The Pew Research Center recently reported that the Black voter turnout in the 2016 election declined for the first time in 20 years “falling to 59.6% in 2016 after reaching a record-high of 66.6% in 2012”. A convincing argument can be made that this is largely due to the fact that Barack Obama was no longer on the ballot and voter suppression efforts like the reduction of acceptable forms of voter ID, absence of early voting in some states, and the reduction in the number of polling places. These are among the significant structural challenges that have been exacerbated in the first election without the full protection of the 1965 Voting Right Act. These threats to our system of voting that must be addressed and vigorously contended against.
A seldom discussed additional reason for the reduction in Black voter turnout is the “don’t vote” rhetoric of several prominent Black Americans who encouraged Black people not to vote in the 2016 election. This is likely to have been a contributing factor to the first decline in Black voter turnout in 20 years. It cannot be overlooked as we continue to analyze the results of the 2016 election. This must also be addressed if the low Black voter turnout trend is to be reversed.
The individuals who promoted some version of a “don’t vote” campaign did so through a number of different means. Some were not happy with having Hilary Clinton as the Democratic nominee and thus framed her candidacy as being the same as that of Donald Trump. Some felt that President Obama didn’t do enough for Black people and thus encouraged people to disengage from the political process. Others felt like that Democratic Party had taken the Black vote for granted and signaled that not voting would teach the party a lesson. There were also those who were cynical enough to believe that their vote wouldn’t make a difference.
The bottom line is that it wasn’t just voter suppression that led to a sharp decline in Black voter turnout. The rhetoric of those who encouraged the Black electorate not to vote also played a significant role. Scholars like Dr. Eddie Glaude of Princeton University consistently campaigned for Blacks to not vote for the Presidency in the 2016 election. A large part of it seemed to be linked with a dissatisfaction with Hilary Clinton. As flawed of a candidate as she was, a non-vote was essentially a vote for Donald Trump.
Glaude, the Chair of the Center for African-American Studies at Princeton University, recently tweeted his disdain for Trump and highlighted voter suppression efforts in Wisconsin and other states. What Glaude did not mention is his campaign to discourage Black people from voting for the Presidential portion of the election in the run up to Election Day.
If Glaude is as dissatisfied with the actions of the Trump administration as he claims to be then it was irresponsible of him to use his national platform to tell Black voters to neutralize their political power by not voting. The consequences of having Trump in office could potentially be catastrophic. For a tenured Professor with health insurance to encourage people who gained access to health care through Obamacare to relinquish their political power is questionable. This mentality highlights an issue with some Black academics of a growing disconnect between the world of abstract theory “and the everyday struggle of the Black masses.” Politics and elections have real world consequences, especially for the most vulnerable.
Other Blacks with sizable platforms also did their part to encourage a low Black voter turnout by explicitly advocating for people not to vote or implying that it wouldn’t make any difference if Blacks didn’t vote. Some of the prominent figures who engaged in this support of voter apathy included Colin Kaepernick, Dr. Boyce Watkins, and Nick Cannon among others. These individuals certainly do great work in other areas, but their potential influence over some segments of the Black electorate was not helpful for voter turnout.
Ironically, many proponents of the “don’t vote” campaign are now complaining about Donald Trump. Elections have serious consequences. We can’t afford to sit them out. This election was not a time to be teaching a particular political party a lesson when the alternative was an incompetent and dangerous candidate like Trump.
Though their intentions may have been good, the consequences of promoting this “don’t vote” campaign will be devastating. The House just passed a version of health care reform that would strip over 24 million Americans of coverage.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions released guidance this week calling for the harsher sentencing of low-level drug offenders and thus doubling down on the War on Drugs. The announcement by the Trump administration of a new voter integrity commission indicates that more voter suppression efforts are likely on the way. These are just a few of a laundry list of Trump administration measures that will have an adverse impact on Black people.
The false equivalence of Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump that was consistently purported by some undoubtedly gained steam and became embedded in the minds of many voters. There was a clear difference between the two candidates. We will now be living with the consequences of a lack of nuance and understanding of the ramifications of the consequences of a Trump administration for four years.
I want to emphasize and underscore that the structural barriers of our current voting system like the electoral college format, lack of universal automatic and online voter registration, felon disenfranchisement, reduction of acceptable forms of voter ID, absence of early voting in some states, gerrymandering, and reduction in the number of polling places are more significant impediments than the “don’t vote” rhetoric of certain people. In a close election, however, the internal “don’t vote” movement undoubtedly made a difference. It was a contributing factor to why Donald Trump is now the leader of the free world.
We must vigorously fight voter suppression efforts, but we must also denounce the “don’t vote” narrative. Those who engaged in this kind of rhetoric bear a portion of the responsibility for Trump being in the White House. It will now be that much harder to motivate the Black electorate to turn out for important local and state elections that will take place this year and in 2018. We have to find a way to turn the corner in the area of voter engagement and turnout or we will see the loss of the hard fought victories won by the blood, sweat, and tears of those who came before us.
Marcus Bright, Ph.D. is a Scholar and Activist