Hillary Clinton began her 2016 march to the White House last week, and it wasn’t a promising debut. The former first lady and Senator used her first big policy speech since leaving the State Department to portray American election laws as fundamentally racist. The speech was longer on anecdotes than statistics, so allow us to fill in some of the holes.
“In 2013, so far, more than 80 bills restricting voting rights have been introduced in 31 states,” Mrs. Clinton told her political base of lawyers at the American Bar Association. She portrayed these laws as part of an effort reaching back years to “disproportionately impact African-Americans, Latino and young voters.” And she threw the Supreme Court in as part of this racist conspiracy, assailing its recent decision finding the “preclearance” section of the Voting Rights Act to be unconstitutional.
She claimed the High Court had “struck at the heart” of the law, though all it did was eliminate a section that had forced such states as Mississippi to meet higher legal burdens for election laws than other states with a worse current record of minority voter participation. “Now not every obstacle is related to race,” Mrs. Clinton added, “but anyone who says that racial discrimination is no longer a problem in American elections must not be paying attention.”
No one thinks racial discrimination has vanished from American life or the human condition. But as for minority voting, Mrs. Clinton is the one who hasn’t been paying attention. In particular, she must have missed the May 2013 Census Bureau study on “The Diversifying Electorate—Voting Rates by Race and Hispanic Origin in 2012 (and Other Recent Elections).”
The study, based on data from the November 2012 Current Population Survey, shows that minority voter turnout nationwide has been rising—dramatically so. Take blacks, who as recently as 1996 had a low voter turnout rate of 53%.
As the nearby chart shows, black turnout has jumped in each of the last four presidential elections. In 2012, black turnout as a share of all eligible voters exceeded the turnout of non-Hispanic white voters—66.2% to 64.1%. Nearly five million more African-Americans voted in 2012 (17.8 million) than voted in 2000 (12.9 million). In both 2008 and 2012, black voters even exceeded their share of the eligible black voting age population. In 2012, blacks made up 12.5% of the eligible electorate but 13.4% of those voting.
Having Barack Obama at the top of the ticket no doubt helped this black voter mobilization, but the trend shows that the surge preceded his candidacy. Remember when liberals portrayed Bill Clinton as “America’s first black President”? The black turnout surge accelerated after Mr. Clinton’s last election. Such a large increase in black voter turnout over 16 years would seem to refute the claim by Mrs. Clinton that racial obstacles to voting are increasing.
Mrs. Clinton ignores all of this and focuses instead on anecdotes, while raising alarm about the voter ID laws that have passed in the last decade. She specifically raises fears about North and South Carolina. Yet the same Census Bureau study shows that black turnout exceeded non-Hispanic white turnout by statistically significant rates in both Carolinas, and was higher in most states east of the Mississippi River outside of New England.
North Carolina, she says, has this year “pushed through a bill that reads like the greatest hits of voter suppression.” But that supposed horror show merely reduces early voting by a week, and bars same-day registration and extending voting hours by political whim. All of these are designed to preserve ballot integrity, which is as vital as voter access to public confidence in honest elections. Voters without an ID can get one free at the Department of Motor Vehicles and they can also cast a provisional ballot pending confirmation that they are legally registered.
By the way, Georgia, Indiana and Tennessee have some of the strictest voter ID laws of the more than 30 states that have such laws, yet the Census report says black turnout exceeded that of non-Hispanic whites in 2012 in all three. Where is the evidence that voter ID laws keep minorities from voting?
The disconnect between these facts and Mrs. Clinton’s assertions suggests that she is the one playing racial politics. The current narrow Democratic majority is largely a coalition based on gender and racial identity. It requires big turnout among single women and non-whites. As the Obama era winds down, the fear among Democrats is that these voters won’t have the same enthusiasm.
Mrs. Clinton can play the “first woman President” card, but she also needs large minority turnout. If she can’t motivate that turnout based on rising economic optimism or opportunity, which is hard given the Obama economic record, she and Democrats will play to racial fears to drive it. She wants a racially polarized electorate.
This is a tragedy for the country, and Republicans like Mitt Romney share the blame for doing so little to attract minority votes. But this strategy and Mrs. Clinton’s speech don’t bode well for a less polarized politics as Democrats try to extend their electoral dominance.
Mrs. Clinton billed her speech last week as the first of a series addressing what she called “eroding public trust” in government. Government could use the help, though note the irony that Mrs. Clinton’s party has been running the government even as its reputation sinks. In any case, stoking racial fears based on imaginary government racism won’t make Americans feel better about politics or government.
A version of this article appeared August 19, 2013, on page A16 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Hillary’s Racial Politics.