Urban League: Black Turnout Could Be Key In 2012

The cliche "every vote counts" is sure to get a workout this election season. A new report from the National Urban League says the African-American vote could play a critical role in November. Host Michel Martin talks with Chanelle Hardy of the National Urban League and David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, do you know any cooks who are so good they seem to know their way around the kitchen with their eyes closed? Christine Ha is that good. In fact, she's legally blind and making a huge impression on the reality television show "MasterChef," not for what she is but for what she can do. We'll talk with her in a few minutes.

But first we want to check in on what's becoming one of the major subplots of this election - who gets to vote and who actually does vote. And we all know the cliche that every vote counts but a new report suggests that it has more truth to it than many people imagine. It's called "The Hidden Swing Voters: Impact of African-Americans in 2012."

It's from the National Urban League policy institute and the report highlights the critical role African-American voters played in President Obama's victory in 2008 and argues that they may prove even more important in 2012. The Urban League outlined how in 2008 African-Americans voters significantly impacted the vote in North Carolina, Virginia, Indiana and Florida.

They've released this report just ahead of their annual conference in New Orleans, where President Obama is expected to make an appearance. We want to talk more about the substance of the report, so we've talked with - we're talking with two people who think deeply about the African-American vote. Chanelle Hardy is a senior vice president at the National Urban League and executive director of the National Urban League Policy Institute.

Also with us, David Bositis. He is a senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. He pays close attention to issues like civic engagement and governance, is a recognized authority in this area. They're both here with me in Washington, D.C. Thank you both so much for joining us.

DAVID BOSITIS: Hey.

CHANELLE HARDY: Thank you.

MARTIN: Now, Chanelle, let me start with you. The title of the report, as I said, is "The Hidden Swing Voters: The Impact of African-Americans in 2012." Why do you call them hidden swing voters?

HARDY: We call them hidden because we wrote the report in response to what we see as a lack of really strong public discourse about the impact of African-American voters. If I were an African-American voter pre- this report and perhaps not as deeply knowledgeable about the voting trends, I would think my vote didn't matter in 2012.

Everyone assumes how I'm going to vote and everyone assumes I'm going to vote just as - with as much enthusiasm as I did in 2008. And we wanted to provide information to really say your vote does in fact matter.

MARTIN: One of the interesting findings of the report is that there's still a gap in voter registration between African-Americans and non-Hispanic whites, but when African-Americans are registered, their participation, their turnout is higher than every other ethnic group. Now, that's quite interesting to me. How did that come out?

HARDY: We in our report analyze census data and FEC data, and what we were excited to note is that when African-Americans, as you said, were registered to vote, they turned out at 92 percent. Which is incredible. What that says to us is, though the African-American population growth is only about average, there's way - a tremendous amount of room to grow in terms of registration, and if we meet that registration growth target - for the purposes of our report we set a target based on the state of Maryland - that could add three million additional African-American voters in addition to the 2.4 that were additional in 2008.

And if they're registered and they're enthusiastic, that really increases the number of people who participate at the polls.

MARTIN: Just to clarify, FEC is the Federal Elections Commission. David Bositis, as I said, you're a recognized authority in this area. Is this phenomenon that Chanelle's talking about, the fact that there's still a gap in registration but that African-Americans' turnout when they are registered is extremely high, higher than every other ethnic group, is that true - do you co-sign that, number one?

Does your analysis show the same thing? And number two, do you think - is that's unique to 2008 because of the excitement of having Barack Obama on the ticket, or is that a general trend?

BOSITIS: I think that I wouldn't exaggerate the difference between African-Americans and other ethnic groups, non-Hispanic whites in particular, on that score. And actually, in terms of registration and turnout, the numbers are somewhat distorted because the easiest and best place to vote are the states - this is something that Daniel Patrick Moynihan once mentioned - along the Canadian border.

And what those states have in common is they're all white. And those are the states that have the easiest registration and turnout laws and so they somewhat bias the overall numbers. But if you, for example, look at the South, African-Americans turn out to vote and are registered at comparable rates to Southerners and the white Southerners in the Southern states.

MARTIN: And is that unique to 2008 or is that a long-term reality over time?

BOSITIS: That is unique to 2008. There's usually been a gap in the other direction in the Southern states and the Southern states make it hardest to vote. I mean, they have a history of, in fact, making it difficult to vote. That's why there's a Voting Rights Act.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the potential impact of African-American voters. Our guests are Chanelle Hardy of the National Urban League. They've released a new report today on the issue. I'm also joined by David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. He's a recognized expert on the question of voter participation, the African-American vote, and black elected officials and so on.

Chanelle, I have to ask the question, because I've asked numerous Republican guests this question, is we talk about the whole question of voter participation as a philosophical issue. But isn't it also really a partisan issue, that people are particularly interested in people voting who they think are going to vote for them? Why wouldn't a reasonable person say that the reason that this issue is coming up now is that the Democrats are worried that African-Americans are not going to be sufficiently engaged to vote?

