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The Power of the Ballot: One-Person, One-Vote, en Masse

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Last Tuesday, voters turned out in record numbers to elect a new leader. Two categories of voters were crucial in nominating president-elect Barack Obama -- the young and African Americans.

According to results of Election Day exit interviews by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International, Mr. Obama received 95 percent of the black vote -- a record. When compared to results of the 2004 presidential election, this represents a substantial shift in the partisan makeup -- Republican to Democratic -- from 88/11 Bush-Kerry to 95/4 Obama-McCain. Mr. Obama even broke the record previously set by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.

Yesterday in a telephone interview with David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, I asked him what factors can be attributed to the shift in voting patterns. According to Mr. Bositis, "Barack Obama was a major party black nominee. Circumstances in the country -- the war in Iraq, prevailing economic conditions and the fact that African-Americans fared badly under President Bush -- were also at play. Pain is always a motivating factor. This was a vote against the status quo."

Mr. Bositis, a panelist last year in a symposium that addressed the issue of voting patterns, also cited secondary factors for the shift in trends. Ms. Bositis pointed to the fact that Mr. Obama won Virginia, Florida and North Carolina -- states that were not in play in past elections.

The importance of the black vote in last Tuesday's election can only be fully appreciated when considered against the historical backdrop of black enfranchisement. The United States Constitution did not provide specific protections for voting. In 1870, the 15th Amendment was ratified with specific provisions that the right to vote shall not be denied or abridged on the basis of race, color or previous conditions of servitude. Nevertheless, various states implemented laws that directly prohibited black voting.

Disfranchisement laws included poll taxes, literacy tests, vouchers of "good character", and disqualification for "crimes of moral turpitude." Other laws and practices, such as the "white primary", attempted to evade the 15th Amendment by allowing "private" political parties to conduct elections and establish qualifications for their members.

In 1965, the Voting Rights Act was initially adopted and extended in 1970, 1975, and 1982, essentially codifying the provisions of the 15th Amendment. Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act ended the use of literacy requirements for voting in six southern states (Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia) and in many counties of North Carolina. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act provides that no voting changes were legally enforceable in these jurisdictions until approved either by a three-judge court in the District of Columbia or by the Attorney General of the United States.

In the aftermath of the Voting Rights Act, there was persistent talk of 'under-voting' on the part of African Americans. Mr. Bositis was quick to debunk the notion of under-voting. According to Mr. Bositis, "Controlling education and income, blacks vote at a higher rate than whites. African Americans live in southern states with election laws that discourage voting, particularly when compared to northern states near the Canadian border that have more liberal laws. For example, Minnesota has same-day registration; North Dakota does not have registration so voters can show up on the day of elections and vote."

Notwithstanding problems at the polls, the results of last Tuesday bear witness to what can be achieved when provisions intended by the Voting Rights Act are fully exercised.

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