During this election season, Black political power still not fully realizedJennifer L. Patin / March 4, 2016
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Some will reflect on 2015 as a year of renewed civil rights mobilization. Whether catalyzed by the loss of Black lives, restrictive state voting laws challenged in court by Black voters and their advocates, or the golden anniversaries of Bloody Sunday and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, many of this nation’s Black communities demonstrated deep dissatisfaction with how poorly institutions and elected leaders are representing their interests.
This is not new. Black Americans share a history of organizing to advocate for their rights. Yet more than 50 years have passed since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously declared that “we can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote,” and too many African Americans continue to question whether or not they should vote.
Here is the blunt truth: a voter who sits on the sideline of any election—whether a local school board race or a major presidential race—forfeits their single best opportunity to put a candidate who represents their interests in a position to make key decisions.
Diversity among state-level officials—not just diversity of race, but of experience, background, interests, and priorities—is critically important. A more diverse body of elected officials is likely to expand the pool of perspectives influencing state-level decisions, even if it does not guarantee immediate societal changes.
Local elected officials directly impact the everyday lives of those in the Black communities they serve, yet minorities are underrepresented in state-level offices. For example, the majority of states have an attorney general who influences law enforcement priorities and a secretary of state who is the primary official in charge of elections. Data from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies show there were only three Black attorneys general and three Black secretaries of state elected between 1995 and 2013. In states where the elected governor appoints those officials, there were none.
However, the lone Black governor elected during the same eight-year period—Massachusetts’ Deval Patrick—appointed more than 200 Black officials to various state-level positions, bringing unprecedented diversity to the Massachusetts government, in a state where just 7.8 percent of the population is Black according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
Meanwhile, in Florida, a state where 17 percent of the population is Black, more than 20 percent of the Black voting-age population was disenfranchised because of policy changes supported by Attorney General Pam Bondi that make it harder for Floridians with previous felony convictions to restore their voting rights. Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted cut the state’s early voting schedule in 2014, even after census data showed Black voters in Ohio voted early at significantly higher rates than White voters during the past two presidential elections.
Still Blacks overall do not vote at the same rate as the White majority. Many factors contribute to this disparity: strict photo identification laws, cuts to early voting, and felony disenfranchisement, among others. These barriers undoubtedly make it harder to vote, but they only tell part of the story.
Census data analyzed by Dr. Megan A. Gall of the Lawyers’ Committee found that in the 2014 election, only 21 percent of the Black population reported voting. Of those who did not vote, more than 20 percent said that their vote would not make a difference, and another 37 percent said they were too busy to vote.
To honor the legacy and sacrifices of Dr. King, and of so many other heroes who gave their lives to secure the franchise for African Americans, voters today should take every opportunity to exercise their fundamental right to the ballot. Just imagine the impact if voters mobilized for every election the way they did in 2008 and 2012, when Black voters elected and re-elected their overwhelming candidate of choice to the nation’s highest office. Through increased turnout, Black voters specifically can prove that one’s vote, from a small municipal election to a major presidential race, matters.
Jennifer L. Patin is a researcher/writer for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. This commentary comes from Trice Edney Wire Service.