Commentary

Retire the Race Card, Election 2000 Wasn’t a Racist Plot, After All

This article was first published in National Review Online, November 19, 2001.
The Florida recount is finally over. The powers-that-be have declared that George W. Bush really did win the presidency last year. But don’t count on liberals being satisfied. They need to get their voters to the polls in 2002, and there’s nothing like a grievance to get people off the couch and into the voting booth. And, liberals being liberals, the grievance in question will relate to race.

The editorial writers at both the New York Times and the Washington Post have been quick to note that predominantly black precincts in Florida had more than three times as many spoiled ballots as white precincts. The Times let a political scientist from Hamilton College draw the politically correct conclusion: “The finding about black voters is really strong. It raises the issue about whether there’s some way that the voting system is set up that discriminates against blacks.”

The study commissioned by the Times and other news organizations does not prove racial discrimination. As the Times noted, the study did find that race affected the difference in spoiled ballots “even after accounting for differences in income, education and voting technology.” But that’s not enough to prove race mattered. Other factors ignored by the study may explain the difference between black and white precincts.

For instance, imagine that first-time voters in general fail to successfully vote at a higher rate than veteran voters. Imagine also that black and white first-time voters spoil their ballots at the same rate. Finally, imagine that a strong get-out-the-vote effort by Florida Democrats produced many more first-time black voters than first-time white voters.

Under those conditions, black precincts would end up with many more spoiled ballots than white precincts and race would have nothing to do with the difference. The real factors at work would be the strong turnout by black voters and the difficulties of first-time voting experienced by members of all races.

Florida did see a strong African-American turnout in 2000, many of whom were voting for the first time. It’s reasonable to assume that first-time voters in general spoil their ballots more than more experienced citizens. Voting seems simple, but doing most things for the first time can be tough. Remember the first time you recorded a movie on your VCR?

The new study did not take into account how often black and white first-time voters spoil their ballots. And — since that variable might plausibly explain the observed differences in spoiled ballots — absent definitive data on first-time voting, we have no reason to assume a racial difference.

Liberals are a long way from proving that racial discrimination mattered in Florida’s outcome. And focusing incessantly on racial differences in spoiled ballots runs another risk that no one wants to talk about. Some Americans will look at the threefold difference in rejected votes and conclude that black voters are less competent than other Americans at exercising the franchise.

Of course, this belief, like the liberal belief in racial malice, is a myth. If successful voting has more to do with experience than with race, some people will just have to find other excuses to think ill of African Americans.

Nevertheless, what we conclude about race and the Florida outcome will affect how we go forward as a nation. If the myth of racial malice wins out, liberals will fight future elections by waving the bloody shirt of racial injustice. American politics will become even more divided and embittered.

Accepting the likelihood that first-time voters had problems at the Florida polls offers a less divisive approach. Both parties will focus more on making sure their novice supporters know how to vote successfully. Local election boards should also improve their voter-education efforts. The political parties may easily find other common ground on ways to help novice voters.

Liberals have a lot invested politically in seeing President Bush’s victory as a racist plot. But the data we have don’t support that conclusion. Liberals ought to put away the race card, and focus their energies on preparing their new voters for the election of 2002.

John Samples is director of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.