From 'Dancing' to midterms: Black voter turnout makes a big difference

OPINION - Popular shows like 'Dancing with the Stars' serve as continued reminders about the power of collectively and strategically using our votes to influence outcomes...

If there are any lessons to be taken from this season’s Dancing With the Stars, it’s that every vote counts, that voting strategically matters and that voting blocs can have influence and sway on outcomes.

My good friend, Sherrilyn Ifill, has written about lessons that can be learned from prime-time reality talent shows (i.e. American Idol) that rely on new technology to facilitate voting.

This season, Dancing With the Stars has sparked new controversy with reports suggesting that Bristol Palin has advanced to the finals, in part, because of an organized political campaign that strongly backs her mother, former presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

True, Palin has consistently received lower scores relative to other competitors that she has outlasted this season including Rick Fox, Brandy and Audrina Patridge. But, to the extent that the rules are applied even-handedly, any organized effort to boost Bristol Palin’s position in the contest should inspire other contestants to use their celebrity to match the efforts of any political machine that may be standing behind Palin’s success to date.

Tonight, we’ll get an opportunity to see whether any strategic voting campaign can help elevate Briston Palin from her last-place finish over Kyle Massey and Jennifer Grey.

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With November 2nd now behind us and this season’s Dancing With the Stars helping to highlight the continued importance of voter participation, more meaningful analysis and commentary can now be offered regarding the significance of the black vote during the 2010 midterm elections.

What remains clear is that black voters remain politically cohesive, that racially polarized voting remains stark throughout the country and that race continues to matter within the political process. All of this evidence makes plain that we are clearly not yet post-racial.

One state where race had a dramatic impact on the political process during the 2010 mid-term election cycle is Louisiana. While levels of racially polarized voting (a term used to describe elections where there are sharp racial differences in candidate preference at the polls) proved exceptionally high in a number of places, it was nowhere higher than in Louisiana.

In the U.S. Senate race in Louisiana, 86 percent of whites voted for the incumbent, David Vitter, while 94 percent of blacks voted for his opponent Charlie Melancon. Notably, Vitter was accused of running anti-immigration ads during the campaign season that sparked outrage among a number of groups. In the southern end of the state, Cedric Richmond unseated the incumbent Joseph Cao in the 2nd Congressional seat once held by former Congressman William Jefferson.

There, exceptionally high turnout among black voters helped secure the victory for Richmond who stands as the only black Congressional representative in a state with one of the highest black population percentages of any in the country.
Other racially polarized contests around the country included the Senate race in Arkansas which drew 65 percent of white voter support for Republican John Boozman compared to 86 percent of clack voter support for his opponent Democratic incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln. Similarly, in Texas, 92 percent of blacks cast their ballots for Democrat Bill White in Texas compared to 70 percent of whites who cast ballots for the incumbent Republican Governor Rick Perry.

Black voters also proved extremely politically cohesive. In some of the most highly contested gubernatorial races, Black support levels ranged in the 90 percent range in most elections and similar voting patterns emerged in House and Senate contests as well.

Despite continued racially polarized voting, there were a number of black candidates who were successful in securing statewide offices. Those candidates included Kamala Harris who secured the Attorney General’s seat in California, Jesse White who secured the Secretary of State position in Illinois, Denise Nappier who secured the Treasurer’s seat in Connecticut, Anthony Brown who secured re-election as Lieutenant Governor in Maryland running on the same ticket as Governor O’Malley, and Deval Patrick who was re-elected Governor in Massachusetts.

These wins helped offset the losses that black candidates experienced at the statewide level including in Florida where Congressman Kendrick Meek secured 83 percent of support of black voters which proved insufficient to overcome Marco Rubio who won with substantial support among white voters.

Black voter turnout increased slightly compared to the 2006 mid-term election cycle with Africans-Americans making up slightly more than a 10 percent share of the electorate in 2010. However, black voter turnout was substantially higher in a number of states including California where the rates increased from 5 percent in 2006 to 9 percent in 2010, New York with an increase from 10 to 18 percent, Ohio with an increase from 12 to 15 percent and Texas with an increase from 8 to 13 percent.

Illinois saw a particularly dramatic increase in black turnout with the numbers rising from 10 percent in 2006 to 19 percent in 2010. The increase in turnout was particularly significant given reports that surfaced in late October indicating that then-Illinois Senate candidate Mark Kirk had intended to dispatch “voter integrity squads” to communities with sizable black populations. Kirk, running to fill the seat left vacant by Roland Burris that was formerly held by President Barack Obama, ultimately obtained 57 percent of the white vote with 95 percent of blacks casting their ballots for his opponent — Giannoulias.

Ultimately, the high-profile nature of the Senate race helped neutralize the impact of Kirk’s efforts which might have otherwise resulted in a reduction in black voter turnout.

The short lesson from the 2010 midterm election cycle is that race still matters. Racially polarized voting persists in a number of places and turnout levels remained relatively constant among African-American voters this past November relative to the 2006 midterm election cycle.

Fortunately, popular shows like Dancing with the Stars serve as continued reminders about the power of collectively and strategically using our votes to influence the outcomes of elections.