Black voter turnout in the 2012 elections surpassed white turnout for the first time in history, despite -- or perhaps because of -- a concerted effort to enact new voter restrictions that would have disproportionately affected communities of color.
African-Americans make up 12 percent of the share of eligible voters, but represented 13 percent of total 2012 votes cast, according to a new study produced by Brookings Institution demographer William Frey for the Associated Press. Mitt Romney might have won the presidency had whites voted at the same rates they had in 2004, the study found.
Courts blocked many of the GOP's voter suppression laws before the 2012 elections. But the voter restrictions may actually have had the opposite effect, inspiring a backlash that added to increased turnout.
Voter Suppression Motivates Turnout
Last September, the research group Project New America tested more than thirty messages on “sporadic, less likely voters who lean Democratic” to see what would motivate them to vote. “One of the most powerful messages across many different demographics was reminding people that their votes were important to counter the extremists who are kicking people off of voter rolls,” the group wrote in a post-election memo.
After Republicans gained new statehouse majorities in the 2010 elections, a majority of states introduced proposals to enact restrictions on the right to vote. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 25 laws and 2 executive actions passed in 19 states between 2011 and 2012 to impose strict ID restrictions, or shorten early voting, or limit registration drives, among other measures.
"Republicans thought that they could suppress the vote, but these efforts actually motivated people to get registered and cast a ballot," said Ohio State Senator Nina Turner after the election. "It's no surprise that the communities targeted by these policies came out to the polls in a big way--they saw this not just as an affront to their rights, but as a call to action."
University of California-Irvine election law professor Rick Hasen also predicted the potential for backlash in his book The Voting Wars.
“There were huge organizing efforts in the black, Hispanic and Asian communities, more than there would’ve been, as a direct result of the voter suppression efforts,” said Matt Barreto, co-founder of Latino Decisions, a Latino polling and research firm.
The backlash against these transparent voter suppression efforts, coupled with lower turnout among whites, contributed to the historical margins between black and white voters in 2012. (Latinos are the country's fastest-growing demographic group, but their turnout rates are lower because many in the U.S. are still children or noncitizens.)
Most Voting Restrictions Not in Place for 2012; What about 2013?
"This ought to forever put to rest the lie that voter id laws disenfranchise minority voters," wrote Breitbart.com editor Mike Flynn in response to the Associated Press study showing record black voter turnout.
Most of the voting restrictions were not actually in place for the 2012 elections, thanks to nearly a dozen courts and the U.S. Department of Justice blocking or weakening the majority of new voting restrictions. Of the eight states that passed restrictive voter ID laws in 2011 and 2012 (most of them inspired by American Legislative Exchange Council model legislation), only two states had the laws in effect for the November elections.
The 2012 elections ended up being more a test of whether the threat of voter ID and other voter suppression efforts can motivate turnout. But it remains to be seen whether the 2012 turnout rates will endure in future elections -- and what voter suppression tactics will be in place in 2014 and 2016. For example:
- North Carolina, Virginia, and Arkansas all passed or enacted voter ID laws in 2013. Virginia also passed a law restricting registration drives.
- Pennsylvania's voter ID law, blocked by a state court for the 2012 elections, may be in place for 2014 if the state can get more ID cards in the hands of voters.
- Wisconsin's voter ID law was blocked by two state courts in 2012, but those decisions still have not been reviewed by the state's Republican-dominated Supreme Court. Lawmakers in the Dairy State have also advanced proposals to add voter ID to the constitution (which Minnesota voters rejected in 2012), as well as proposals to eliminate Election Day Registration and limit early voting.
- South Carolina's voter ID law, initially blocked under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, has been pre-cleared and will be in effect for 2013.
- If the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down Section 5, the voter ID law in Texas -- which was blocked by the DOJ under Section 5 -- will likely take effect. Alabama and Mississippi would not need DOJ approval to implement their voter ID laws, which were still under the DOJ's Section 5 review at the time of the 2012 elections.
But on a more optimistic note, both Democratic and Republican legislators in most states have introduced legislation to expand voting rights. And on the federal level, President Obama's Commission on Election Administration will get to work in May, and Congressmen Keith Ellison (D-MN) and Mark Pocan (D-WI) will introduce an amendment to the U.S. Constitution explicitly guaranteeing the right to vote.
Perhaps the backlash against voter suppression will not stop at motivating turnout, but will also provide momentum for affirmative legislation that protects the cornerstone of our democracy.