On May 4 the Washington Post published what Brian Beutler at Talking Points Memo called an “alarming—and darkly ironic” story stating voter registrations have dropped for African-Americans and Latino Americans. WaPo reporter Krissah Thompson wrote in her lead:
The number of black and Hispanic registered voters has fallen sharply since 2008, posing a serious challenge to the Obama campaign in an election that could turn on the participation of minority voters.
By some accounts, it was true. Census numbers, which measured between the 2008 presidential and the 2010 midterm elections, showed that the number of African-American registered voters had fallen from about 17.3 million to about 16.1 million nationally. But the Obama campaign and a number of academics disputed the Post’s conclusion that Obama might be in trouble, instead saying the Census’s methodology is flawed and that voter registration among African-Americans and Latino Americans is actually up.
It’s hard to tell which way is up when there have been so many laws passed recently mandating voters show ID cards, closing early voting periods, placing booby-trapped restrictions on voter registration groups and changing residency requirements for voter eligibility—not to mention legacy felony disenfranchisement. Conservative advocates like Hans von Spakovsky have suggested that voter ID laws actually help black and brown voter participation, though using flawed methodology.
So while there may have been a few hanging chads in the Post’s report, does that change the reality that registering and turning out voters of color is more difficult now than it was in elections past? If the critics of the Post story are correct, then are people like von Spakovsky right?
The most glaring issue with the Post’s story was that the reporter Thompson used Census Bureau voting data that stopped at November 2010. University of California Irvine professor Marty Wattenberg challenged the Census figures by comparing 2008 and 2012 elections figures in Florida and found that Latino-American registration increased by 9 percent. For Asian-Americans, the increase was 14 percent. Further, Wattenberg told Hasen (and confirmed with me by e-mail) that as recently as 2006, Republicans outnumbered Democrats among Hispanics, but by 2012 the reverse was true.
George Mason University professor Michael P. McDonald attacked the very DNA of the Census figures, saying that the Current Population Survey (CPS), upon which Census voter data is compiled, is flawed for relying on self-reporting from a single person in a household. Further, wrote McDonald, the Census Bureau classifies persons who gave no response—because they refused, didn’t know the answer or just failed to provide one—as a “No” response on voting. Meaning, if a CPS rep called your house and your dad answered, if your father didn’t know whether you voted or not then the CPS interviewer recorded his answer as a “no,” i.e., you did not vote—whether you did or not.
Even more, wrote McDonald:
There are troubling problems with the CPS in recent elections. Compared to 2004, the 2008 CPS turnout rate declined by 0.2 percentage points when the actual turnout rate increased—and there is no way that it could have possibly declined since the increase in voters exceeded the increase in the voting-eligible population. Compared to 2006, the 2010 CPS turnout rate declined by 2.3 percentage points when again the actual turnout rate increased.
Finally, the Obama campaign, perhaps a bit sensitive around the edges, was quick to swat down the WaPo story. Clo Ewing, the campaign’s director of constituency press, pointed out the aforementioned discrepancies in a May 7 blog saying WaPo “inaccurately claimed” dropping black and brown voter registration numbers, and that “there are more Americans of both backgrounds registered to vote today than there were when President Obama was elected.”
Ewing’s blog read like LeBron swinging on the rim after a dunk (“In yo’ face, WaPo!”), but just days before the Obama campaign was less celebratory: “It is disheartening to see voting becoming harder in states across the country…and doing the challenging work of registering voters, even when Republican legislation is trying to make it more difficult.”
Thompson stood by her reporting when asked about the objections, telling me, “Studies by the Pew Research Center show that most Americans do not register to vote until sixty or thirty days before an election. According to the measure, the 2010 data remains a valid barometer. If you look at the relative drop in voter registration between presidential and mid-term elections, you will find the drop between 2008 and 2010 is steeper. You will also see that 2010 is the first time the growth of registered Hispanic voters has dropped by any significant measure.”
That may be so, but even the Census’s own press release led with the following observation: “Hispanics made up 7 percent of voters in the 2010 congressional election, the highest percentage for a non-presidential election since the U.S. Census Bureau began collecting this information in 1974. Hispanics comprised 6 percent of voters in 2006. Blacks also increased their share of the electorate, going from 11 percent in 2006 to 12 percent in 2010.”
There may be disagreement about the numbers used, but there’s at least one things we all should agree on: the takeaway on African- and Latino-American voter registration is more complex than the Post’s story suggested, but that doesn’t mean that things will be any easier for black and brown voters in 2012.
Let’s look at Florida, using figures through 2012 rather than the 2010 Census cutoff. The 2012 figures show 1,474,577 total African-Americans registered to vote, up from 1,468,682 in 2008. For Latino Floridians, there are 1,473,920 registered, up from 1,355,270 in 2008.
However, when you separate by party, that’s where you see some drops. Registered black Democrats dropped from 1,227,970 in 2008 to 1,222,639 in 2012. This is not a steep drop—a little over 5,000 voters—and probably explained by deaths, purges (due to voter inactivity, felony convictions, errors… FRAUD!), and maybe some defections to the Tea Party (Representative Allen West does reach some people!). Meanwhile, there was a similar-sized drop in registered black Floridian Republicans between 2008 (62,906) and 2012 (58,759). Latino Democrats and Republicans buck that trend, though, with increases in registrations.
If Florida is any indication, it’s not enough to look at the overall numbers of black and brown voters registered and say that Obama is screwed. But neither should one look at the instances where black and Latino voter registration have increased and start doing Jerry Springer “It’s not my baby!” dances.
The real truth is in what Thompson originally reported from the Obama campaign, which is that registering voters will be challenging especially in the face of new legislation that restricts voting rights. Florida’s new voting law, passed last year, is like a carrier for a lot of bad voting diseases: a rule requiring third-party voter registration groups to register with the state and turn over new registration applications to the county within forty-eight hours, down from 10 days prior to the new law; a rule cancelling out early voting on the Sunday before Election Day, which was when black churches transported voters during “Souls to the Polls” campaign; and a rule making it harder to restore ex-felons’ voting rights.
The Obama campaign is smart enough to know that they are up for a big fight in major states with restrictive voting laws, which is why they’ve sent battalions to states like Florida, where the New York Times reported that since May 2011, “81,471 fewer Floridians have registered to vote than during the same period before the 2008 presidential election.” Black and Latino voter registration rates might be off the charts, but it’s probably not a good look to present that in ways that make new voter laws look harmless.