The number of black voters who turn out to vote in the upcoming elections could play a huge role in several swing states, according to a report released Tuesday by the National Urban League.
A swell of black voters was the difference in several states in 2008, according to the report, which focused on North Carolina, Virginia and Ohio in particular. "Essentially, African American voters in a number of key states hold the key to the outcome of the 2012 election," Marc Morial, the Urban League's president, said.
According to the report, the voter turnout rate among African Americans jumped 5 percentage points between 2004 and 2008, from 60 percent to 65 percent. The 2008 election also saw 2.4 million more black voters cast ballots than in 2004 -- more than double the pace at which the country's black population grew.
"If turnout goes back to what it was in 2004, it will have a huge impact in North Carolina," Madura Wijewardena, an analyst at the Urban League, said. If black voting reverts to its 2004 levels, it could mean President Barack Obama would lose North Carolina, and he would face uphill battles in Ohio and Virginia as well.
Obama and presumptive GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney stand in a virtual dead heat in North Carolina, according to Real Clear Politics. Obama boasts a narrow, albeit widening lead in Ohio and a small, shrinking lead in Virginia.
Winning North Carolina was seen as a major and symbolic victory for then-Sen. Obama, when he barely edged out Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to capture the state's 15 electoral votes. North Carolina had been a reliably Republican state in presidential elections since 1964 -- it had only voted for a Democrat once in three decades until Obama's 2008 win. Virginia, which Obama also won in 2008, had not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in the last 10 elections going back to 1972.
Ohio, the third state in the study and another won by Obama in 2008, is a famous bellwether of national elections. Ohio has voted for every presidential winner, except one, since 1944.
The study found that black turnout, by percentage of eligible voters, nearly reached parity with that of white voters in 2008. "In 2008, there was only a 1.8 percent difference in black and white turnout," said Chanelle Hardy, the Urban League's policy director. "That's just an amazingly high water mark for democracy. Armed with that information, we're in a strong position to tell each and every African American voter -- 'your vote does matter.'"
African-American voters are the most likely group to actually vote if they are registered, according to the study. About 93 percent of registered blacks vote in national elections, compared to 90 percent of whites and 84 percent of Hispanics.
But it was among younger voters that the surge of African Americans to the polls was most evident. Among voters between 18 and 44, blacks actually outpaced whites. For the first time in history, whites were not the biggest proportion of an age group, Wijewardena said.
Morial said that given these trends, it's not a coincidence that Republican-dominated legislatures have passed voter ID laws, which require voters to provide certain forms of official ID in order to vote. "We think it has a lot to do with the fact that you had extraordinary turnout in 2008," he said.
Proponents of the laws say they are designed to reduce voter fraud. But voting rights organizations, like the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, point out that voter fraud is extremely rare, while others point out that the groups most likely to be affected because they do not have IDs are African Americans, Latinos, young people and the poor -- groups that tend to vote for Democrats.
Nate Silver, the statistician at The New York Times's FiveThirtyEight blog, wrote on Sunday that it's unclear just how much of an impact the new voter ID laws will have on turnout this fall.
"Nevertheless, it’s clear enough that stricter voter ID requirements are probably bad for Democrats, on balance," Silver wrote. "In almost every state where the ID laws have been at issue, Republican governors and legislatures have been on the side of passing stricter ones, while Democrats have sought to block them."
President Obama is scheduled to attend the Urban League's annual national convention next week in New Orleans.