were contacted directly by a candidate, though Black state legislators did not significantly change the voter turnout of Black engaged voters. Moreover, when interests are met, people are more likely to vote. And, some Black candidates may do a better job of speaking to issues that affect Black communities, while also advancing policies that speak to the everyday lives of working and marginalized Americans. Contrarily, when Black voters believe their interests are not met, they may rather not vote because of dissimilar interests and/or as a source of protests for the inequalities embedded in the political process.

Additionally, voter disenfranchisement and suppression as well as gerrymandering are major factors affecting Black, Hispanic, and Asian voter turnout. Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp put over 50,000 voter registrations on hold, 70% of which were from Black residents. (Considering that Kemp was running for governor, this seemed like a clear conflict of interest.) Regarding voter disenfranchisement, several states with large and growing Black and Hispanic populations closed polling places: Texas closed over 400 polling places, Arizona closed over 200, and the states of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina collectively have closed over 250 polling places. These closings are a direct result of the Supreme Court choosing not to hold the Voting Rights Act intact. The stripping of the Voting Rights Act has led to more discrimination regarding voter identification, poll closures, and gerrymandering at state and local levels.

Voter disenfranchisement, voter suppression, and gerrymandering are reasons why the work that Stacey Abrams, Eric Holder, and President Obama are doing is so important. If people have to wait in lines for hours to vote, take two buses and walk miles to get to a polling place, return to a central voting location because they didn’t have the proper identification, and potentially get fired for taking 5-10 minutes to vote once at the booth, they are going to normally opt for their job and time. This tradeoff may be particularly prudent if potential candidates do not represent voters’ interests. This is why today’s Democratic presidential primary debate being held at Texas Southern University, a historically Black university, is so important—particularly with it being Congressional Black Caucus week in Washington, D.C. It shows that Black votes, interests, and people matter.

So, maybe people should stop using Blacks as scapegoats and start addressing the real problems institutionally embedded in the political process.