Blacks Made History Surpassing White Voter Turnout Rates

Almost two in three eligible blacks cast ballots in the 2012 presidential election, marking the first time they had a higher voter turnout rate than non-Hispanic whites, a U.S. Census Bureau analysis shows.

Boosted by President Barack Obama’s re-election efforts, blacks were the only racial or ethnic group to show a significant increase in voting participation between the 2008 and 2012 elections, from 64.7 percent to 66.2 percent.

Since 1996, when blacks had a turnout rate 8 percentage points lower than whites, the group’s participation has risen 13 percentage points to a new high in 2012 for recent presidential elections, according to the report released yesterday, which was based on a nationwide survey of voting-age Americans in November. In contrast, after peaking in 2004, the white voting rate dropped in two consecutive elections, to 66.1 percent in 2008 and 64.1 percent in 2012.

“This is a historic event, given the history of black disenfranchisement,” said William Frey, a senior demographer at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. “It has a lot to do with the first black president.”

The Census Bureau’s portrait of the 2012 electorate underscores the demographic challenges faced by the Republican Party, which in 2012 lost several states in the presidential election because its candidate -- Mitt Romney -- couldn’t compete among minority voters. The challenge will continue, with whites projected to account for less than half the U.S. population by 2043, according to the Census Bureau.

Immigration Debate

Those trends are also influencing the debate over immigration legislation in Congress, with some Republicans cautioning that making it easier for Hispanics and other minority groups to become U.S. citizens and vote would handicap the party because they’ve tended to back Democrats. Other Republicans are supporting a revision of immigration laws in order to build a bridge to the Hispanic community and compete for support from it in elections.

The census survey found a diverse set of reasons for why people failed to cast a ballot. Among those tested, too busy or a scheduling conflict was the top excuse (18.9 percent), followed by not being interested (15.7), an illness or disability (14 percent) and not liking the candidates or campaign issues (12.7 percent).

Overall, 133 million people said they voted in 2012, an increase of about 2 million from 2008, the report said. Both blacks and whites had voter participation rates higher in 2012 than Hispanics and Asians, groups that were at about 48 percent.

Vote Counts

The Census Bureau’s total vote is higher than the 129 million recorded by the Federal Election Commission because it is part of a survey that has a margin of error that varies in size among the subsample groups.

Voting rates have fluctuated in recent presidential races, from a low of 58.4 percent of the eligible population in 1996 to a high of about 64 percent in both 2004 and 2008, the census report said. In 2012, the rate was 61.8 percent.

About 1.7 million additional black voters reported going to the polls in 2012 compared with four years earlier, as did about 1.4 million more Hispanics and about 550,000 additional Asians, the report said.

The number of white voters dropped by about 2 million from 2008 to 2012. That’s the only instance of a racial group showing a net decline from one presidential election to the next.

White Decline

From 1996 to 2012, the white share of the voting population dropped to 73.7 percent from 82.5 percent, a decline of about 9 percentage points. By comparison, the Hispanic share increased about 4 percentage points, while the black share increased about 3 percentage points.

While the data reflect long-term demographic shifts, the study also demonstrates Democrats’ success in registering their supporters and getting them to the polls. Strong minority support helped Obama win a second term by boosting his numbers in such battleground states as Virginia, Florida, and Nevada.

The Reverend Jesse Jackson, a civil-rights activist and founder of the RainbowPUSH Coalition, called it a “fitting” accomplishment as the nation marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington.

“As we became more educated, we became more inspired to vote,” Jackson, 71, said in an interview. “You see a steady pattern of growth in those numbers.” Efforts to suppress black votes “boomeranged” and instead inspired more blacks to vote, he said.

Winning Opportunity

“Barack was an opportunity to win and we didn’t want to miss this historic moment and we didn’t,” Jackson said. “Our voters are determining governors and senators and congress-people and presidents.”

Marvin Randolph, a senior vice president for campaigns at the NAACP, said in a statement that his group was “pleased to see voter turnout at these levels, particularly because some people did not want it to turn out this way.”

Randolph said the civil rights organization responded to “attacks on the right to vote, particularly for communities of color” by organizing the largest voter-registration effort in the group’s history.

The census data show the proportion of eligible voters who cast ballots, not the preferred candidate of the racial, ethnic and other groups. That information was reported in exit polling conducted by the media on Election Day.

Obama captured 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, the exit polls showed. That translated to a 44 percentage-point advantage over Romney, who won just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote -- down from Republican shares of 31 percent in 2008, 44 percent in 2004 and 35 percent in 2000. Obama won 93 percent of the black vote and 73 percent of the Asian vote.

Hispanic Influence

The president sealed his victory partly by amassing big numbers in heavily Hispanic pockets of swing states including Florida. Hispanic population growth helps explain why California and New Jersey are Democratic strongholds and no longer competitive in White House elections, and why Texas may some day shift from its one-party Republicanism.

Republicans need to boost their share of the minority vote if they want to become a majority party, Frey said.

“Long-term, when you look at these numbers, that white number is not going to do it for them alone,” he said. “I would also try to figure out how to boost the white turnout.”

Romney won 59 percent of the white vote, the exit polls showed. Had he managed to boost white turnout, the outcome of the election could have been different, at least in some states. In Ohio, the census data show white voter turnout fell to 61.7 percent in 2012 from 65.2 percent in 2008.

“That’s a real big drop off,” Frey said.

Gender Gap

The report also shows the so-called gender gap remained in place in last year’s elections. In 2012, women voted at a rate about 4 percentage points higher than men. The gap was especially wide among black voters, where it reached 9 percentage points in 2012. Asians were the only race or ethnic group that showed no significant gender gap.

There were declines in youth voting among all racial groups, the report found. Four years after young people rallied to Obama’s candidacy, whites ages 18 to 24 and 25 to 44 showed statistically significant voting rate decreases, as did Hispanics in the 18-to-24-years age range.

The likelihood of voting is closely tied to the aging process, with voting rates increasing with years. In 2012, the proportion of eligible adults who voted ranged from 41.2 percent for 18-to-24-year-olds, to a high of 71.9 percent for those 65 and older.

Michael McDonald, a professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, who studies the U.S. electorate, said the decline in the youth vote presents a challenge for future candidates because voting is something of a habit.

“It’s going to be more difficult to activate these folks in 2016,” he said.

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