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Welcome to the Black Midterm Voter Project

I recently attended a beautifully Black political happy hour in DC. The drinks were flowing, the food was great, and the atmosphere was perfect… indoor/outdoor rooftop scene with plants and flowers outlining the vaulted glass ceiling, cool but not cold, crowded, but not uncomfortably so. Everyone was looking clean, but no one was over the top. In attendance were Black leaders in advocacy, digital campaigns, PACs, polling, candidate recruitment, community organizing, a Cabinet member and one of my favorite Black cultural writers. It was - as the youngs call it - a whole vibe.

About an hour into the evening, champagne was poured, the music paused, and we stopped for a toast from the host. “Tonight is a night to celebrate how far we’ve come! Just look around at all the talent in this room - look at all the accomplishments and accomplished people!…(pause for genuine applause) me, Black voters will decide this and future elections (longer pause for even louder, more genuine applause)!”


At that last remark, my buzz evaporated instantly. I must have been the only conscientious wet blanket in the room because all I could think was “Wait, wait! That’s not really true!” I swear I nearly asked for the mic, until I realized that while some people in this room know me, many MORE have no idea who I am or why I would have the gaul to kill everyone else’s buzz along with my own. And then it hit me. My objection to the otherwise lovely toast distilled in one little pithy hypothesis:


Some elections may be decided by Black voters, but many MORE are decided by Black NON- voters. 


On its face, my distinction isn’t earth shattering. (Frankly, it may not even be completely true - more on that in a moment.) I’ve dug into mounds upon mounds of turnout data (mostly via the US Census bureau, investigative institutions and available literature), and there is little evidence that Black voters alone decided - or would have decided, “if only…” - any statewide elections. (Primaries and special elections may be exceptions to this statement, but are rarely reliable portents of general election turnout patterns.)  What I do know is that, in many states, Black voters stay home in non-presidential election years at a much higher rate than white voters, and that fact alone carries with it real consequences.  


Back to my pithy little hypothesis. It’s intentionally agitating, slightly counterintuitive, and seems to make a ton of sense. (For the record, it does hold some water, even if it isn’t quite watertight…more on that later, too.) I’ve floated this idea to a lot of smart people who have collectively amassed hundreds of years of political experience. Each and every one of them has affirmed the idea with a look of epiphany coupled with replies of enthusiasm. You know that delicious moment that occurs every once in a while when you see or understand something that no one else does and then point it out? That rush of self-satisfaction, validation, even self importance that follows (”I really AM smart!”) is intoxicating. I’ve had that a few times on this topic. It stinks to think that the truth lies somewhere just shy of my “brilliant” and catchy hypothesis, but it does no one any good to deny what is demonstrably true (confirmation bias, anyone?), so we continue to ask questions.

Now for some data. Because, facts.

In looking at national voter turnout behavior since 2000, it is clear that Black voters “drop off” at a higher rate than white voters from presidential to midterm cycles. Said another way, proportionally more Black voters lose interest (don’t vote) in off year elections than white voters. Let me illustrate in brief. The most stark examples of this phenomenon are evident in the 2008-2010 and 2012-2014 election cycles. It is a known that 2008 and 2012 were high water marks for Black voters, so the drop off to their subsequent midterm cycles is more obvious, but these are just a few examples that make the point. For instance, in Ohio, Virginia, and Tennessee, Black voters sat out at rates between  9 and 15% greater than white voters. That’s thousands of votes per state, in years where local elections were decided by relatively paltry numbers. 


What we know definitively, is that in mid term years, there are always several congressional races that are decided by less than 10,000 votes. In our analysis of 2012-2014 drop off rates, there were a dozen states where the difference in Black vs. white drop off amounted to ~10,000 votes. 


Now, we recognize that this number represents statewide voting, and that only some fraction of that total would be applicable to each congressional district, but the larger point remains…a significant portion of a winning coalition can be gained through establishing parity in Black/white drop off rates.  


There are  many more examples of this pattern across many states and many cycles (some can be found here and here, if you love cross tabs and hiding/unhiding columns in spreadsheets, knock yourself out). Some are more dramatic, some less, but all of this begs several questions…what is it that leads to greater Black voter drop off? Are some Black voters more/less likely to drop off? Who are they and what do they share in common (education level, income, geography, voter access/suppression)? Can we do something to eliminate the gap between Black and white voter drop off?

The Black Midterm Voter Project

In the following series of mini-essays, I’m going to share facts and ask questions about voter turnout, and specifically, Black voter turnout in midterm election cycles. I will insert assumptions where necessary, but when I do, I will strive to justify why. I will draw some conclusions, but they will be reached in good faith. The big, disappointing reality is this…Black voter turnout efforts have not been studied nearly enough, and we don’t have definitive answers as to why Black voters drop off at more significant rates. This project, which kicks off in 2023 and will run for several election cycles, aims to rectify some of that.  


Are you a political veteran, a lobbyist, a hobbyist, a voyeur, an interloper or professor? The answer shouldn’t matter. Our aim is to make this accessible and valuable to all. Wonky, but accessible. 


So let’s see if we can do something about this phenomenon Black voter drop off. Let’s study the hows and the whys. Let’s get to the “so what?” of it all. It won’t be quick or easy. Answers may not be straight forward, and a solution - if attainable - may not prove to be a panacea, but to continue to leave this unstudied is neglectful in the extreme. Let’s go. 

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