One of the biggest stories of this Election Year was the struggle between the civil and human rights community and a group of politicians who set out to restrict the ability of millions of Americans to vote. It is now clear that voting rights activists were victorious.
What happened? Through a variety of unfair laws and restrictions, politicians targeted groups of voters who had made an impact by turning out in greater numbers in 2008 – particularly young voters and people of color. Civil and human rights groups mounted a massive legal, political, and grassroots organizing response. And the results are in: racial and ethnic minorities made up 28 percent of the electorate in 2012, up from 26 percent in 2008. Voters aged 18-29 also boosted their share of turnout, from 18 percent to 19 percent.
Not only did anti-voting politicians fail, but their efforts may have actually strengthened the determination of the very people they wanted to discourage. Writing in The Nation, Ari Berman argues that the war on voting backfired. Berman quotes Matt Barreto, co-founder of Latino Decisions, saying, “There were huge organizing efforts in the black, Hispanic and Asian community, more than there would’ve been, as a direct result of the voter suppression efforts.” Adds Berman, “Groups like the NAACP, National Council of La Raza, National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, and the Asian-American Legal Defense Fund worked overtime to make sure their constituencies knew their voting rights.” As Rev. Tony Minor, Ohio coordinator of the African American Ministers Leadership Council said, “When they went after big mama’s voting rights, they made all of us mad.”
The numbers are remarkable. In Ohio, where Secretary of State Jon Husted was relentless in his efforts to restrict voting, Black voters’ share of the overall electorate increased from 11 percent in 2008 to 15 percent in 2012.
In Milwaukee, where African-American organizations mounted a major voter participation effort, the turnout rate this year was a remarkable 87 percent of registered voters, a big jump from 80 percent four years ago and 70 percent in 2004.
Latino turnout was also strong and influential. According to The Nation, “In the last two decades the Latino population has doubled. And more significantly, it has become more geographically diverse. Long gone are the days of equating the Latino electorate with only Los Angeles, Miami or Houston. To talk about Latinos today, we need to talk about Macon, Georgia, and Boise, Idaho.” Latino voters had a major impact on the federal election, giving 75 percent of their votes to President Obama nationally – and even greater numbers in swing states, up to 87 percent in Colorado.
Asian-American voters have also grown rapidly as a percentage of the electorate. As The Hill reports, “Four years ago, they [Asian Americans] represented 2 percent of the voting public. This year, it was 3 percent – which translates to 3.6 million votes cast.”
The Leadership Conference Education Fund’s Every Voter Count project was especially active in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Colorado, where The Education Fund worked with local groups to resist anti-voting efforts and encourage turnout among African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, young voters, and others.
There is clearly still work to be done. Some politicians may respond to this year’s election results with redoubled anti-voting efforts. Some unreasonably restrictive voter ID laws that were prevented by courts from being implemented for this election may go into effect. And the nation must find a way to deal with the systemic failure reflected in the fact that so many voters had to wait in lines of four, six, even seven hours to cast a vote. As President Obama said in his remarks on election night, “We have to fix that.” The Leadership Conference will be working with its partners and Members of Congress to consider ways to address the weaknesses in our voting system.
But for now, it’s worth pausing to celebrate our victory over anti-voting forces. Here’s how Andrew Cohen put it in The Atlantic:
If there is one thing this election has proven, if there is one thing I have come to know, it is that Americans don’t like it when their right to vote is threatened. The very people whose votes the Republicans sought to suppress came out to vote. In places like Akron and Orlando and Denver and Milwaukee, they came. They waited in long lines and endured the indignities of poll workers. Yet they were not cowed. Today is their day. A day when they can look at one another and appreciate that they are truly a part of the history of civil rights in this country.