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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(The Root) -- Recent polls showing President Barack Obama leading Republican challenger Mitt Romney in key swing states like Ohio, Virginia and North Carolina have the potential to lull Democrats -- and African Americans in particular -- into a false sense of security.

Restrictive voter-ID laws passed by Republican legislatures in 23 states in the past few years are not the only factor creating imbalance in America's electoral politics. In fact, these efforts serve only to highlight the deeper, more systemic problems of decreased voter turnout within minority communities.

According to a much-talked-about NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll from last month, Obama leads Romney among key constituencies, including African Americans -- 94 percent to 0 percent; Latinos by a margin of 2-to-1; voters under the age of 35, 52 percent to 41 percent; and women, 51 percent to 41 percent.

Obama also leads in key battleground states, according to recent polls: Florida (51 percent to 47 percent), Ohio (52 percent to 44 percent) and Virginia, where Obama leads 52 percent to 44 percent among likely voters and 50 percent to 43 percent among registered voters.

On its face, these are all positive indicators for Obama: Historically, incumbent presidents who are leading in September before the election are almost assured to win. But this is no ordinary election. Normal rules don't apply.

Despite Obama's lead among registered and likely voters, it is impossible to gauge how many of them will succeed in becoming actual voters. The suggestion that Romney isn't getting any portion of the black vote may serve as an interesting talking point for liberal commentators and Obama's campaign staff, but it overlooks a critical issue: the vast number of eligible African-American voters who never cast a ballot.

Historically low participation is now aided by disenfranchisement through criminal justice and exacerbated by well-oiled voter-suppression efforts. Those who don't vote at all are the true face of the zero percent, and every nonvoter in November amounts to a de facto ballot for Romney. This is exactly what the GOP is banking on: that too many blacks can't get registered, won't get registered or will fail to make it to the polls.

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 As has been widely reported, the purpose of voter-ID laws has been to restrict the turnout of Obama's Democratic base. Though African Americans and Latinos helped Obama win key states like North Carolina, Virginia, Florida and Ohio in the 2008 contest, his margins remained relatively small. As a recent report from the National Urban League explains, even a slight drop in voter participation among blacks and Latinos will spell victory for the GOP.

The historic significance of Obama's potential victory motivated hundreds of thousands to register and vote in 2008. According to a Pew Research report, the overall participation of African Americans was 60 percent in 2004, when Sen. John Kerry ran unsuccessfully against then-President George W. Bush.

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Sept. 19 2014 8:34 AM