By Brendan Fischer on April 30, 2013

Black voter turnout in the 2012 elections surpassed white turnout for the first time in history, despite -- or perhaps because of -- a concerted effort to enact new voter restrictions that would have disproportionately affected communities of color.

African-Americans make up 12 percent of the share of eligible voters, but represented 13 percent of total 2012 votes cast, according to a new study produced by Brookings Institution demographer William Frey for the Associated Press. Mitt Romney might have won the presidency had whites voted at the same rates they had in 2004, the study found.

Courts blocked many of the GOP's voter suppression laws before the 2012 elections. But the voter restrictions may actually have had the opposite effect, inspiring a backlash that added to increased turnout.

Voter Suppression Motivates Turnout

Last September, the research group Project New America tested more than thirty messages on "sporadic, less likely voters who lean Democratic" to see what would motivate them to vote. "One of the most powerful messages across many different demographics was reminding people that their votes were important to counter the extremists who are kicking people off of voter rolls," the group wrote in a post-election memo.

After Republicans gained new statehouse majorities in the 2010 elections, a majority of states introduced proposals to enact restrictions on the right to vote. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 25 laws and 2 executive actions passed in 19 states between 2011 and 2012 to impose strict ID restrictions, or shorten early voting, or limit registration drives, among other measures.

"Republicans thought that they could suppress the vote, but these efforts actually motivated people to get registered and cast a ballot," said Ohio State Senator Nina Turner after the election. "It's no surprise that the communities targeted by these policies came out to the polls in a big way--they saw this not just as an affront to their rights, but as a call to action."

University of California-Irvine election law professor Rick Hasen also predicted the potential for backlash in his book The Voting Wars.

"There were huge organizing efforts in the black, Hispanic and Asian communities, more than there would've been, as a direct result of the voter suppression efforts," said Matt Barreto, co-founder of Latino Decisions, a Latino polling and research firm.

The backlash against these transparent voter suppression efforts, coupled with lower turnout among whites, contributed to the historical margins between black and white voters in 2012. (Latinos are the country's fastest-growing demographic group, but their turnout rates are lower because many in the U.S. are still children or noncitizens.)

Most Voting Restrictions Not in Place for 2012; What about 2013?

"This ought to forever put to rest the lie that voter id laws disenfranchise minority voters," wrote Breitbart.com editor Mike Flynn in response to the Associated Press study showing record black voter turnout.

Not quite.

Most of the voting restrictions were not actually in place for the 2012 elections, thanks to nearly a dozen courts and the U.S. Department of Justice blocking or weakening the majority of new voting restrictions. Of the eight states that passed restrictive voter ID laws in 2011 and 2012 (most of them inspired by American Legislative Exchange Council model legislation), only two states had the laws in effect for the November elections.

The 2012 elections ended up being more a test of whether the threat of voter ID and other voter suppression efforts can motivate turnout. But it remains to be seen whether the 2012 turnout rates will endure in future elections -- and what voter suppression tactics will be in place in 2014 and 2016. For example:

  • North Carolina, Virginia, and Arkansas all passed or enacted voter ID laws in 2013. Virginia also passed a law restricting registration drives.
  • Pennsylvania's voter ID law, blocked by a state court for the 2012 elections, may be in place for 2014 if the state can get more ID cards in the hands of voters.
  • Wisconsin's voter ID law was blocked by two state courts in 2012, but those decisions still have not been reviewed by the state's Republican-dominated Supreme Court. Lawmakers in the Dairy State have also advanced proposals to add voter ID to the constitution (which Minnesota voters rejected in 2012), as well as proposals to eliminate Election Day Registration and limit early voting.
  • South Carolina's voter ID law, initially blocked under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, has been pre-cleared and will be in effect for 2013.
  • If the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down Section 5, the voter ID law in Texas -- which was blocked by the DOJ under Section 5 -- will likely take effect. Alabama and Mississippi would not need DOJ approval to implement their voter ID laws, which were still under the DOJ's Section 5 review at the time of the 2012 elections.

