Coloring the Vote: Demographics and Engagement Add Up to Political Power

By Vina Kay, Director of Research and Policy, Organizing Apprenticeship Project

This post first appeared on the blog Opine Season on June 4, 2013 shortly before the One Minneapolis mayoral candidates forum. With Election Day approaching, the points raised here seem relevant again. Untitled

I haven’t told him yet, but I want to take my 16-year-old son to a Minneapolis mayoral candidates forum on Thursday night. I know it is the first week of summer and all, so this event may not be at the top of his list. Plus, he can’t even vote in the election this fall.

Still, this is important. The forum, hosted by One Minneapolis and a coalition of young voters of color, will be a chance to ask candidates the questions that should be front and center priorities for the next mayor of Minneapolis. How will candidates address racial disparities in access and opportunity at all levels of education, from early childhood to college? What will they do about our huge employment gap? How will they ensure equitable access to the parks and recreation programs that can lead to better health? Will business development help struggling neighborhoods thrive? Will our city’s law enforcement work with us to build safer communities?

All of these are issues he should be thinking about for his and our city’s future. He will be eligible to vote next time around, and hold whoever the new mayor is accountable for what he or she says on Thursday night. Candidates should be paying attention to the voices of young voters of color, too. Their voices are growing in power, as a new U.S. Census report reveals.

A couple of points stand out in this report. One is that in 2012 and for the first time the voting rates of African Americans surpassed that of non-Hispanic Whites. Of the African American eligible electorate, 66.2 percent  voted in the 2012 election. Of the non-Hispanic White eligible electorate, the rate was 64.1 percent.

The second point was even more striking to me. Since this kind of data has been collected in 1996, the number of eligible voters and the number of votes cast has increased in every election. But for the first time, in 2012, the number of votes cast by non-Hispanic White voters decreased – by about 2 million – even though the total votes cast still grew. As the report states:

“Since 1996, this is the only example of a race group showing a decrease in net voting from one presidential election to the next, and it indicates that the 2012 voting population expansion came primarily from minority voters.” 

Here in Minnesota, data from Color the Vote indicates that 322,000 people of color voted in the 2012 election, or about 11 percent of voters overall.

These are significant numbers and should translate into the continuing increased engagement of people of color in elections and policymaking decisions, as well as increased attention by candidates to issues communities of color raise. On Friday, I met with a group of 25 community organizers and leaders to reflect on the racial justice victories of the 2013 legislative session. I heard stories of long-fought battles that have resulted in real policy change, of many things still on the table in 2014, and the power of leading with a racial justice lens on issues from education to employment to housing. The story was not that any of this was easy. Rather, it is that through organizing, collaboration, and persistence we are changing the narrative in Minnesota.

Changing the narrative will take the demographic changes that we know are happening. It will also take voter engagement and organizing. It will take movement to increase the leadership of people of color in elected office (of 201 members of the Minnesota Legislature, only 7 are people of color).

A third point caught my attention in the U.S. Census report, and it’s another reason for my son to come with me to the candidates forum: women consistently vote at higher rates than men. It struck that this was true despite women (and people of color) attaining the right to vote much later and through much struggle. We hold dear the right to vote by exercising it, and in that truth is a lot of power.

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