As extremists in the party of Lincoln “take aim” at African Americans and other voters of color by restricting their right to vote, there is a very clear solution. The antidote to voter suppression, particularly in states south of the Mason-Dixon Line, is voter registration. New data shows that a progressive future is coming in the South, and despite the actions of the extreme right wing, we can make it come faster.
The South is at a moment of great demographic change. Thanks to African-American re-migration and Latino and Asian immigration, the population of people of color in the South has exploded in recent years. From 2000 to 2010, the non-Hispanic “white” population grew at a rate of 4 percent, while the so-called “minority” population grew by 34 percent, and there is evidence this trend will continue. In 2000, the South was 34.2 percent people of color, and that number jumped to 40 percent by 2010.
Extremists on the right are aware of these facts, and more importantly, they are intimidated by them. They understand that African Americans have, and for some time now, been the backbone of the progressive vote in the United States. They witnessed how increases in the African-American vote, boosted by increases in the Latino vote, have made Southern states like Florida, Virginia and even North Carolina competitive every four years. They know that states like South Carolina and Georgia are not far behind.
It is up to us to double down on the one rule of politics that has always worked and will continue to work
The extreme right wing’s response has been to attack the most basic civil rights of people of color. Out of 13 Southern states historically considered “Black Belt” states, nine have passed strict photo voter-ID laws and 11 have passed restrictions meant to limit the power of the African-American vote as well as the Latino vote. These have included curtailing early voting, making it harder to register to vote, and introducing voter ID laws that have a disproportionate impact on African Americans, students, poor people and people of color generally.
A Massive Wave of Voter Registration
What can we do to confront this injustice? We must fight in the courts and in Congress to return the federal government to its rightful role as protector of the vote, but given the political realities, that could take years. Therefore, the antidote to voter suppression must be a massive wave of voter registration and voter engagement in Southern states.
There are still millions of people of color in the South who remain unregistered to vote. The Center for American Progress recently released a report titled “True South: Unleashing Democracy in the Black Belt Fifty Years After Freedom Summer,” which examined the latent potential of these unregistered voters. To see this potential in a snapshot, let’s take a look at just one state, Georgia. What would happen if 60 percent of the currently unregistered voters of color were to get registered and then vote at the relatively low rates that occur for other voters of color during midterm elections (a more conservative approach than looking at higher presidential-year turn out percentages)?
The answer is breathtaking: there would be an estimated block of 357,155 “new voters,” many of whom would likely hold progressive values and beliefs. In a state where the last two gubernatorial elections were respectively decided by about 200,000 votes and 300,000 votes, this could shake up the political landscape for years to come in a way that favors the progressive movement.
But is this even possible? The answer is that with the right investment in resources and support from progressive leaders, it absolutely is. For an example of a case in which voter registration has overcome voter suppression, look at Florida in 2012.
Leading up to the 2012 election, Florida’s governor and Legislature passed a number of measures meant to restrict the African-American vote. Though some non-profits responded by reducing their voter registration operations, the NAACP and a few other groups doubled down, and succeeded in registering over 117,000 people in heavily black communities. President Obama wound up winning Florida by 73,000 votes.
The party of Lincoln has shown a willingness to change the rules of politics in order to slow down the inevitable political changes in the South. It is up to us to double down on the one rule of politics that has always worked and will continue to work: registering voters to overcome voter suppression to make the future come faster.
Ben Jealous is a Partner at Kapor Capital and former President and CEO of the NAACP.