Last Sunday, speaking at East Mt. Zion Baptist Church, a predominantly black congregation in Cleveland, John Kerry insinuated that Republicans were deliberately attempting to suppress the black vote. “In battleground states across the country, we’re hearing stories of how people are trying to make it harder to even register,” he said. “We’re not going to let that happen because the memories of 2000 are too strong. We’re not going to allow one million African Americans to be disenfranchised.”
This isn’t the first time Kerry has alleged that a million black voters were denied their voting rights in 2000. He cited the statistic at a speech before the NAACP last July.
The proper response to Kerry’s allegation, of course, is: Name one. Just one, one single name, one black citizen who was registered to vote, entitled to vote and prevented from voting in the 2000 presidential election.
What makes Kerry’s charge so insidious, beyond its falsehood, is that it plays to the paranoia of African Americans and plays off of two virtual certainties this November: 1) African Americans will vote overwhelmingly against George W. Bush; and 2) African Americans will spoil their ballots in disproportionate numbers compared with non-black voters.
The first point, I trust, is uncontroversial. More than 90 percent of black voters preferred Al Gore to Bush in 2000; recent polls suggest Bush has cut slightly into that deficit against Kerry, but he’ll still be lucky to get 20 percent of the black vote.
The second point — that African Americans will spoil their ballots in disproportionate numbers — is sad but eminently predictable. The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, which studied the 2000 presidential election, found that the rate of spoiled ballots consistently tracks, on a county by county level, with the percentage of black population. The trend is nationwide. As the black population in a county increases, so does the percentage of spoiled ballots. According to Michigan congressman John Conyers, this constitutes “overwhelming evidence that disparate procedures and antiquated machinery have a disproportionate racial impact.”
If the procedures and machinery were indeed the problem, the remedy would be straightforward. But there’s no data to support Conyers’s claim. In fact, studies by researchers at Harvard and the University of Wisconsin have determined that the rate of ballot spoilage in counties with large black populations remains disproportionately high regardless of what voting technology is used.
The more probable explanation for higher ballot spoilage rates among African Americans is the politically incorrect one — namely, lower literacy skills. The U.S. Department of Education’s Adult Literacy Survey defines the lowest literacy category as readers unable to make “low-level inferences based on what they read and to compare or contrast information that can easily be found in [a] text.” National data indicates that 38 percent of African Americans fall into this category, versus only 14 percent of whites. In order to cast a countable vote, a voter must read and follow a set of rudimentary instructions. (These instructions may be provided verbally by an election worker — though the embarrassment of asking is no doubt considerable.) Lower literacy skills are therefore the likeliest factor in accounting for higher ballot spoilage rates among blacks.
But statements like Kerry’s — which lend credibility to the common myth of sinister forces conspiring to deny African Americans their civil rights — only compound the problem, transforming the act of casting a ballot from a moment of civic pride and optimism into a moment of heightened anxiety and despair. Paranoia undermines performance as well.
So what does it all mean for the 2004 presidential election?
Three things: 1) African Americans, in overwhelming numbers, will vote against George Bush; 2) African Americans, in disproportionate numbers, will screw up their ballots. 3) If George Bush is re-elected, African Americans will continue to believe, falsely, that the system is rigged against them.
Shame on you, Senator Kerry.