Why Does the “Extraordinary Black Turnout” Meme in Alabama Stay Alive?

Bill Clark/Congressional Quarterly/Newscom via ZUMA

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Over the weekend, the New York Times wrote yet again that “extraordinary turnout among black voters” pushed Doug Jones to victory over Roy Moore in the recent race for Alabama’s open Senate seat:

That turnout, in which registered black voters appeared to cast ballots at a higher rate than white ones, has become the most recent reference point in the complicated picture about race and elections laws….Exit polls are preliminary, but the ones available in Alabama suggest the share of blacks who cast ballots — roughly 41 percent of the African-Americans voters — exceeding the 35 or so percent of whites who turned out. The divide likely reflects a robust black turnout and modest participation from whites who were unenthusiastic about Mr. Moore, whose already-controversial candidacy was dogged by accusations of sexual misconduct.

I don’t want to get obsessed by this, but I continue to wonder where this meme is coming from. It’s hard to put the 2017 race into any kind of context since exit polls usually aren’t available for Alabama, but they are available for some years. So after dredging up all the relevant data, here’s what I came up with for turnout rates in 2008 and 2017:

Compared to 2017, absolute turnout was higher across the board in 2008 since it was a presidential race. But it also had higher relative black turnout. In 2008, black turnout was 13 percent higher than white turnout. In 2017 it was only 8 percent higher. Since my turnout rate for blacks in 2017 is different from the Times calculation of 41 percent, I figure I should show my work:

Now, in 2008 Barack Obama was on the ballot and you’d expect black turnout to be especially high. So even if black turnout in 2017 wasn’t better than 2008, maybe it’s remarkable that black turnout was almost as good.

That could be. If we had other midterm elections to look at, we’d have a better idea of what black vs. white turnout rates normally look like in Alabama.¹ But as far as I know, we don’t. That means there’s no real basis for saying black turnout was extraordinary in 2017, and at least some basis for saying it wasn’t. If anyone has some kind of reliable turnout data by race in Alabama midterm elections, that might change the story. But unless we get that, there’s just no evidence that black turnout was unusually strong when Doug Jones won on December 12.

Or maybe I’m just missing something. But what?

¹If I had to guess, I’d say that black turnout in Alabama Senate races is usually lower than 29 percent because everyone know who’s going to win: it’ll be the white Republican guy. Why bother rousing yourself to vote for some Democrat who’s just going to get stomped anyway? Needless to say, this makes turnout comparisons even harder. What you really want to do is find other elections that feature close, well-funded races, and see how high black turnout is in them. Good luck with that.

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SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

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