With midterm elections well underway, the spotlight has once again turned to Black voters. One former Bush administration official recently noted that the Democratic Party’s quadrennial plea for Black votes to save its midterm aspirations arrived on schedule this year, just as it did in 2006 and in 2010. It is expected that elections in places like North Carolina and Georgia may very well hinge on the participation and preferences of the Black electorate. The difference this year is that many black voters are employing a different tactic that may ruin a few candidates’ election nights: the protest vote.
Voting is the means by which people express their concerns to the government and select representatives to address those concerns from within the policy apparatus. When an electorate’s voice is silenced, it makes itself heard in other ways, such as marches and boycotts. But when the electorate is ignored, particularly the Black electorate, it hits politicians where it’ll hurt most – the voting booth.
The protest vote is not a march to the ballot box, but marching through the ballot box. It is a demand to be heard. It checks the box for Candidate A, not as an indicator of support, but as a signal of disapproval for the party of Candidate B. Take, for example, the voters in the area around Ferguson, Missouri. The Washington Post recently reported that some Black voters in St. Louis County are backing the Republican candidate for County Executive as an expression of frustration with the local Democratic Party leaders. These voters believe these leaders have taken their support for granted and left their policy concerns largely unaddressed. Ostensibly, the logic is that after losing power, Democratic leaders won’t wait until the next election to court the black vote and give credence to the black constituency’s priority issues.
And the young people in Missouri are not alone. Older black voters in Washington, D.C. are supporting Republican and Independent mayoral candidates in larger numbers, likely as an objection to the city’s gentrification that’s pricing Black residents out of the communities where they’ve lived for generations. A pastor in Illinois has called on blacks to cast a protest vote in support of the Republican senatorial candidate because voting for the Democrat means that Blacks “will continue to get ignored and played in a two-party system.” These protest votes are not because the Democratic platform and its candidates’ views are discordant with Black voters’ policy preferences, but because alignment has not produced the tangible results the Black community expected.
The prevailing thought is that voters who are ignored tend to abstain from elections as a conveyance of their displeasure with the candidates. However, research has shown that bBack voters become more active when they feel cynical about the political process or that they’re being ignored. It should be no surprise, then, that though turnout is typically lower than general elections, black votes seem to take on especial importance in off-year elections. The protest vote is an active expression of condemnation whereas staying home is simply passive disinterest.
Of course, Blacks voting for the candidate that opposes policies helpful to the Black community would appear to be counterintuitive and self-inflicting harm unnecessarily. What is the sense in voting against your interests? However, if a community’s concerns are never prioritized despite repeated electoral participation, it seems as though voting doesn’t change its circumstances. As such, there isn’t much to be lost in casting a protest vote since no matter which candidate receives it, little is likely to change. In this way, the protest vote is akin to singing off-key in a choir – it may not be pleasant, but your voice will certainly be heard. And this is entirely the point.
The power in the protest vote is the message it sends to the party accustomed to support from the black community. Certainly, the message is sent in a way that could result in the election of politicians who place little value on the concerns most important to the black electorate. But just as Black men and women of all ages marched and sat-in only to be beaten, spat on, and powerwashed into the pavement, the short-term, perilous consequences were justified by the long-term goal of being heard and effecting change.
Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. told the nation and the world Why We Can’t Wait. Today, the lack of attention federal, state, and local governments give to the disparities the Black community experiences is blamed on economic challenges and partisan bickering, among other things. The nation seems to be saying toBblack Americans that voting appropriately and being patient for an amenable political environment is the best course of action. With the protest vote, some of the Black electorate is exclaiming emphatically that waiting is not an option. When the midterm election results roll in, we’ll know if they’ve been heard.