Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 7 April 2021


The Democrats Are Stuck in 1964

By constantly invoking the ghost of Jim Crow, they treat black voters as if they were helpless children.

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Like many of our racial debates of late, the discussion about voting rights has a certain broken-record aspect to it. Republicans call for voter restrictions in the name of ballot integrity, while Democrats pretend that it’s still 1964.

That was the year before Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which might be the greatest achievement of the civil-rights movement. In 1964 only 6% of blacks in Mississippi were registered to vote, the lowest percentage in the region. Two years later, that number had climbed to 60%, the highest in the South. “In every southern state, the gains were striking,” wrote the late political scientist Abigail Thernstrom. “Sometimes good legislation works precisely as initially intended.”

Opinion: Potomac Watch

In 1970, there were fewer than 1,500 black elected officials in the U.S. Today there are more than 10,000, and they have included mayors of large cities with significant black populations—Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, Washington—as well as governors, congressmen, senators, a twice-elected black president and the current vice president. Black voter registration in the South, where most blacks live, is higher than in other parts of the country and, in Mississippi and Georgia, black voter turnout has outpaced white turnout.

Ideally, this history would inform media discussions of “voter suppression” and “disenfranchisement,” but it seldom does. Nor does evidence of increased black voter participation, including in states with stricter voting requirements, stop the left from invoking the ghost of Jim Crow.


After several states implemented more rigorous voter-identification requirements in the early 2000s, liberals cried foul and said the new laws would depress black turnout. Not only was the photo-ID requirement upheld as constitutional in a 6-3 Supreme Court ruling authored by liberal Justice John Paul Stevens, but in places such as Georgia and Indiana, minority voter turnout increased after the laws were passed. A 2007 Heritage Foundation study concluded that “respondents in photo identification and non-photo identification states are just as likely to report voting compared to respondents from states that only required voters to state their name.”

Blacks voted at a higher rate than whites in 2008 and 2012 despite these supposedly racist laws, and the trend predates the Obama presidential campaigns, according to the Census Bureau. “The 2012 increase in voting among blacks,” reads a 2013 census news release, “continues what has been a long-term trend: since 1996, turnout rates have risen 13 percentage points to the highest level of any recent presidential election.”

A 2013 Supreme Court decision, Shelby County v. Holder, cited current black voter data as a justification for lifting the Voting Rights Act requirement that states with a history of racially motivated voter intimidation have changes to voting procedures cleared by a federal court or the Justice Department. Once again, the political left claimed the end of the black franchise was nigh. It’s true that black voter turnout overall dipped in 2016—basically returning to pre-Obama levels—but if right-wing voter suppression efforts are to blame, what explains the Pew Research Center finding that in the 2018 midterm elections “all major racial and ethnic groups saw historic jumps in voter turnout”?

Earlier this year, Kyle Raze, a doctoral candidate in economics at the University of Oregon, produced a paper on how the Shelby decision affected the racial composition of the electorate. “Despite well-founded fears to the contrary,” he concludes, “the Shelby decision does not appear to have widened the turnout gap between black and white voters.”

Why treat the black electorate like helpless children? It’s clear that when blacks are sufficiently motivated, they have little trouble meeting the same requirements that other groups meet and casting a vote. Democrats continue to claim that Republicans are advocating modern-day poll taxes and literacy tests in disguise, even as evidence to the contrary continues to mount.

Actually, that’s not quite fair to Democrats. According to the polls, most Democrats—as well as most Republicans, liberals, conservatives, blacks and whites, don’t object to things like requiring people to prove who they say they are before voting. Liberal activists and their friends in the political press like to obsess over such things, but outside that bubble none of this is especially controversial.

In a saner political environment, Democrats and Republicans would stipulate both that Joe Biden won the presidency legitimately and that the pandemic election exposed significant flaws in our voting system that ought to be addressed in a bipartisan fashion as soon as possible. We have a closely divided House and Senate and a midterm election 19 months off. Yet in lieu of a sober discussion about voting procedures we have a surfeit of political posturing and scare-mongering, along with a president who believes, Trumplike, that his job description includes things like determining the location of Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game.

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