How Joe Biden Is Trying to Bring Black Voters to the Polls

The vice president railed against restrictive GOP-backed voting policies at the annual NAACP convention on Wednesday.

National Journal
Marina Koren
July 23, 2014, 12:57 p.m.

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.”

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