But on a more optimistic note, both Democratic and Republican legislators in most states have introduced legislation to expand voting rights. And on the federal level, President Obama's Commission on Election Administration will get to work in May, and Congressmen Keith Ellison (D-MN) and Mark Pocan (D-WI) will introduce an amendment to the U.S. Constitution explicitly guaranteeing the right to vote.

Perhaps the backlash against voter suppression will not stop at motivating turnout, but will also provide momentum for affirmative legislation that protects the cornerstone of our democracy.

Brendan Fischer

Brendan Fischer is CMD's General Counsel. He graduated with honors from the University of Wisconsin Law School.

Comments

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe South Carolina's law did pass pre-clearance and will take effect in 2013. I'm not sure about Texas but even if the court choose to keep Section 5, SC's law will still take effect (but I could be incorrect in this!)

Thanks for the article!

You are correct -- I was relying on old data. Thanks for the comment!

GOOD, glad to see the minorities get their right to express their opinions via voting. They have been held back way too long via stupid selfish people.

Democracy is a participative function, and blacks are seeing that they count ... now, more than ever. Women also turned out in large numbers, as did Hispanics and other minority groups. It has become painfully obvious that the GOP-TP/Libertarians are doing all they can to divide us. You know - that Divide and Conquer thing. Wisconsin's Gov. Scott Walker admitted it while speaking, live on camera, to a $$$-supporter-$$$ when she asked if Wisconsin would ever be a Right To Work state. I take it that most of you already know that RTW is yet another right-wing catch phrase that is actually anti-collective bargaining / union / labor, etc.

The article should be a part of a tabloid of living in la-la-land. The Democrat party, the founders of the KKK have been suppressing voters, LEGAL voters for decades whether it's using the ilk at ACORN making up names for registering or voting more than once, etc.

The Democrat party and their supporters, i.e. lemmings, hate the rule of law and choose to use fear mongering about voting suppression when the reality is, the GOP wants only 'LEGAL' voters to vote and liberals want everyone BUT legal voters to vote thus they are the party that is suppressing the vote of legal Americans.

You want a tyrannical government? Well you're getting one with the current Administration. Be careful what you wish for as you may get it.

Wow!!! talk about far right wing nuts jobs. Apparently you can't read. It was the FL repubs that hired a company known for suppressing the vote by getting voters thrown off the list of elegible voters. It was online, on TV and radio.

"The Democrat party, the founders of the KKK..."

Yeah. Funny how all the Klan-type people found a welcoming new home with the Republicans when the Democratic Party got too civil-rightsy for them, wasn't it?

"Voter ID, which will win Pennsylvania for Mitt Romney -- done!" Now you mention it, I believe I heard a Democrat say that. Yes, I remember that very clearly. I think.

When you have to reach back to the post- Civil War era to make a point about Democrats I think that says it all. This writer should certainly brush up on his history, both past and current. The Republican Party (on the State level) has done more to suppress votes recently than all other groups put together in the history of this country. Revisionist history is a favorite of the hypocrites who currently comprise the base of the GOP.

The GOP is shrinking and is irrelevant to the best interests of the majority of US citizens. Better reorganize your platform instead of your spin.

reportedly hispanics, blacks(because blacks are more likely to be poor), and the poor more likely vote democrat, because some republicans are pro-kill the poor and immigrants, pro-close the boarder, and anti-welfare. some democrats are more tolerant of immigrants and give some welfare.

some republicans think if they close the boarders, kill and arrest poor and immigrants, and supress poor and immigrant voters by putting in voter id and discriminatory qualifications, then there wont be poor or immigrants to vote democrat.

put in a new consitutional amendement that says: everyone in the country must be allowed to vote, includeing prisoners and babys. no voteing restrictions allowed.

no state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the united states. article XIV

voter id law, and similar voter suppression tactics, abridge the privileges of citizens of the united states by disallowing many of them, especially the poor, to vote, because many of them are unable to or cant afford to get a voter id. plus it abridges the privilege of citizens of the united states to not have to pay and jump thru hoops in order to vote.

voter id law is unconstitutional.

tell voter supressors to stop the much bigger problem: politican fraud, instead of supressing voters.