2018 Was the Year of Black Voting Victories, But Voting Lessons Are Yet to Be Learned

Chart showing numbers of unregistered Black voters in March of 2018. Source: Donna Brazile, former chair, Democratic National Committee

By Hazel Trice Edney

(TriceEdneyWire.com) – At this time last year, political observers around the nation were expecting a landslide turnout in the mid-erm elections Nov. 6, 2018, demonstrating the power of Black voters – among others – to flip the then Republican-dominated House of Representatives.

Ten months later, it happened. Because of millions of determined voters, 40 Republican House seats were lost to Democrats, giving the party most voted for by Black people a 235-199 majority. Much deserved rejoicing has taken place over this success – by even non-partisan organizations whose only goals were to get as many voters to the polls as possible.

But despite the clear victories on many fronts, there are yet major lessons to be learned. Even as the overturn of the House has yielded major committee leadership sensitive to African-Americans, the loss of four Black candidates in statewide races have yet to be explained.

  • Democrat Stacey Abrams, after a brutal gubernatorial race in Georgia – lost to Republican Brian Kemp by 54,723 votes.
  • Democrat Andrew Gillum, in another nail biter gubernatorial election, lost to Republican Ron DeSantis by 32,463 votes.
  • Democrat Benjamin Todd Jealous – with the Democratic nomination in the predominantly Democratic state of Maryland, lost to Republican incumbent Larry Hogan by 273,005 votes.
  • Democrat Mike Espy, in a race that also gained national attention because of racial issues involved, lost to Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith by 68,585 votes in their Nov. 27th Runoff for the U. S. Senate.

Even as the nation remained spellbound in anticipation of the congressional election results, drama in the four statewide races stayed in the news. But since Nov. 6, there has been little discussion over how the Black vote might have been increased so that the statewide Black candidates might have won or could win in the future.

Undergirding this issue is the fact that, nationally, more than 7 million Black voters (7,135,303) were unregistered in the spring of 2018, according to documents publicly distributed by former Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Donna Brazile. The list included 349,675 unregistered in Georgia; 199,656 unregistered in Maryland; 336,235 unregistered in Florida and 189,710 unregistered in Mississippi. In all four elections, just a fraction of more Black voters registered and voting for the Black candidates might have made a difference.

Nevertheless, even the 49-year-old Joint Center for Political and economic studies, which has “re-emerged as the preeminent center on how political and economic forces shape the lives of Black people and communities,” according to its president, Spencer Overton, never even mentioned the four candidates – nor the Black vote – in the Center’s annual report, released Dec. 28. And while the Center aims to continue its major campaigns on Black employment, the future of work, and diversity on Capitol Hill in 2019, there is no mention of the Black vote or how to increase the Black vote as a priority in the New Year.

Black voter turnout, in past years, has been at its highest when there are exciting candidates on the ballot such as during the election of President Barack Obama in 2008. The Black vote in Georgia was also at its peak on Election Day during the intense fight for the gubernatorial election of the charismatic Stacey Abrams. Yet, even the most exciting campaigners in America working for Abrams; including former President Obama, former First Lady Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey, could not pull the necessary votes for her to win.

Perhaps the greatest voting success in the Black community was among Black women in general who voted based on issues such as the need for Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and Affordable Healthcare, jobs, education and guns as domestic policy priorities, according to the Black Women’s Roundtable, convened by Melanie Campbell, who is also president and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation.

Campbell recently said in a statement: “This past election is further proof that Black women are clearly the ‘secret sauce’ with regard to maximizing the power and impact of the Black women’s vote and leadership. Black women not only led in voting, they led highly successful national and state-based campaigns, raised money for Black voting campaigns, recruited and trained Black women candidates that were a key part of shifting power in many congressional races and much more. Folks need to remember, if you want to win, follow black women.”

But, the losses of Abrams, Espy, Gillam and Jealous have made it plain that – in statewide elections – additional strategies will be needed.

Political scientist Dr. Wilmer Leon said Ben Jealous’ loss was largely based on personalities and competing political strategies. Leon said in an interview last fall that “Because the state of Maryland, by most statistics, is doing well,” Black voters have taken an “‘if it’s not broke; don’t fix it,’” approach.

He said, “Hogan has never proven himself to be a blind Republican ideologue. He’s more of a moderate Republican than he is an extreme right wing Republican. So, with that, it’s easier for Democrats to vote for him.”

Charles Taylor, a community organizer and political data manager, who has been intricately involved in voter registration in Mississippi, including the Mississippi Conference NAACP’s “This is My Vote” campaign, which registered more than 29,000 Black voters in Mississippi in 2012, has a national perspective on ways to increase the Black vote on local levels, especially in the South. Taylor says the statewide losses by Black candidates – particularly in Florida, Georgia and Mississippi – are more indicative of historic neglect by the Democratic Party, primarily supported by Black voters, and others who do not invest massive resources in get-out-to-vote and voter registration in the South.

“If the narrative that these candidates could have won if only African-Americans had done X, that’s a horrible narrative because it’s not a hopeful narrative and doesn’t really tell the true story,” Taylor says. “African-Americans in the electorate are already over performing their counterparts. The true issue of voting as it relates to any race of people is not apathy.”

Taylor concludes that maximizing the Black vote across the South has to begin with a strategy that includes national organizations and community insiders working together to reach and educate voters. “They have been neglected for so long by any [national] Democratic Party any progressive party,” he says. “I’m saying that it would be wise for national to invest in the South. The reason why this country is as conservative as it is, is because people have been neglectful of the South – and by extension – neglectful of rural America.”

Taylor pointed to the post-slavery Reconstruction period as an example of the progress that could have been made by now had America kept pace with the elections of Blacks during that time (1863-1877). During Reconstruction, more than 2,000 Black people were elected to public office; including 16 elected to the U.S. Congress, more than 600 in state legislatures, and hundreds in local offices across the South, according to History.com.

“It all came to a halt when we were able to put race over good policy for a number of reasons,” Taylor said. He added that he is just not sure people in certain parts of the country are ready to again, “make that investment.”

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