"Is the Black community going to get out and vote?"
I was in the middle of a bite of my lunch when a white male colleague posed this question as we were fast approaching the 2018 midterm elections — an election that would indirectly measure the country's feelings about Donald Trump and his performance as president and potentially undermine his power by flipping seats in the House of Representatives. He knew just as well as I did that Black voters could sway the result of a close race, especially given our overwhelmingly democratic leaning.
I tried to hide my irritation. First of all, his question insinuated that I could be a spokesperson for the entire Black community. While I have grown accustomed to finding myself in the role of Black representative due to my education at a PWI and working in corporate America, where Black people are few and far between, it is still annoying and quite misleading. The Black community is not a monolith to be spoken for by any one individual. Second, he was making a broad stroke assumption about the voting patterns of Black people: we don't vote.
More than that, he was assuming that not voting was simply a matter of choice.
Since the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the proportion of Black people exercising their right to vote has increased dramatically, even with the remnants of violence and discrimination still lingering. Additionally, when there is a candidate that genuinely appeals to the identity and concerns of Black Americans, there is a concerted effort to register voters in the Black community. Or when the stakes are particularly high, Black people do vote.
In the 2008 presidential election, when this country elected its first Black president, Black voter turnout was almost comparable to white voters. And in 2012, during Obama's second run, for the first time Black voter turnout surpassed white voter turnout.
In the 2017 Alabama Senate special election, where alleged sex offender Roy Moore ran against Doug Jones, Black voters all but handed Jones the election. A decisive message was sent as Jones, a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted Klansmen responsible for the infamous church bombing in Birmingham that killed four little Black girls, collected 96 percent of the Black vote and become that first democrat in a generation to occupy a Senate seat in Alabama.
Blavitize your inbox! Join our daily newsletter for fresh stories and breaking news.
While these signs were encouraging, Black voter turnout has traditionally been lower than white Americans and dipped from 67 percent in 2012 to 60 percent in the 2016 presidential election. Some may chalk this up to the reality that one candidate and her husband supported policies to imprison droves of Black and brown people and ran a poor campaign, the other candidate was, and still is, a suspected racist, so perhaps Black people simply chose not to vote. However, after the election and re-election of our first Black president, there was an assault on the Voting Rights Act that turned back the clock on the gains made to protect Black Americans' right to vote.
In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that section 4B of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional in the landmark Shelby County Alabama v. Holder case. This section, in culmination with section 5, gave oversight to the Department of Justice where locales with a history of voting discrimination were required to garner approval before changing election practices. Changes that would have a proven disparate impact on certain communities would be denied. In a 5–4 decision, Justices John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito explained their decision by stating that times have changed and that the clause was no longer necessary. This disregarded the "bail out" provision of the Act that said counties who could demonstrate that their discriminatory practices have been abandoned could be removed from oversight and that those who remain on the list had not done so to this day. By 2014, 14 additional states passed voter restriction statutes, including a myriad of voter ID laws.
One of the most common changes was the requirement for a government issued ID to vote. While this may seem reasonable, there are millions of Americans with no form of government identification; disproportionately the elderly, minority and poor given the tedious and often time consuming task of procuring an ID. Other places took voter ID requirements a step further.
In Georgia, the "exact match" law mandates that voters' government issued ID be an exact match to what was filed on voter rolls. If there is a discrepancy, verification by a local registrar is needed in order to vote. This may seem like a simple ask, however, many voters left on the verification list were unsure if they were eligible to vote and, unfortunately, many simply chose not to try. In 2018, 70 percent of the 53,000 voters on this list were Black. This was at the root of the controversy in Georgia's governor race where Brian Kemp defeated Stacey Abrams by a thin margin. All of this is exacerbated by other practices such as closing or limiting the hours of DMVs in predominantly Black areas, making it more difficult to procure a government issued ID, cuts to early voting and moving or closing polling places.
The reality is, voter impersonation, which is what voter ID laws would combat, unless coordinated and executed by thousands, if not millions of people together faking identities, is highly unlikely. In fact, voter impersonation is quite rare. Stuffing ballot boxes or manipulating absentee results is more common as seen in the recent North Carolina case where Republican political operative Leslie McCrae Dowless was arrested and indicted for his involvement in what the Executive Director of North Carolina State Board Elections called a "coordinated, unlawful and substantially resourced absentee ballot scheme."
As the 2020 presidential race approaches, we should consider what it means to live in a democracy where nearly half of those eligible to vote, don't. Voting should not be a burden or a chore. This has unfortunately been the case for a disproportionate number of Black Americans. Perhaps the more appropriate question should be, "what can we do to ensure the Black community, and every American, can vote?"