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Why 8 Million African Americans Are Not Registered to Vote

New America Media, Commentary, Earl Ofari Hutchinson Posted: Oct 07, 2008

Editor's Note: The recent report that 8 million African Americans are not registered to vote should come as no surprise, writes Earl Ofari Hutchinson, who says the dismal voter registration record has as much to do with the political parties as with the voters themselves. Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).

The recent report that 8 million African Americans are not registered to vote brought gasps of disbelief, cries of shame and head-shaking reproach. It also stirred a mild soul search among blacks about how and why the numbers of unregistered voters are so appallingly high.

The figure was cited in September by Rick Wade, who handles African-American voter outreach for the Obama campaign, which was alarmed at the high number because of the potentially damaging effect it could have on Obama in a close contest. Bushs razor-thin victories in Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004 underscore the importance of a maximum black voter turnout. But the problem of getting blacks to the polls may be even greater than the Obama campaign realizes, and that starts with the figure of 8 million unregistered voters. The number may be much higher.

According to Census figures, there were 28 million African-American adults aged 18 or over in 2006. In the 2004 presidential election, they made up 12 percent of the voters, or about 13 million voters. That means an estimated 15 million voting-age blacks did not vote. The ban on ex-felon voting in 15 states further ramps up the number of ineligible blacks. Forty percent of ex-felons banned from the polls are black males. They make up another 3 million potential black voters. That means there are an estimated 12 million African-American adults who are either officially barred from voting, or decline to vote.

The reason so many blacks dont vote is chalked up to apathy, laziness, ignorance and cynicism toward politicians. By not voting, critics say, they betray the struggle and sacrifice of those who fought and in some cases died for the right of blacks to vote. This guilt-laden reprimand is much too simplistic.

In most state and local elections, only a tiny fraction of eligible voters of any race vote. With the exception of the hotly contested 2004 presidential contest between George W. Bush and John Kerry, the number of voters in presidential contests has steadily dropped during the past half century. Many say they dont vote because their vote wont change anything, anyway.

In the mid 1960s, a majority of eligible voters did vote. Two things changed that. One is the dominance of corporate and labor Political Action Committees in bankrolling politicians. Soaring election costs have turned races into a millionaires derby. The second thing that changed things is the subtle and at times overt suppression of minority voters. This includes stringent drivers license or other ID checks, rigid timelines for filing voter applications, the lack of information or misinformation about voter registration forms and materials, and non-existent or feeble voter registration campaigns.

This reinforces the deep suspicion that politicians are for sale and the buyers are well-heeled special interests. As politicians became more dependent on corporate and union dollars, they appeared even more remote, inaccessible and unresponsive to voters needs. Elected officials made little or no effort to inform and engage their constituents on legislative actions, initiatives, and policy positions. This has further estranged millions of potential voters. The Republican and Democratic parties havent helped matters. The GOPs decades of turning a cold shoulder to African Americans sent the message that blacks were not wanted or needed in the party. Democrats took the cue and downplayed any overt racial appeals for fear of being tagged as tilting toward minorities.

The two parties still largely confine their efforts to pad voter rolls to the last frantic weeks before Election Day. They scramble to register as many voters as possible, imploring voters to exercise their democratic right. This generally results in a temporary bump up in the voting rolls. But when Election Day passes, it is back to business as usual with no sustained effort to insure that the newly registered voters remain engaged in the political process.

In Europe, things are far different. Even though voting numbers have also dropped there, the numbers that do vote still put the United States to shame. The political parties wage intense campaigns, employ scores of party and campaign workers to get voters to the polls, make voting materials and registration simple, spend money on voter publications and materials, and provide ready access to TV and radio for the political parties to make their case. The message to voters is that their vote not only counts, but its in their political self-interest to vote. They have made voting a national responsibility.

To simply say that millions of African Americans dont vote because of apathy and indifference ducks the problem. It lets officials of both parties off the hook for failing to make their flowery talk about restoring government to the people more than just a catchy campaign slogan shouted once every four years.

Related Articles:

Beyond the Ballot: Young Black Men and Voting

Eight Million Blacks Still Not Registered To Vote

Black Republicans Jumping GOP Ship

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