Closing the Racial Voting Gap

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

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

(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.