See also: “5 Ways to Increase Voter Turnout in American Indian and Alaska Native Communities,” “5 Ways to Increase Asian American Voter Turnout,” and “5 Ways to Increase Voter Turnout in Latinx American Communities”
Since its founding, the United States has systematically disenfranchised African American citizens. This painful legacy has continued in the wake of the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder that allows all states, including those with a history of white supremacy and voter suppression, to manipulate their voting procedures without federal oversight. Since then, lawmakers in states across the country have expanded efforts to suppress African American voters. The poll taxes and literacy tests of the Jim Crow era have morphed into discriminatory poll closures and strict voter ID requirements. The 2018 Supreme Court decision in Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute compounded these problems by giving all states the green light to purge registered voters from their rolls.
Making matters worse, lawmakers have consistently neglected their responsibility to listen and actively engage with the African American community. This undermines trust in government and stifles voter participation in one of the most politically involved groups in the United States. Black voters continue to face tremendous barriers to participate in elections, yet turn out consistently—more than 65 percent in 2012. But during the 2016 presidential election—the first presidential election since Shelby—turnout in black communities declined for the first time in two decades. Society cannot keep taking African Americans’ political resilience and determination for granted. It is past time to tear down voting restrictions and empower voters of color to fully exercise their most fundamental democratic right.
Here are five ways to increase voter turnout in African American communities.
1. Eliminate strict voter ID laws
One of the most insidious voter suppression tactics levied against the African American community is strict voter ID requirements. Lawmakers have attempted to justify these laws to the public by claiming they are necessary to prevent voter fraud, even though studies show that voter fraud is extremely rare. Instead, these requirements serve to unfairly target low-income people, people of color, and elderly people by making it more burdensome to vote. In North Carolina, for example, state legislators used new freedoms under Shelby County v. Holder to impose an ID requirement that accepted “only those types of photo ID disproportionately held by whites and excluded those disproportionately held by African-Americans.” The law was eliminated only after a federal court ruled that North Carolina sought to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
Despite the federal court’s condemnation of North Carolina’s discriminatory intentions, other legislators in the state are now seeking a constitutional amendment mandating voter ID requirements for all residents. North Carolina is not the only state that has engaged in this form of voter suppression.
In 2014, black voters in Texas were almost twice as likely to lack accepted ID as were their white counterparts—until a federal judge struck down the state’s voter ID law for having a “discriminatory effect.” Still, Texas lawmakers forged ahead by enacting a new, strict voter ID law. This law requires voters to either present a form of photo ID from a limited list or provide an alternative ID and sign a document under threat of perjury that declares their identity and explains why they do not possess one of the limited forms of accepted photo ID. Other states—including Wisconsin, Kansas, and North Dakota—have pursued similar measures in a poorly disguised effort to keep people of color from the polls. Lawmakers who recognize voting as a fundamental right for all citizens must take a stand against voter ID laws.
2. Prevent unnecessary poll closures
African American voters are also being suppressed through unwarranted poll closures. Lawmakers throughout the South have shuttered polling places located in predominantly black communities, creating long lines and preventing voters from accessing information about how and where to vote. A 2016 survey from the Leadership Conference Education Fund found that 67 percent of Alabama counties and 61 percent of Louisiana parishes closed polling places ahead of the 2016 presidential election. In 40 counties in North Carolina with large African American communities, there were 158 fewer early polling places in 2016 than there were in 2012. In Mississippi, where more than 1 in 3 counties closed polling places, the majority-white election commission for Lauderdale County went as far as moving polling places out of black churches after voters in the city of Meridian elected their first black mayor.
Fewer polling places can present a significant barrier to voting, especially for individuals who lack convenient access to transportation and/or have child care and work responsibilities. This is particularly concerning in African Americans communities, where, across the country, fewer polling places exist and therefore residents typically have to wait twice as long to vote as their white counterparts. Instead of building barriers to political participation, lawmakers should be making it easier to register and vote by advocating for pro-voter policies such as automatic voter registration, expanded early voting, and no-excuse absentee voting.
