You can’t say we didn’t warn you, because we did. And after all that protesting noise all year about the plight of black folks under the boot of racist police, it’s quite sad that no one thought to strike this year’s electoral iron while it was test-run hot. But, in case you didn’t know, this past Tuesday marked yet another major nonpresidential cycle in which the black American voting bloc was largely a ghost—and ended up becoming the biggest election loser in the process.
Not that state and local elections garner that much attention or turnout from the larger electorate, anyway. African Americans aren’t the only ones afflicted by a bad case of “off-cycle” voter-itis. Most voting-eligible Americans are unable, unwilling or just too happily unconscious to make it to the polls when it’s not a big-kahuna franchise election during which candidates drop by the Saturday Night Live studio.
“While turnout for presidential elections is considered low when it dips below 60 percent and midterm elections less than 40 percent, local elections that fail to draw more than 10 or 20 percent of voters are common,” notes Governing Magazine’s Alan Greenblatt. For state legislative elections, forget about it.
Some of that is due to voter ignorance. But public officials bear much more blame as they busily prop up entrenched political machines and incumbents, from the creation of confusing ballots to the maintenance of irregular voting schedules, to keep them in power.
But for African Americans, the political stakes are perpetually high, given our miserable, nearly 400-year-old history of living on the edge. With major policy changes always affecting us in massive ways, a lack of black participation in state and local elections can literally be the difference between food on the table and abject poverty.
With 90 percent of the 42,000 combined state, local and federal elected officials nationwide being white—according to this really eye-opening Reflective Democracy Campaign study you must read—it’s not as if most politicians are naturally inclined to represent black interests, even when they represent areas with large pockets of black constituents. So when black voters choose to tap out, it’s an even bigger, conveniently packaged excuse to continue doing nothing.
Ironically, these state and local officials are those with the most direct influence over those personal, community-level issues (like, ahem, police misconduct and high conviction rates of young black people) we keep screaming about. Here are five reasons Tuesday night just made it that much harder for you politically if you’re black, regardless of who wins the White House next year:
1. More Republican governors and more Republican state legislatures, which generally mean less for black folks. Kentucky, political ground zero for the much beloved Obamacare, just flipped to a GOP governor (although it got its first black female lieutenant governor, also a Republican). Republicans now hold 32 of the nation's governorships.
Virginia’s Senate (its entire Legislature) stays Republican, despite an aggressive play from the Democratic governor. And Mississippi didn’t even blink, keeping Republican Gov. Phil Bryant in place while GOP control in the Statehouse was maintained. Louisiana has a gubernatorial runoff Nov. 21 between Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards and Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter. New Jersey’s Legislature stays Democratic, but that’s just because Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) is so unpopular, Garden State folks can’t wait for him to leave.
Let’s clarify: It’s not simply because they’re Republican that black folks lose out. It’s that Republican politicians feel they have no black voters to answer to or hold them accountable, especially when black political eggs are—for the most part—all lumped into the Democratic basket. But don’t come crying to the very red and very comfortably white governor or state legislature when you need a change and you didn’t mobilize any skin in the game last election.
With major state-level elections taking place in Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Virginia and New Jersey, there was absolutely no reason black voters (especially during these tense and very vocal days of protesters crashing presidential-candidate venues) didn’t have a prominent voice in the 2015 election. These are all states with large African-American populations and, potentially, big pockets of mobilized black voters: Kentucky’s black population is 9 percent, Louisiana’s is 33 percent, Mississippi boasts 38 percent, Virginia’s is 21 percent and New Jersey boasts 16 percent.
2. A whiter, much more conservative electorate is never a good thing when left unchallenged. Because then, beyond those state races, it unilaterally decides to do away with major policy changes such as Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance (which, even if it is LGBT-focused, people of color benefit the most from) or rejects marijuana legalization in Ohio at a time when African Americans in that state are four times more likely than whites to be jailed for possession. Or in San Francisco, where a much whiter electorate not only got rid of its sheriff for the highly controversial “sanctuary city” policy but also thought it perfectly fine to keep share-economy gentrifiers like Airbnb unregulated as they continue indiscriminately displacing underserved communities.
3. Kentucky is on the cusp of repealing its Affordable Care Act expansion. With Republican Matt Bevin winning the Bluegrass State’s governor’s race, he’s now ready to push forward with his biggest campaign pledge: putting the brakes on the highly successful Obamacare-driven Medicaid expansion in Kentucky. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), whose political fortunes rest on demonizing everything President Barack Obama, can’t wait for him to do it—which sucks for black folks and other underserved groups in Kentucky because not only is the state’s poverty rate 20 percent, but its black poverty rate is over 32 percent (with incomes dropping).
Not only is that bad in Kentucky, but if it’s successful, a repeal could create an emboldening, anti-Obamacare political ripple effect into Republican-stronghold states holding their nose on Medicaid expansion. When would it stop? As a matter of fact, other states that just had elections, such as Louisiana, Mississippi and Virginia, have rejected Medicaid expansion—all states with high black poverty and black uninsured rates—in addition to most of the 19 states that have cast shade on the prospect of Medicaid expansion.
4. More voter-suppression tactics. As we’ve seen, more Republicans controlling state governments also translates into more shady, voter-suppression schemes, from the nefarious but innocuously termed “voter ID” to the elimination of early voting. There’s all sorts of tinkering with the political process and voting procedures, which has the intended effect of diminishing minority-voter turnout in states where black populations are massive. Louisiana, Mississippi and Virginia have what are considered some of the nation’s stricter voter-ID laws. Kentucky is not as strict but still requires identification—yet with the state no longer under a Democratic governor, no surprise if we start hearing about new GOP-led proposals to tighten that up.
5. And lots of redistricting equals less black political clout. With Republicans totally controlling 30 state legislatures and leveraging 24 states where they have both the state legislatures and governor’s mansion, strategists will get happy with that widely mysterious, yet hugely consequential, process known as “redistricting.” It’s the one big reason Republicans maintain their lock on the U.S. House of Representatives, a combination of mapping and clever skill at using states to design congressional districts in their favor. What ends up happening is a consolidation of white communities and political power and the diminished political power of a black electorate struggling for adequate representation from the statehouse to Capitol Hill.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.