Ahead of Alabama’s special Senate election, much of the narrative about the state’s black voters had seemingly already been written: Black voters weren’t mobilizing.
Some black folks in a shopping center last week didn’t know an election was even going on, a survey the New York Times took to mean overall interest was low. The Washington Post determined that black voters weren’t “energized.”The Huffington Post concluded that black voters weren’t “inspired.”
The implication hidden in all this was that if Democratic candidate Doug Jones lost to GOP candidate Roy Moore, weakened as he was by a sea of allegations of sexual assault and harassment, then some of the blame could be placed on black turnout.
But Jones won, according to the AP, and that script has been flipped on its head. Election day defied the narrative, and challenged traditional thinking about racial turnout in off-year elections and special elections. Precincts in the so-called “black belt” reported long lines throughout the day, and as the night waned and red counties dominated by rural white voters continued to report disappointing results for Moore, urban areas and the black belt surged. By all accounts, black turnout exceeded expectations, perhaps even passing previous off-year results. Energy was not a problem.
Exit polls showed that black voters overall made a splash in a big way. The Washington Post’s exits predicted that black voters would make up 28 percent of the voters, which would actually be an increase in the population share of 26 percent, and would be a dramatic turnaround from previous statewide special elections in the South, including a special election for the Sixth District in Georgia which saw black support for Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff dissipate on Election Day.
As Cook Political Report editor Dave Wasserman noted on Twitter, turnout was particularly high in the counties with the highest black populations. In Greene County, a small 80 percent black area that Martin Luther King, Jr., frequented in his Poor People’s Campaign, turnout reached 78 percent of 2016 turnout, an incredible mark given that special elections and midterms usually fall far short of general-election marks. Perry County, also an important mostly-black site of voting-rights battles of old, turned out at 75 percent of 2016 levels. Dallas County, whose seat is the city of Selma, hit 74 percent marks. And while the exact numbers aren’t in for all of the majority-black or heavily black counties, it appears black voters favored Jones at rates close to or above 90 percent.
Meanwhile, Moore’s support sagged in mostly-white counties. The race was probably over for the former state chief justice when Cullman County, which is virtually all white and heavily supported Trump in 2016, only turned out at 56 percent of its 2016 levels. It really does seem like, while white voters by and large weren’t swayed to vote for Jones after numerous women came forward with allegations against Moore, they did see fit to stay home.
These results demolish both the pre-established media narrative about black voters in the state, and defy conventional wisdom. Black voters were informed and mobilized to go vote, and did so even in the face of significant barriers.
I previously noted that Alabama is one of the hardest states in the country to vote—especially so for black voters, and that voter suppression efforts could have had strong effects on black votes. Tuesday night’s returns are all the more remarkable because they appear to be in spite of those very real barriers.
The grassroots organization in black communities by groups like local NAACP chapters was more muscular than it had even been in the 2016 general election. In the lead-up to Tuesday’s contest, voting rights groups registered people with felonies, increased awareness campaigns to people who might not have had proper ID, and focused specifically on knocking down the structures in place that keep black voters away from the polls. Their efforts immediately become a case study in how to do so in a region that has since the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision curtailing the 1965 Voting Rights Act become a bastion of new voter-suppression laws, including new voter-ID laws.
The prospects of those laws and efforts to circumvent them will be further tested in the 2018 elections. But, for now, Jones is the man in Alabama, and even as white voters by and large stuck with Moore, Democrats were saved by a community already fighting against the grain to be heard in the din of democracy.