The recent report that 8 million African-Americans are unregistered to vote brought gasps of disbelief, cries of shame, and a lot of head shaking reproach. It also stirred a mild soul search among blacks about how and why the numbers are so appallingly high. The figure was cited in September by Rick Wade, who handles African-American voter outreach for the Obama campaign. The campaign was alarmed at the high number of unregistered voters because of the potentially damaging affect it could have on Obama in a close contest. Bush's razor thin victories in Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004 underscore the importance of a maximum black voter turnout. But the problem of getting blacks to the polls may be even greater than the Obama campaign realizes and that starts with the figure of 8 million unregistered voters. The number may be much higher.
According to Census figures there were 28 million African-American adults aged 18 or over in 2006. In the 2004 presidential election they made up 12 percent of the voters, or about 13 million voters. That means an estimated 15 million voting age blacks did not vote. The ban on ex felon voting in 15 states further ramps up the number of ineligible blacks. 40 percent of
ex-felons banned from the polls are black males. They make up another three million potential black voters. That means an estimated 12 million African-American adults who are either officially barred from voting or decline to vote.
The reason that so many blacks don't vote is chalked up to apathy, laziness, ignorance and cynicism toward politicians. By not voting, the critics say, they betray the struggle and sacrifice of those who fought and in some cases died for the right of blacks to vote. This guilt laden reprimand is much too simplistic.
In most state and local elections only a tiny fraction of eligible voters of any race vote. With the exception of the hotly contested 2004 presidential contest between Bush and John Kerry, the number of non-voters in presidential contests has steadily dropped during the past half century. Many say they don't vote because their vote won't change anything. This is not a totally a self-serving dodge.
In the mid 1960s, a majority of eligible voters did vote. Two things changed that. One is the absolute dominance of corporate and labor Political Action Committees in bankrolling politicians. Soaring election costs have turned races for even the smallest state and local offices into a millionaire's derby. The second thing that changed things is the subtle and at times overt suppression of minority voters. This includes stringent driver's license or other ID checks, rigid time lines for filing voter applications, the lack of information or misinformation about voter registration forms and materials, and non-existent or feeble voter registration campaigns. This reinforces the deep suspicion that politicians are for sale and the buyers are well-heeled special interests. As politicians became more dependent on corporate and union dollars they appeared even more remote, inaccessible, and unresponsive to voter needs. Elected officials made little or no effort to inform and engage their constituents on legislative actions, initiatives, and policy positions. This has further estranged millions of potential voters.
Republican and Democrats haven't helped matters. The Republican Party's decades of turning a cold shoulder to African-Americans sent the strong message that blacks were not wanted or needed in the party. Democrats took the cue and downplayed any overt racial appeals for fear of being tagged as tilting toward special blacks and minorities.
The two parties still largely confine their efforts to pad voter rolls to the last, frantic weeks before Election Day. They scramble to register as many voters as possible imploring voters to exercise their democratic right. This generally results in a temporary bump up in the voting rolls. But when Election Day passes it is back to business as usual with no sustained effort to insure that the newly registered voters remained engaged in the political process.
In Europe things are far different. Even though voting numbers have also dropped there, the numbers that do vote still put the U.S. to shame. The political parties wage intense campaigns, employ scores of party and campaign workers to get voters to the polls, make voting materials and registration simple, spend a king's ransom on voter publications and materials, and provide ready access to TV and radio to the political parties to make their case. The message to voters is that their vote not only counts, but it's in their political self-interest to vote. They have made voting a national responsibility.
To simply say that millions of African-Americans don't vote because of apathy and indifference ducks the problem. It lets Democrats and Republicans off the hook for failing to make their flowery talk about restoring government to the people more than just a catchy campaign slogan shouted once every four years.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).