3. Prohibit harmful voter purges
This year, in Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute, the Supreme Court gave states the right to strike inactive voters from the rolls. Known as purging, this voter suppression tactic is typically employed due to overreliance on inaccurate data and largely unsubstantiated suspicion that a resident recently voted in another state or did not participate in recent elections. For example, Ohio sends address confirmation notices to citizens who vote irregularly. But if they neither reply nor vote in subsequent elections, their registration is canceled. A Reuters study found that this practice hits African American and low-income voters the hardest, resulting in tens of thousands of cancellations. The Supreme Court’s harmful defense of this practice allows states, such as Ohio, to systematically remove people of color from voter rolls, with few consequences.
Approximately 30 states use the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program to institute voter purges. This inaccurate, unreliable program identifies potential double voters using first and last names. Because it identifies people with common last names, African Americans with last names such as Washington or Jackson are at great risk of being wrongfully purged from voter rolls. In fact, 1 in 9 African American residents of states using this program are flagged as potential double voters. After Husted, it is now up to those who support democracy, equality, and racial justice to fight back against this form of voter suppression and ensure that registered voters are not barred from casting ballots.
4. Prioritize African American voters in political outreach
Politicians and political organizations must do more to thoughtfully and consistently engage with African American voters. Although research has shown that direct contact is a promising method through which to increase political participation, according to one 2016 postelection survey, less than half of black citizens had received “any election-related contact” from partisan or nonpartisan organizations.
Robust voter engagement extends far beyond simply reminding eligible voters to turn out. As more than a dozen African American women, including political activists and elected officials, wrote last year, candidates and campaigns must devote resources toward listening to, learning from, and crafting proposals for the diverse communities they wish to serve. Trust is eroded when candidates and campaigns fail to invest in direct, targeted voter engagement. In fact, just 15 percent of black people report trusting “the government in Washington always or most of the time.”
When voter engagement is a true priority, it can have significant positive effects on turnout. For example, progressives made a conscious decision to invest in African American outreach during the 2018 Alabama senatorial race. And on election day, black voters, led by black women, overcame tremendous barriers, including broken voting machines and strict voter ID requirements, to turn out at higher rates than their white counterparts. If communities feel heard, recognized, and properly served, as they were in Alabama, their participation is likely to increase.
5. Recruit African American candidates for political office
For 150 years, African American politicians have fought back against racism and advocated for solutions to solve the unique problems their communities face. Yet, African Americans are still grossly underrepresented in elected office. Despite making up more than 13 percent of the U.S. population, today the country has only three African American U.S. senators and not a single African American governor.
While people of any race and ethnicity can serve the African American community with compassion and integrity, society must ask why more African Americans do not run for office. The reality is, would-be African American candidates, especially African American women, face significant barriers to entry. These barriers include, but are not limited to, insufficient party recruitment and lack of access to significant fundraising networks. But these problems are fixable, and the benefits of representation are widespread. Nearly 40 percent of black adults believe that “working to get more black people elected to office would be a very effective tactic for groups striving to help blacks achieve equality.” This belief may significantly affect African American turnout. Evidence suggests that black turnout increases by up to 3 percentage points for each black candidate on the ballot. Political parties and organizations must do more to ensure that African Americans are empowered to run for political office across the United States. This includes, but is not limited to, actively recruiting black candidates and transitioning to publicly financed elections.
African Americans overcome tremendous hurdles to vote at some of the highest rates of any demographic group in the United States. Even so, less than 60 percent of eligible African American citizens voted in the 2016 presidential election. This level of turnout undermines U.S. democracy. Policymakers must remove barriers to political participation to ensure that communities of color can participate fully in their nation’s democracy—because in a true democracy, voting should be uncomplicated and accessible to all.
Connor Maxwell is the research associate for Race and Ethnicity Policy at the Center for American Progress.
Author’s note: While “African American” and “black” are frequently used interchangeably, this column uses “African American” wherever possible to refer to the population of interest. “Black” is only used in instances where the underlying data source referenced uses the term instead of “African American.”