Thursday, September 11, 2008

OBAMA: THE PRICE OF BEING BLACK

Sociologist Andrew Hacker is pessimistic about Obama's chances of election in November. His argument, which he spells out in an article in this week's New York Review of Books, has two parts: the first of which is more compelling than the second. To his credit, Hacker offers a detailed and persuasive analysis of the various electoral mechanisms that result in the disproportionate exclusion of blacks from the voting rolls, among them laws that require voters to show a government-approved photo identification (in most cases a drivers' license or a passport) and laws that forbid felons from voting (which exclude large numbers of black men, who are disproportionately represented in the ranks of those in jail or who have records).

Hacker's forte is statistics. And here, his article is most revealing. He discovers a fatal statistical flaw in the plaintiff's case in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, a recent Supreme Court decision that upheld Indiana's photo ID requirement for voters. Indiana has 4.3 million voting age residents. Strangely, the plaintiff's attorney asserted that only 43,000 adults in that state did not have a driver's license. The implication of those data was that Indiana's law would affect only a tiny segment of the state's potential voters--and that there was no evidence that the ID requirement would disadvantage them. Actually the plaintiff's number was wrong. 673,926 Indiana residents don't have a license. That's almost 15 percent of the state's potential electorate. That's a big number--and because of poverty, urban residence, and high insurance rates, a large portion of those carless Indianans are black. Getting a license is, in many states, a hassle: in other words, there are barriers to getting a license that are likely barriers to full political participation. Obama probably won't win Indiana in any case (it's been one of the most solidly Republican states in the Rustbelt), but similar requirements in swing states like Wisconsin could be decisive.

Hacker also notes that the 2002 Help America Vote Act requires that states keep electronic registration records. But this system is plagued with problems. As a number-cruncher, Hacker is on firm ground here, for he knows the difficulties of electronic record keeping and database maintenance. Florida, for example, uses Social Security records to verify addresses on its state voter rolls, a technique that leads to many non-matches--the Social Security Administration is unable to link 28 percent of names because of name changes, marriage and the like.) Another serious problem is simple human error. The mistyping of just one digit or the transposition of one letter in a name can result in someone being dropped from the voter rolls. Interestingly, when it comes to felons, Florida's data management system is rather looser: it looks for 80 percent matches to names, meaning that people with similar or identical names to registered felons can be struck from the rolls and deprived a vote simply because of their parents' naming decisions. Wrongly disenfranchised voters can claw their way back into the electoral rolls, but the process is time-consuming and hassle-filled. The barriers to re-entry are high and it makes sense to surmise that many disenfranchised voters don't have the time or the skills to figure out the system.

The second part of Hacker's article, a consideration of the relationship of race to white voting behavior, walks into more controversial territory. There is a raging debate among political scientists as to whether the vaunted Bradley or Dinkins effect still exists (that white voters are much more likely to choose a white candidate over a black candidate than they indicate in surveys) and if there is a Bradley effect, how big it is. Hacker seems unaware of that debate. He is, without doubt, right that a significant segment of white voters, especially those who make their decisions at the last minute, will instinctively gravitate toward the white candidate. And he is right that whites regularly mislead survey researchers and pollsters about the role of race in their decision-making. The real question here, and it's not one that Hacker can answer is how much white racial voting will matter. I'm a pessimist and lean toward Hacker's argument, drawing from my historical research and from spending time with whites, but neither are quantitatively systematic. In any case, even if I have a hunch that Hacker is right, he does not persuade me here. I'll leave that to what will surely be a growth industry in political science after November 4.

2 comments:

clementineb said...

You can call his facts pessimistic if you want....there are realistic! wake up...America has that type of history, and Mr Hacker is just telling us what could happen again. Of course change can occur, the only thing is that people have to realize within their inner selves their ethic and moral duties, instead of being swayed by irrelevant factors that could determine their potential presidential candidate.

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