Ben Jealous and The Center for American Progress recently released True South: Unleashing Democracy in the Black Belt 50 Years After Freedom Summer,a report on politics in the Black Belt. True South demonstrates that an effective voter registration drive in the South could shift the balance of power in some states from Republican to Democrat.
For example, in South Carolina, which has about 250,000 unregistered black voters, a Tea Party Republican won the 2010 gubernatorial election by less than 60,000 votes. The report estimates that registering 60% of those 250,000 unregistered black voters would shift the balance of electoral power in South Carolina, which has elected Republican governors in the last three elections, from Republican to Democrat. And that shift could occur even without registering additional Latino voters who would also likely tilt the scale to the Left. Similar dynamics exist in Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia (and in Florida and Texas with regard to unregistered Latinos).
In the report, Jealous argues that “registering just 30 percent of eligible unregistered black voters or other voters of color could shift the political calculus in a number of Black Belt states, helping blacks elect candidates who share their concerns or alternatively, forcing all candidates to pay attention to the community’s concerns.” This, however, is too strong of a claim. While the type of voter registration that Jealous’ report advocates could certainly empower the Democratic Party, it is unlikely that such an effort would force all candidates to pay attention to the black community. In fact, such a strategy could actually backfire and undermine the Democratic Party similarly to how the Tea Party movement has fractured the Republican Party.
Black Voter Registration Could Help the Democratic Party
Black people vote Democrat. It’s that simple. With the marginal exception of some hardcore Christian conservatives, almost all of the newly registered black voters would vote for Democratic candidates. Democratic candidates would get more votes. And in Southern states with tight elections and large numbers of unregistered blacks, black voter registration could be a real boon to the Democratic Party.
But Black Voter Registration Still Might Not Get Politicians to Listen to the Black Community
Ironically, the reason that black voter registration might not translate into increased power for the black community is the same reason that it could translate into increased power for the Democratic Party: black people vote Democrat.
Republicans aren’t going to cater to the black vote. Trying to convince black people to vote Republican would be a waste of time and money. We don’t like them and they know it. They’re not even going to try. In fact, the Republican stronghold in the South is the result of the Party deciding to chalk the black vote up as a loss and cater to white racist sentiments. This is why Republicans are so actively trying to disenfranchise black voters. Black voters can only hurt the Republican Party so they try to limit our ability to participate. They are not going to try to get us on their side. Especially with the Tea Party threatening their base and pulling the Party further to the Right.
Unfortunately for black people, Democratic politicians know this as well. They know that they are our only option. This means that they don’t have to cater to the black community either. Newly registered black voters will either vote Democrat or not vote at all. And since they weren’t voting before anyway, Democrats won’t care if some of the newly registered blacks decide to stay home on Election Day. In fact, Democratic candidates who did cater to the newly registered black masses would risk alienating and losing the votes of Independents and moderate and conservative white Democrats. The Democratic Party will take the new black votes, but it won’t change its positions to get them.
Black Voter Registration Could Actually Weaken the Democratic Party
Everything above applies to general elections in which one Democratic candidate runs against one Republican candidate. But things change when we think about primaries in which multiple members of one party compete to win the right to run in the general election. An increased black voter base could have a similar effect on Democratic primaries as the Tea Party has had on Republican primaries.
Primary elections are essentially a battle for the base of a party. As we’ve seen with the Tea Party, the base of the Republican Party is more conservative than many of the mainstream Republican candidates. So in primaries, the Tea Party has been able to out-Republican the more moderate, mainstream Republicans.
Just two weeks ago, Eric Cantor, the second most powerful Republic in the House, lost a primary to David Brat, an obscure Tea Party candidate who has never held public office; despite the fact that Cantor outspent Brat by 40 to 1. The problem for the Tea Party is that while they can win primaries, many of their candidates are too extreme to compete in the general elections. Cantor won the 2012 general election by 8-percentage points. Independents and moderate and liberal Republicans who voted for Cantor in 2012 might not support Brat in 2014 and, as a result, a Democrat could end up winning Cantor’s seat.
The same thing could happen on the Left if there were an influx of black voters. While the Democrat’s would not feel pressure to cater to blacks during general elections, more progressive Democratic candidates might try to out-flank the more moderate candidates and appeal to the black community. While this might lead to some more liberal Democratic candidates, it could alienate moderates in the general election and Democratic seats could be lost to Republicans.
Voting is Not Enough
I’m not arguing that black people should not register to vote or participate in elections. I actually support Jealous’ appeal. I think that all black people should register to vote and vote their conscience (which means not voting at all if no candidates speak to them).
Voting, however, is not enough.
The American two-party electoral system hasn’t worked for black people in the past, is not working for black people now, and, even if there were a massive influx of black voters, it probably would continue to not work for black people in the future. Electoral politics are constrained in general and are especially insufficient to address the needs of an oppressed minority like black Americans. We need to do more than vote. Large-scale black progress has always resulted from black people pressuring the system from the outside and forcing it to behave in ways in which it was not designed. Voting can help, but it has to be part of a larger political strategy and movement.