(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.
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.
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.
Consider what the November ballot numbers would look like if African Americans voted in larger percentages than their makeup of the overall population. If whites already do so, then why not blacks? There are no excuses for inaction. If you don't vote, you will have been a pawn in the game of those who expected you to do just that — nothing.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.