Washington — Some Americans were surprised that presumed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney addressed the oldest U.S. civil rights organization’s convention on July 11, since African-American support for Republican presidential nominees has dropped well below 10 percent over the past several decades.
Romney’s remarks at the convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Houston highlight the importance of African Americans to the 2012 contest, where they constitute a significant voting block in the crucial swing states of Virginia, North Carolina and Ohio, which have a combined total of 46 Electoral College votes. On July 12, Vice President Biden also addressed the convention, and President Obama spoke to participants through a recorded video message.
Based on recent history, Romney is unlikely to get many African-American votes on November 5. The Republican Party’s 1996 nominee attracted only 14 percent support from black voters. With subsequent Democratic registration and outreach efforts, as well as an increasingly conservative Republican Party platform that has alienated many in the community, the party of President Abraham Lincoln that championed the end of African-American slavery now has limited appeal in many African-American communities.
In 1998, novelist Toni Morrison described President Bill Clinton as “our first black president,” saying his background and lifestyle displayed “almost every trope of blackness.” Barack Obama’s 2008 nomination gave African Americans their first chance to elect a president with African roots, and 65 percent of eligible black voters showed up at the polls, producing the highest turnout of any minority group. Nationally, 16.1 million African Americans voted — 2 million more than in 2004 — and 95 percent of them chose Obama.
Most U.S. political observers believe African-American enthusiasm in the 2012 election will not equal that of 2008, now that the novelty of having an African-American president has worn off. Even though polls show that community members overwhelmingly support Obama, the key question on the minds of both Republican and Democratic strategists is whether a group that historically has low voter turnout will go to the polls, especially in swing states like North Carolina, where black participation was the key factor in Obama’s extremely narrow win over Arizona Senator John McCain.
BLACK CONCERNS INCLUDE UNEMPLOYMENT, INCARCERATION, VOTER ID LAWS
In the 2012 swing states, African-American voters make up 23 percent of the electorate in North Carolina, 20 percent in Virginia and 11 percent in Ohio. Like other Americans, they are chiefly concerned about the U.S. economy and jobs. The unemployment rate among African Americans in June was at 14.4 percent — more than 6 points higher than the national average.
Black voters also are deeply concerned over criminal justice issues. The U.S. research and advocacy group Children’s Defense Fund reported in 2009 that a black boy born in 2001 has a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison in his lifetime, compared to a 1 in 6 chance for a Latino boy and a 1 in 17 chance for a white boy. African-American girls born in 2001 also were disproportionately more likely to go to prison than their peers.
African-American communities also are concerned about new voter identification (ID) laws in various states that require voters to present an official government-issued ID at their registered polling place to vote. Under U.S. law, states are responsible for how and where ballots are cast within their borders, and among those with voter ID requirements, the law varies. Proponents of the voter ID laws say they will reduce election fraud, but opponents counter that the laws unfairly target African Americans and other minority groups who are less likely to have IDs.
The controversy over IDs is particularly sensitive because of a long history of white efforts to disenfranchise black voters since the end of slavery and the Civil War. The 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave African-American men the right to vote in 1870, but opposition in former Confederate states effectively suppressed that right.
Southern state legislatures enacted measures designed to prevent or discourage blacks from voting, such as poll taxes, requiring proof of property ownership, and literacy tests. To help poor white voters overcome these restrictions, legislatures instituted what became known as the “grandfather clause," which said the measures would not apply if a voter’s grandfather had voted.
It was not until the 1965 Voting Rights Act was signed that African Americans were truly able to exercise their franchise across the United States.
Howard University political science professor Lorenzo Morris told journalists at Washington’s Foreign Press Center May 4 that 10 U.S. states have recently enacted voter ID laws, and “it is almost incontrovertible to say that to the extent they are enforced, they would benefit the Republican candidates.”
“The impact is statistically not as impressive as one might think,” Morris said, but it could conceivably decide the outcome in a closely contested swing state. Citing Florida, which is among those that passed a new law and which ultimately decided the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, Morris speculated that voter ID restrictions could affect around 5,000 people in the state.
“Remember, Bush won Florida by less than 500 votes. So if you discourage people from voting due to voter IDs, it ... can have some significant effect, especially in critical states,” he said.