HARDY: Well, I think that that's a fair question. For the purposes of our report and our interest in the study, it is the philosophical point about black voter empowerment. I think it's important that we have a fully participatory democracy, which means we want to see everyone at the table.

What was exciting to us about 2008 is, as David said, it was unique. It was the first time we saw African-Americans participating at almost the level of white Americans, and in some cases, as you saw, 18 to 44 year old African-Americans outperformed white voters in terms of turnout.

That's historic. It's inspiring, and it's an important platform upon which to build.

MARTIN: You argue in the report - the reports says that - you didn't write the report but you head the group that produced this report.

HARDY: Right.

MARTIN: The Policy Institute, as we said. You write - the report says that the stability and legitimacy of the republican - that's small R - republican form of government depends more on achieving that expansion of the electoral franchise than anything else. This makes 2012 a crucial election.

Other people would argue with that. They would argue that if people are voting who are not eligible to vote, for example, that that cheapens the franchise, that it's not so much about diversity, it's about having everybody vote who's actually eligible to vote. What do you say to that?

HARDY: Well, I think that eligibility should not be determined by random state law that is a reaction to a mythical fear of voter fraud. There have been - many studies have put to rest, in terms of facts, that concern. And so to us, eligible voters are citizens of the United States who have registered to vote. And as David said, it should be not a complicated process for anyone who wants to do it.

We should be encouraging that as part of our civic education. We want to see everyone who is eligible to come out and we don't want to see eligibility compromised in random ways.

MARTIN: And David, you mentioned that there is a lot of variation in the ease of registering and participating, you know, across the 50 states, and I note that since 2008, 11 states have passed voter ID laws that in some cases require picture IDs at the ballot box. Could you talk a little bit more about the long-term trend there? Do these tend to be concentrated in certain places? And what effect do you think this is having?

BOSITIS: OK.

MARTIN: If any.

BOSITIS: You know the story of the South after the Civil War. There was Reconstruction and then all of a sudden all of the changes that took place after the Civil War were undone. In some ways that's happening in the Southern states right now in terms of African-Americans.

The governments are totally dominated by non-Hispanic whites. They're hanging on for dear life for as long as they possibly can. It will change. But there has been a concerted effort to try to diminish African-American participation in the electoral process.

MARTIN: Why do you say that?

BOSITIS: All you have to do is look at the laws. For example, permanently disenfranchising felons, going through - do you really think, when the secretary of state of Florida goes to the voting rolls and throws people off because they're ineligible to vote - they did that in 2000. Many of the people who they threw off were, in fact, eligible to vote.

It's a political game and the surest return on your money is going after black voters.

MARTIN: Why do you argue, though, that this is aimed at black voters, as opposed to Democrats or as opposed to people who - and, again, we had Governor Rick Scott - was a guest on this - the governor of Florida, Rick Scott, was a guest on this program and he insists - we put the question to him and he insists that this is aimed at making sure that eligible voters - that their vote is not compromised or that they are not disenfranchised by ineligible people voting.

BOSITIS: OK. First...

MARTIN: So...

BOSITIS: First of all, white Democrats have this - they are just as likely to have photo identification as white Republicans, so it has no effect on white Democrats. Plus, a lot of white Democrats do flip over and vote Republican for certain offices and for certain candidates.

If you look at whites in Florida in 2008, 43 percent of them voted for Barack Obama, but 95 percent of African-Americans voted for Barack Obama. So every hundred black voters you can keep away from the polls, you're adding, in effect, 90 votes to the Republican total.

MARTIN: Why do - we only have about a minute left. Why is it that African-Americans are less likely to have the kinds of photo IDs that these states increasingly are demanding? I mean, they make the argument that people promoting these laws make the argument that you need to have a photo ID to get on a plane, to buy cough syrup, to buy cold medicine...

BOSITIS: Many African-American...

MARTIN: ...to get into this office building.

BOSITIS: Many African-Americans have never gotten on a plane. African-Americans - look at income, look at assets, which are 5 percent of whites, look at disease, look at hypertension, look at diabetes, look at - 36 percent don't have health care. On any measure of economic well-being and social well-being, African-Americans are placed at a lower - are at a lower level than non-Hispanic whites, and it includes in terms of government-issued ID.

MARTIN: We'll have to talk more, Chanelle, when we have more time about what efforts the National Urban League and other groups are making to get people out to vote at another time, so thanks for coming.

David Bositis is a senior...

HARDY: Thank you.

MARTIN: ...political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. He was here with us in Washington, D.C., along with Chanelle Hardy, senior vice president at the National Urban League and executive director of the National Urban League Policy Institute.

Thank you both so much for coming.

HARDY: Thank you.

BOSITIS: You're welcome.

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