What's behind fewer African-American voters at the polls

By one measure, 14 percent fewer African-Americans than expected voted in Georgia's special election primary, with men being less likely than women to cast a ballot. The runoff between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel ends June 20.

Alex Sanz/AP
Democrat Jon Ossoff greets supporters outside the East Roswell Library in Roswell, Ga., May 30. Early voting has begun in the nationally watched special congressional race in Georgia. Mr. Ossoff is trying for an upset over Republican Karen Handel in the GOP-leaning Sixth Congressional District that stretches across Greater Atlanta's northern suburbs.

John Mohammad likes to say, “I’ve been around since Jim Crow was a little-itty boy.”

Like the majority of African-Americans in their 70s, Mr. Mohammad, a retired math professor at Morehouse College in Atlanta, saw the Democrats as liberators for striking a deal on civil rights in the mid-1960s. He’s been a staunch Democratic voter ever since – until, he says, now.

“I’m done voting," he says, because it doesn’t do any good. Then adds: “Maybe you gotta be black to understand.”

Disillusioned by what he calls unmet promises of the Obama era, evidence of state-sponsored disenfranchisement at the polls, and the rise of a new ethno-nationalist vanguard in Washington, he has joined the ranks of what some have called the vanishing black voter.

By one measure, 14 percent fewer African-Americans than expected voted in a Georgia primary in April, with men being more unlikely than women to cast a ballot. That dip happened even as Asians and Latinos voted in surprising numbers for Democrat Jon Ossoff, a political neophyte on the threshold of flipping a deeply red district to blue. Mr. Ossoff faces Republican Karen Handel in a June 20 runoff to replace Tom Price, the new Health and Human Services secretary.

African-American voters interviewed cite a range of reasons: from a sense of disillusionment as the Trump administration works to undo the policies of the Obama White House to a feeling that the candidates aren't talking to them, or about the issues they most care about. Beyond the race for the Sixth, voting experts say, is the dampening effect of voter-ID laws and other measures passed in GOP-led states such as North Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin – fueling a sense among black voters that the game is rigged.

“The idea that fewer African-Americans show up to vote [in the post-Obama era] is not shocking,” says David Lublin, a political scientist who studies voter behavior at American University in Washington. “It is interesting, however, that this Georgia campaign – where Jon Ossoff is a white Democrat – does not seem to be exciting the black Democratic turnout quite as high as [Democrats] would like. … [W]hat’s telling is that if black Democrats were as excited as others in the Democratic coalition, Ossoff would probably walk away with it easy.”

The excitement gap among black voters may partly have to do with the fact that – as national interest in the race built – candidates were distracted from talking about local issues dear to middle class and working class black voters: from jobs and housing to health care, from crime to education.

Now, in the closing days of the election, both sides are rushing to convince black voters that their ballots do, in fact, matter.

“The real question for [Democrats in Georgia and elsewhere] is: Have they been knocking on doors in [black] communities in the same way they’re knocking on doors in other communities?” says Emory University political scientist Andra Gillespie. “If you’re not out talking to these people and engaging them, they’re not going to show up to vote. If you want them to turn out at higher rates, you have to personally ask.”

Mr. Ossoff shows a slim lead in polls for the June 20 election, which is already the most expensive of its kind in House history. Ossoff won the April primary handily, but failed to clear the 50 percent threshold for an outright win.

Laws have decreased turnout

Elvira Robinson, a health-care worker, grew up in the South having to wait for white students to board the school bus first. She is a lifelong voter, a staunch Democrat, and sees Trump as an “inappropriate president,” though she agreed with some of the things he said on the campaign trail.

“Black people I talk to say it’s just not worth it anymore to vote, that it doesn’t matter,” she says. “That's hard to hear.”

Some in the GOP see an opportunity to attract disillusioned African-American voters to their cause. Thirteen percent of black men, after all, voted for President Trump. But Republicans have their own problems: The only demographic that showed up at lower-than-expected rates than African-Americans in the April primary were Republicans, according to the Five-Thirty-Eight data analysis site, which also found the dip in black voters to be larger than expected.

But voting rights experts say it’s not just that fewer black voters are interested in casting a ballot. There’s evidence that more stringent voting requirements in a growing number of largely conservative states – seen by critics as efforts to make it harder for minorities to vote – has, in fact, dampened black turnout.

Precinct level surveys of voter behavior show that strict voter ID laws “have demonstrably decreased turnout among vulnerable populations,” says Ken Mayer, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin and author of “With the Stroke of a Pen: Executive Orders and Presidential Power.” Professor Mayer is doing a deep-dive study on the impact of Wisconsin’s tough voter ID law on the 2016 election, which Mr. Trump won narrowly. “The question is not whether or not [it has an impact], but how big it is.”

Xavier Jones, a 20-something voter in the Georgia Sixth, voted for Obama in 2012, but isn't planning to go to the polls Tuesday. He, too, describes a new kind of Trump-era apathy, a sense of displacement and powerlessness. “For a lot of us black people, it’s like watching the world go by through a window,” he says.

Plight of black workers

But if Trump’s plans to dismantle many of Mr. Obama’s key achievements, including health-care reform, are discouraging, Democrats, too, may be playing a role in waning black voter participation. 

The “dump Trump” wing of the Democratic Party has sparked record turnout for other special elections, though Republicans have so far won every contest. But as Mr. Lublin notes, post-election women’s marches that espoused diversity weren’t particularly diverse. “Alienation doesn’t promote turnout,” he says.

And African-American workers – particularly blue-collar ones – are often more focused on their families’ futures than ideological squabbles that seem only to ensure cultural gridlock. 

“It’s an extremely important point: Black folks are also workers,” says Michael Fortner, author of “Black Silent Majority." “The Democratic Party, in many ways, has ignored the white working class because of identity politics, but a lot of [especially black men] feel that [Democrats] have also ignored the plight of black workers because of identity politics.”

In that way, he adds, “a lot of working class black folks are looking for increases in the minimum wage, looking for jobs to return back to the country, looking for that American dream that they actually believe in, and that they haven’t yet become too cynical about – and the party that speaks to that will have the stronger coalition.”

For her part, Ms. Robinson argues that it’s incumbent on candidates to craft “a new kind of message.” She adds: “Until they begin to talk about what we can do together, to do what we all know is right, some people are going to tune out.”

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