Black Vote in Ohio Fueled by Voter-ID Bills

For African-Americans in Ohio, coming out to vote during this election was personal. Many saw the state’s voter-ID bills as a direct threat to rights denied their ancestors decades earlier. Fueled as much by angst against the ID mandate as enthusiasm for a black president, African-Americans voted at a rate so much higher than 2008 that they may have been the decisive voting bloc.

President Obama captured Ohio, arguably the most important battleground state, thanks to record African-American turnout. The Resurgent Republic, an independent not-for-profit organization that gauges public opinion, pointed out, “If African-American turnout was in line with 2008, Romney would have won Ohio,” according to Politico.

Ohio, with its complex melting-pot populace that crosses many socioeconomic levels, has long been a battleground. National Journal’s Ron Brownstein asserted that Obama took Ohio by focusing on income equality and fairness, a strategy that attracted enough working-class whites and blacks to swing the election. But some observers also point to a 2011 effort to spur blacks to vote.

That plus anger stirred by the still-pending voter-ID bill that passed the Ohio House last year became the impetus that reenergized many African-American voters, said E. Faye Williams, president of the National Congress of Black Women. During a Washington event on the minority vote weeks before the election, Williams told a small group that such laws would likely push minorities to come out in droves.

(Related: Presidency May Rest on Minority Turnout, Uptick Over 2008.)

While African-Americans account for 12 percent of the state’s population, they made up 15 percent of Ohio's electorate in November, a jump from 11 percent in 2008. “It exceeded our expectations,” said Sybil Edwards-McNabb, president of the NAACP's Ohio Conference. “We’re very pleased with the results.”

The NAACP had called the state voter-ID bill, passed in days by the Republican-held House, “the most restrictive in the country.” Billboards in the months leading to the election placed in black and Hispanic neighborhoods warned, “Voter fraud is a felony!” After much public outcry, the ads were removed.

In a way, the Ohio surge represented a movement, shared by blacks in other states, to preserve the vote, a right denied only a few generations ago to grandparents or great-grandparents of many of these voters. In 2008, blacks came out in large numbers during that historic election for a chance to elect the first black president. “This time around, it was widely to protect the vote,” Williams explained. “We know our history. When voter-suppression laws increased, people saw a way to hold on to what we had.”

Since the start of 2011, about 25 laws and two executive actions in 19 states regarding voting passed, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Community and church activists charged the GOP with attempting to hold down the minority vote.

During the early July NAACP conference in Houston, for example, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called the Texas voter-ID law a “poll tax.” And Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who once marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr., emphasized that these laws were being pushed to “stop some people from voting.”

“The Republican leader in the Pennsylvania House even bragged that his state's new voter-ID law is ‘gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state.’ That's not right,” Lewis said during a speech during the Democratic convention.

Pierrette “Petee” Talley of the Ohio Coalition on Black Civic Participation pointed out that blacks for decades had fought efforts to diminish their right to vote. The fight this election season became personal to them, she said.

The nonpartisan coalition, aimed at increasing voter participation, immediately jumped into the fray in Ohio. It began a campaign to educate the public on proposed changes, Talley said. The voter-ID was lost in political wrangling. Another bill restricting early voting, HB194, was signed last fall but repealed in May by Republican Gov. John Kasich.

An alliance of Masons, Methodists, and black unions, among others groups, led by Ohio’s NAACP, had already built strong momentum to get out the vote. “And we just kept going,” Talley recalled.

Their door-to-door educational campaigns became voter-registration drives. Speaking with residents, coalition members learned that a number of blacks had been purged from voting rolls because they moved or missed federal elections yet believed they were still registered to vote. “We became engaged in a very aggressive registration and certification campaign,” she said.