Black voters may be
secret weapon this year
By Andy Brack
S.C. Statehouse Report
OCT. 20, 2002 -- More black voter participation may be the secret
weapon for whether Democrats do well this election year or wither
on the vine.
"Since 1968, South Carolina has had the lowest black turnout
in the country," said S.C. Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston.
Other Southern states - Georgia, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi,
for example - routinely have elections in which 70 percent of registered
blacks go the polls. In South Carolina, it's closer to half.
Columbia's Jim Felder of the S.C. Voter Education Project knows
that too. For months, he and Ford have been working quietly to energize
black turnout for November 5.
By Election Day, they would have held 83 voter rallies in 38 counties
with attendees from black churches, fraternities, sororities and
organizations like the Shriners and Masons. They say most of the
24,000 people who have attended so far are new participants in the
political process. They guess they've touched another 75,000 through
flyers, letters, preachers and other outreach efforts.
They also figure if they do their job, newly-energized black voters
will make the difference in lots of elections, which should benefit
Democrats because blacks cast ballots for Democrats more than 90
percent of the time.
Here's how it could work. If voting trends in non-presidential
years in South Carolina continue, about 53 percent of people who
can vote in this election will actually vote. Out of the 1.1 million
votes cast under this scenario, about 291,000 blacks (27 percent)
would vote. But if blacks boost their participation rates to 30
percent, an extra 32,000 voters will be added to the mix. Those
extra voters could make a big under-the-radar-screen difference
in multiple statewide races that many say are too close to call.
But what if overall turnout is higher than expected? If turnout
reaches a non-presidential high, as it did in 1994 with the Republican
Revolution in South Carolina and across the country, efforts to
boost black turnout would make less of a difference. An increase
in 40,000 new black voters likely would be offset by 80,000 additional
Regardless, Felder wants more blacks to participate in the electoral
process now, just as he has his whole life. In the 1960s after the
Voting Rights Act passed, he started the S.C. Voter Education Project
to educate blacks about their rights to vote and to get them participate.
The project went on the back burner after 1974 when he, Herbert
Fielding of Charleston and I.S. Leevy Johnson of Columbia broke
the color barrier at the modern Statehouse by being elected to the
Two years ago, Felder dusted off the Voter Education Project when
he concluded black participation was dwindling and other organizations,
including political parties, weren't doing much about it. Since
then, the Project has been under the establishment's radar screen
(until Felder let the cat out of the bag at a College of Charleston
rally two weeks ago).
"We're seeing a new excitement out there in the black community,"
Felder said. "We're going to increase our turnout and that
will increase our bargaining powers in other arenas."
Black voters are excited again because they're learning and being
inspired about what black officials are doing now. For example,
the state today has a dozen black sheriffs, more than 30 black mayors,
31 black members of the General Assembly and hundreds of black officials
in local and school governments.
"A lot of folks aren't aware of this. When they realize what
they've done, they see what we can do," Felder said.
This year, it also doesn't hurt that two black candidates are running
for statewide office as Democrats - Steve Benjamin for attorney
general and Rick Wade for secretary of state.
"A lot of folks didn't realize they were black. Once they
find out, the light just goes on in their eyes. To run for state
office as a black candidate isn't just a dream any more. It's doable."
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