The Long Road From 1965

Via Josh Marshall, here’s some interesting and important data from Pew:

Blacks voted at a higher rate this year than other minority groups and for the first time in history may also have voted at a higher rate than whites, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of census data, election day exit poll data and vote totals from selected cities and counties….

[A]ccording to census data and the election day exit polls, blacks made up 12 percent of the eligible electorate this year but accounted for an estimated 13 percent of all votes cast—a repeat of the 2008 presidential election, when blacks “over-performed” at the polls by the same ratio. In all previous presidential elections for which there are reliable data, blacks had accounted for a smaller share of votes than eligible voters.

No wonder Republicans were waging a “war on voting,” though they seem to have lost at least the latest battle.

Some hearing this news may attribute the numbers strictly to Barack Obama’s presence on the ballot, and suggest they won’t repeat themselves in future elections without an African-American contestant. But I dunno about that. Elections where African-Americans voted at higher rates than whites may be a brand new possibility at the presidential level, but not so much at the state and local level. I distinctly recall this happening in my home state of Georgia in 1998, producing a big pro-Democratic upset in a governor’s race with no African-American candidate present (significant increases in black turnout also helped Democrats win gubernatorial upsets in Alabama and South Carolina the same year–an entirely unexpected “Dixie Trifecta.”). What did happen in Georgia, however, was a late series of heavy-handed racially-tinged ads by a Republican candidate for Lieutenant Governor, run by his consultant, a guy named Ralph Reed, that helped mobilize African-American voters. You know, sorta like the poorly disguised 2012 ads attacking “welfare” and “voter fraud.”

So Republicans hoping for a lower or less lop-sided African-American voter turnout in the future might want to eschew race-baiting, overt or covert. Those of us who remember the many sacrifices that led to the now-endangered Voting Rights Act of 1965 should be gratified by this year’s turnout numbers, and resolve to help make them a floor rather than a ceiling.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.