Though Democrats were much more successful than expected in the 2022 midterm elections, one potential long-term problem was the relatively low black voter turnout. While some outlets suggest that voter suppression may be one cause, it is more likely that the result reflects black voter apathy to the Democratic agenda.
While voter turnout remained strong, absentee voting in Georgia dropped off drastically in this year’s midterm election, the first major test of an expansive 2021 voting law that added restrictions for casting ballots by mail.
The changes included a small reduction in the days allowed for mail-ins and no longer having drop boxes open 24 hours. The Times article suggests that these restrictions were part of the reason why the black share of the Georgia vote declined from 28.9 percent in 2018 to 26.1 percent in 2022. This view was echoed by another article that appeared in both USA Today and the Los Angeles Times. It is unclear, however, why such modest changes should have such a substantial impact on black but not white voters. Moreover, the 2021 voting law was much more expansive than the pre-COVID situation in 2018.
Most telling, however, was that the Georgia pattern was duplicated throughout the country. Black turnout compared to 2018 was down substantially, but white turnout was unchanged. For example, New York Times analyst Nate Cohn reports:
In [Georgia, North Carolina, and Louisiana], the turnout rate among Black voters was far lower than among white voters. In North Carolina, for example, 43 percent of Black registered voters turned out, compared with 59 percent of white registered voters — roughly doubling the difference from 2018 and tripling the racial turnout gap from 2014.…
In Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Detroit, turnout fell 10 percent to 12 percent beneath 2018 levels. At the same time, turnout increased in the rest of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan.
Rather than being black voter suppression, the cause, some suggest, may be increasing apathy with the Democratic Party in response to its sense of entitlement and empty rhetoric. The black radio personality Charlamagne tha God made headlines in 2020 when then–presidential candidate Joe Biden irritably told him that “if you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.” More recently, Charlamagne pointed out that Democrats have only made symbolic gestures for black voters. He added that the black vote is “just something that I don’t think the Democratic Party can take for granted anymore because everybody wants tangibles.”
The black writer Adam B. Coleman laments:
Many [blacks] continue to vote for [the Democrats] because they believe they’re the lesser of two evils. No matter how conservative many black Americans’ personal values are, the major hurdle for blacks to switch parties has nothing to do with a specific policy but a specific narrative: Republicans are racist.
This apathy to the Democratic Party was on full display in the recent New York governor’s race. Black New Yorkers had just shown their strong support for stronger policing in the 2021 mayoralty election where there were two black candidates: Eric Adams, who strongly supported increasing policing, and Maya Wiley, who believed that those fighting crime should increasingly rely on community anti-violence groups working independently. In the Democratic primary, 63 percent of black New Yorkers voted for Adams, with only 15 percent voting for Wiley.
Black Americans also strongly support charter school expansion, which the New York Democratic Legislature has forestalled. And a sizeable share of black Americans reject the open-ended abortion policies that the governor championed: Only 46 percent believe it is morally acceptable, and only 32 percent believe it should be allowed under any circumstances. Thus, on a policy basis, a substantial share of black New Yorkers have strong disagreement with New York Democrats on policing, education, and abortion policies.
As Coleman points out, however, the animus toward Republican politicians was decisive among those blacks who voted in New York City. They gave over 90 percent of their votes to the Democratic candidate. But the city’s turnout fell from 44 percent in 2018 to 36 percent in 2022, while non–New York City turnout remained at 55 percent. This decline was most dramatic in the Bronx, the poorest and most non-white borough, where it declined from 36 percent to 24 percent. This evidence strongly suggests that an increasing share of black New Yorkers showed their rejection of Democratic candidates by not voting.
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Indeed, the Bronx voter turnout suggests that apathy also affected the Latino community. After documenting the substantial decline in Latino turnout throughout Pennsylvania, political scientist Michael Jones-Correa noted that the emphasis on abortion rights may not have been as motivating among conservative Latinos. “Latinos, like African American voters, are more socially conservative and more religious,” he said, “and I think they’re deeply ambivalent about abortion. So that kind of messaging probably didn’t resonate very well.”
Democratic policies have changed dramatically since President Barack Obama’s first term. He favored charter schools and occupational programs meant to lift up the most disadvantaged. His criminal justice policies distinguished between violent and nonviolent offenders. And his 2004 speech at the Democratic Party nominating convention favored expanding equal opportunity, not equity. Unfortunately, the party’s progressive wing has abandoned all of these policies as part of its anti-racist agenda. And with it, it has abandoned virtually all meaningful policies intended to transform struggling black neighborhoods and the young men who reside there. Only by expanding on the policies Obama often timidly pursued in his first term can we hope to provide the supports that many black communities so desperately need.
Robert Cherry is an American Enterprise Institute affiliate and author of the forthcoming book The State of the Black Family (Bombardier Books).