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Black Voter Off-year Turnout Believed Higher Than Usual

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By Hazel Trice Edney
NNPA Washington Correspondent

Despite reports to the contrary, recent Black voter turnout seems to have been at least equal to, if not better than, the previous mid-term election, according to the most extensive analysis yet of this year’s Black vote.

“The participation rates of African-Americans in 2002 are strikingly analogous to past off-years—if not up slightly,” concludes an analysis prepared for the Democratic National Committee. “Those [who are] quick to proclaim the base of the Democratic Party was more apathetic this year lack the evidence to substantiate their agenda.”
The research was conducted by Brilliant Corners Research & Strategies, a Washington-based firm.
A memo from Cornell Belcher, president of the research firm, and Donna Brazile, chair of the Democratic National Committee’s Voting Rights Institute, cites figures from predominately Black precincts in four states to show that the Black voter turnout in November was no worse than the 1998 mid-term election. Traditionally, voting during non-presidential election years are lower than when there is competition for the White House.
In North Carolina, an examination of more than 1,400 majority Black precincts shows that Black voter turnout was 35 percent this year, an almost imperceptible difference from the 36 percent rate in 1998.
In Georgia’s DeKalb County, voters in Black precincts showed up at a rate of 53 percent, compared to an average of 50.4 percent in the 1998 and 1994 off-year elections.
In St. Louis, Mo., the turnout in 12 majority Black wards ran seven points ahead of the average turnout of 44 percent in 1998 and 1994.
In Arkansas, voting in Black precincts in Pulaski County was higher the past two off-year elections. The tally was 9,938 this year and an average of 9,294 in 1998 and 1994.
Because no national exit polls were taken this year, speculation about Black voter turnout has been rampant. The U. S. Census Bureau’s report on the election turnout will likely be the most comprehensive, but it is not expected to be issued until early 2004.
Meanwhile, some political observers—including Democratic faithfuls—have cited the so-called low Black voter turnout as the reason for Democrats losing control of the Senate and giving Republicans tighter control over the House.
The belief that Black voters did not turn out is unfounded, says Belcher, the pollster who did the research for the DNC.
“If there were any overarching downward trend in the African-American turnout in the off-year, certainly we would see it in those states,” he says in an interview. “In some areas we were being matched and outspent by Republicans and they were going very hard and negative after us, yet if you look at Democratic performance in those base areas, we didn’t drop off in Democratic performance. Nor did we drop off in turnout.”
The memo emphasizes, however, that Black voters should not be satisfied.
“While there was no overall discernable downward trend, [Black] precinct turnout continues to trail that of [Whites], undermining our ability to win close races,” the memo states. “We are failing to build upon and expand our [Black] electorate.”
The analysis shows Whites voting an average of 10 points higher than Blacks.
To narrow that gap, Democrats are now planning to galvanize younger voters.
“Very shortly, in order to win close races and advance a pro-working families agenda, Democrats and progressives will be forced to spend time and resources engaging the fastest growing segment of potential base voters—African-American voters under age 40,” the memo states.
Brazile says Democrats can’t win without attracting more young voters.
“Here’s the problem,” she explains. “We’re almost at our maximum in terms of being able to pull out the same people over and over again. We have to expand the base, we’ve got to broaden the reach of the Democratic Party into; especially young African-Americans who are not inclined to vote Democratic unless we have a strong message that can reach them.”
The memo also warns of tough Republican tactics in 2004.
“Republicans are well-positioning themselves to suppress the turnout of African-American voters via their specific negative attacks asserting that African-Americans are taken for granted and Democrats are out of touch with the values of the community,” it states. “Unfortunately, many of the post election headlines by ‘Black leaders’ criticizing the party’s efforts will find their way into Republican Black communications in the 2004 cycle, further helping Republicans dissuade African-Americans from voting.”

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