Back to our old ways in 2012
The next time President Obama addresses an audience of African Americans, I would love for him to step to the podium and say this: “C’mon, folks. Who are we kidding? You know you’re going to vote for me. You know it, and I know it. Yes, I love you. And, I’m thankful for your support, which both of us know I’m going to get again this November. So, why are we even going through this exercise, huh? Why?! Let’s stop kidding ourselves. I’ve already got your vote.”
Can you imagine if he had gone to the NAACP Convention in Houston and said that? If he had, I would publicly declare my support for him and might even join him on the campaign trail! That kind of blunt talk goes a long way with me. But, we all know that’s never going to happen. The President would be lambasted for his hubris. People would be offended that their vote was being taken for granted. But, the truth of the matter is: there is no way on God’s green Earth that black voters are going to abandon President Obama for Mitt Romney in a statistically significant way.
For a while leading up to the 2008 election, I thought it was hypocritical for blacks to vote for Obama just because he’s black. I’m from a younger generation of African Americans who’ve had opportunities to thrive in this country void of overt racism that earlier generations faced. So, on a purely cerebral level, I thought Obama should be judged by his character, accomplishments, and qualifications. But, it’s not that simple, especially for older African Americans who were dehumanized, beaten, jailed, and saw others killed in a struggle for basic rights and equality. Even if my generation didn’t go through that, we all feel a connection to and appreciation for what earlier generations endured, and we all realize what Barack Obama represents.
But, it’s also not fair to say blacks voted for Obama just because he’s black. Remember, John Kerry got 88% of the black vote in 2004. Al Gore got 90% in 2000. Bill Clinton got 83% and 84% in ’92 and ’96. Michael Dukakis got 89% in 1988. Walter Mondale got 91% in 1984. Jimmy Carter got 83% in 1976 and 1980. Blacks have been voting heavily for Democrats for president for decades. Obama got 96% of the black vote in 2008. That’s because he’s legit, he’s a Democrat, AND he’s black. For African Americans of all generations, walking into a voting booth and NOT voting for the viable, credible, capable, Democratic black man on the ballot is a tall order. Still, President Obama should be asking for the black vote, but courting black voters might not be the best use of his time. A better pursuit might be trying to increase overall voter participation.
Census data show that in the past 8 presidential elections, the average overall voter turnout rate was 63%. For the black population, the average was about 58%. Meanwhile, the average voter turnout rate among young Americans 18-24 years old the past 8 presidential elections has been around 39%. (Turnout rates are much lower in midterm elections.)
People have studied and speculated about the reasons for our country’s low voter turnout rates. One reason could be that we vote too much. With federal elections every 2 years plus with primary, city, county, and state elections sprinkled in, people might have voting fatigue. Also, low voter turnout in presidential elections might be attributed to the Electoral College. Since winner takes all electoral votes in a given state, presidential candidates know exactly which states they need to pay attention to and which ones to ignore. That doesn’t lend itself to an enthused electorate in some states. There’s also the theory of political efficacy. People just don’t think their vote has a real impact. In other words, their voices won’t matter.
When the Census Bureau asked people why they didn’t vote in 2008, the number one answer given was that they were “too busy” or had a “conflicting schedule.” Among African Americans, the number one reason was “illness or disability” kept them from getting to the polls. The number 2 answer: “don’t know or refused.” Third, “transportation problems.” And, when asked why they didn’t register to vote, African Americans were the demographic group with the highest percentage of people who answered that they “did not meet registration deadlines.”
The data might be telling us we have a fixable problem. Changing the Electoral College might be tall task, but the option should be on the table. The person who gets the most votes is the winner. There’s a novel idea! Of course, some people will always make excuses for not voting, but many others have legitimate challenges to casting their ballots. If people have a scheduling conflict that keeps them from voting, we should promote and encourage more early voting and absentee voting. Or, as some have suggested, make Election Day a national holiday, so more people would have the time off to vote. And, if people are having transportation problems, we should give our neighbors a ride, and communities should organize carpools. And, if people are missing registration deadlines, then deadlines should be extended. Yes, some of this is a matter of personal responsibility, but our elected leaders can help, and we can help each other.
President Obama will undoubtedly capture the black vote by a huge percentage again this year. Of course, the real threat and concern for the Obama campaign is that blacks and young people won’t got to the polls in greater numbers like they did in 2008. But that was likely going to be the case in 2012 no matter what. Many black voters and many young voters turned out in 2008 because they were being asked to be a part of history. In 2012, they’re simply being asked to be a part of the political process. That’s something they haven’t shown in recent history that they’re prone to do. If more people, particularly young people, participate in the process, Obama will reap the benefits. He wants to make the case for why people should vote for him. Making a case simply for why people should exercise their right to vote might help him as well.
I fear voter turnout will also be down sharply this year because of the onslaught of new voter ID laws that will make it tougher and more confusing for a lot of people to vote. If efforts to combat those new voter ID laws are unsuccessful and we continue on this path of low voter turnout, there’s one more option I might be in favor of: compulsory voting. If voting was made mandatory under the threat of fine, would that get you to the polls? I love living in a country where you’re free to exercise your right to vote, but it also means you’re free to sit at home and do nothing on election day. And, something seems so un-American about forcing someone to exercise a right that people fought for them to have.