The content of Joe Biden's speech before the nation's largest civil-rights organization on Wednesday sounded a lot like the last one he gave there two years ago.
The vice president, just as he did at the NAACP's annual convention in 2012, said that "it's good to be home." He reminded his audience that today's conservatives are not "your father's Republican Party." He gave another shout-out to his old friend, an unidentified man nicknamed Mouse, who was there with the Delaware delegation. And he said that voting rights in the United States should be expanded, not diminished.
The context of this year's speech, however, was vastly different. A year after Biden addressed the NAACP in 2012, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that calls for closer federal regulation of voting laws in states with a history of racial discrimination. Since then, several states have changed their voting policies, establishing restrictions that stand to make casting a ballot more difficult for black voters (ProPublica has a useful "now and then" map of the state-level effects of the Court's decision).
After a century of disenfranchisement, black voters are becoming a decisive base for both midterm and general elections. Their turnout in the 2012 presidential election exceeded that of white voters for the first time in history, which helped to send President Obama to the White House. But in 2010, a low black voter turnout contributed in part to major wins for Republicans in the House of Representatives.
Although voter turnout is usually lower during midterm elections than general elections — for all voters — black voters can have a big impact in some races this November, explains Nate Cohn at The New York Times. He writes:
If Democrats win the South and hold the Senate, they will do so because of Southern black voters. This year's closest contests include North Carolina, Louisiana and Georgia. Black voters will most likely represent more than half of all Democratic voters in Louisiana and Georgia, and nearly half in North Carolina. Arkansas, another state with a large black population, is also among the competitive states.
In his speech on Wednesday, Biden tried to rally support among such voters, calling GOP efforts to expand restrictive voting policies like identification laws "an aberration." "America is strongest when no voice is diminished," he said.
Two years ago, Biden was animated and jovial. This year, four months ahead of a pivotal election for his party, he was stern. "We've got to awaken the country," Biden said, and people began to clap. "I mean this earnestly, it's not an applause line."