Despite often-voiced concerns about the effect of voter identification laws, black voter turnout remained high in 2012 and, for the first time, may have topped the rate for whites, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center.
Four years ago, the rate of black voter turnout almost equaled that of whites, continuing a trend of a steady increase in black turnout rates that began in 1996. This year, with white turnout appearing to have dropped, black turnout seems very likely to have exceeded the white level, although definitive figures won’t be available until the Census Bureau reports in a few months.
A higher turnout rate among blacks than whites would mark an historic milestone given America’s long history of disenfranchising blacks. Blacks were effectively barred from polls in many states until after passage of the federal Voting Rights Act in 1965.
In the run-up to this year’s presidential election, a number of states with Republican-majority legislatures passed laws limiting voting hours, curtailing voter registration efforts or requiring voters to show identification. Many black leaders said those laws would disproportionately hurt elderly, poor and minority voters and accused Republicans of running a campaign of “voter suppression.”
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Republicans said the measures were needed to combat voter fraud. In a few states, Republican legislative leaders explicitly said they hoped the measures would hurt Democratic candidates or reduce the “urban” vote.
Courts blocked some of those laws, and in the end they may have backfired as black organizations used “voter suppression” as a rallying cry. The perception that “people don’t want you to vote” motivated many blacks, particularly young people, to turn out, said Chanelle Hardy, executive director of the National Urban League. “It was huge,” she said during a recent panel discussion.
Overall, about 60% of the Americans eligible to register actually voted in 2012, according to data compiled by Michael McDonald of George Mason University. That would be about three points below the 2008 turnout, with much of the decline coming among white voters. The precise final number won’t be known until New York state completes its vote count, which has been slowed by the after-effects of Hurricane Sandy.
The number of voters from minority groups rose in November’s election, a key factor in President Obama’s reelection. But those numbers went up for disparate reasons. Among Latinos and Asians, population growth has steadily driven up the number of voters. Turnout rates also have gone up, but remain significantly lower than those of the population as a whole. The nation’s black population, by contrast, has remained steady, but the number of black voters has continued to go up because of higher turnout rates. Blacks make up about 12% of the U.S. population but were 13% of the voter turnout, according to exit polling. Whites made up about 71% of the voter-eligible population and 72% of the turnout, the exit poll indicated.
The large black turnout was critical to Obama’s victory in several swing states, according to a recent analysis by Ruy Texeira and John Halpin of the Center for American Progress, a Democratic think tank. Their analysis pointed to Ohio, in particular, as a state in which an increase in the black share of the vote proved decisive.