Closing the Racial Voting Gap

Turnout among blacks and Latinos is low compared with white turnout. It's time for a change.

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That participation rate increased to nearly 65 percent in 2008. An improvement, yes, but still lackluster considering that blacks represented 12.1 percent of voters but more than 13 percent of the national population. So African-American participation as a percentage remained at a deficit.

In comparison, white Americans represented nearly 75 percent of the voting electorate in 2008, despite being only 63 percent of the nation's population. Whites were more engaged in the process that decides their political representation. That is the mark of responsible citizenship. This is where African Americans are falling short -- especially given a past riddled with discrimination and systematic disenfranchisement.

But it doesn't end there.

According to research conducted by the nonprofit Sentencing Project (pdf), African Americans are more likely to be disenfranchised by past criminal records or current parole and probation status. Roughly 13 percent of the total black male population -- 1.4 million men -- are not allowed to vote, a rate seven times the national average. In states that permanently disenfranchise ex-offenders, as many as 40 percent of black men may permanently lose their right to vote.

And when you consider important swing states like Florida and Virginia, the outlook is increasingly grim, with 23 percent and 20 percent respectively of African Americans disenfranchised by the criminal-justice system. What's important to note is that many are denied a ballot for minor crimes -- including possession of small amounts of marijuana, failure to pay parking tickets and child-support arrears.

The news is even worse for Latinos, who have an overall voter-participation rate of 30 percent -- about half that of blacks. A recent report by the nonpartisan Advancement Project shows that voter-ID efforts may prevent more than 10 million Latino citizens -- and registered voters -- from participating in the 2012 election.

At these levels, the number of those affected would far exceed the margins of victory that President Obama experienced in 2008. In Florida alone, where Obama beat Sen. John McCain by just over 200,000 votes, eligible Latino voters amount to nine times the 2008 margin of victory.

But with many green card holders who would be first-time voters, and language barriers that often dissuade potential voters, the complicated new voter-ID requirements serve only to exacerbate existing low-participation disparities. The combined effects of Latinos dissuaded and African Americans denied could mean that Obama needs a massive increase in turnout simply to match his 2008 results. That is what Romney's strategic partners -- and financial backers -- are counting on.

In April the Center for American Progress reported that as many as 25 percent of blacks (pdf) do not possess a valid form of government-issued ID, compared with 11 percent on average for all races.

While voter-ID laws threaten to restrict access to the polls, and so many ex-offenders have been stripped of the right to vote, the relatively low participation rates by eligible blacks and Latinos reflect a problem largely of their own making that must be addressed at a national and personal level. For all the work being done by activists to register voters, much can be done by individuals who have the power to exercise their right to vote.