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Voting in America: Electing a President in 2016 and the Minority Vote

The Center for American Progress’s report describes how a shift in the minority of the population could determine the outcome of the 2016 elections.
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The Center for American Progress’s report, “The Changing Face of American’s Electorate: Political Implications of Shifting Demographics,” describes how the shift from a majority White non-Hispanic population to a majority people-of-color population could determine the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Author Patrick Oakford talks to ICTMN about his work.

The report discusses voters of color but leaves out Native Americans despite the fact that the AI/AN population in several states is significant. Was there a reason Native Americans were not included in the analysis?

The exclusion of Native Americans in the analysis was simply due to data limitations. The data sets I used didn’t have a large enough sample size of Native Americans for me to include them in the analysis. However, the exclusion of Native Americans in the report in no way means that these voters aren’t influential in elections. And I don’t think their political influence should be lost on any 2016 presidential candidate.

The percentage of Native Americans in some states is quite significant. For example, in Oklahoma the AI/AN population is 9 percent; in Alaska, 14.7 percent; in New Mexico, 10.4 percent; in Arizona, 5.3 percent and in South Dakota, 8.9 percent. Why wasn’t that population included in the data sets?

You’re right that in some states the population is quite high and if we look at [U.S.] Census data the Native American population would absolutely show up in those states. But the analysis relied upon not only census data, but also state specific exit polls. Unfortunately we don’t have detailed exit polling for every state. So there wasn’t a match between the states for which there is adequate census data [on Native Americans] and the state specific exit polling.

The Native American voter turnout in 2012 helped swing elections in key states like North Dakota and Alaska, mostly due to a wide push for voter turnout through Get Out the Native Vote. Are other minority groups using similar tactics to improve their voter turnouts?

Absolutely. There are efforts all across the United States to try to increase voter registration and turnout among minorities. And I think we are moving in the right direction by expanding and improving those efforts. In Texas, for example, there were nearly 3 million Latinos who were eligible to vote but didn’t turn out in 2012. Since then, we’ve seen more targeted efforts to reach and register Latinos in Texas.

The Supreme Court in June 2013 rejected the Voting Rights Act’s central provision that all or part of 15 states had to get advance federal approval for any change in their voting laws. How will that ruling impact your projections and how do you think it’s going to impact voting in 2016?

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The 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision was a devastating blow to the Voting Rights Act and since that decision numerous states have launched attacks against the voting rights of Americans. A couple of examples—Texas passed a very strict photo identification law in 2011, but it didn’t go into effect until after the Supreme Court decision. Similarly, North Carolina significantly reduced the number of days for early voting. Both of these laws have the potential to dampen voter turnout. It’s going to be extremely important for organizations and communities to do everything they can to overcome the negative effects of these laws in 2016.

The 2014 midterm election saw a very small overall turnout as is common in midterm elections, even though Native Americans turned out in large numbers to help secure wins. Do you know why minority groups tend to have low voter turnout rates?

There are multiple reasons. Perhaps most notably, these communities have had to overcome historical voter disenfranchisement. But I think broader inequality also plays a role. Pew Research has an interesting study in which they compare voter turnout rates between racial and ethnic groups by various demographic variables. For example, when one compares Latino and White non-Hispanic voter turnout rates by income or education level, the gap between these two groups narrows significantly.

Native Americans have been making progress in exercising their voting rights. In South Dakota satellite voting offices were set up on reservations; in Alaska polling places had Alaska Native speakers to translate the ballots into Native languages. Similar strides were made in Montana, yet much work remains to be done to achieve voting equality. Do other minority groups face as much of an uphill battle as Native Americans when it comes to voting rights?

This very much goes back to the Shelby County decision, which really set our country back and created new challenges for all Americans, particularly voters of color. I don’t think Native Americans are alone in having an uphill fight to secure equal voting rights. And while these fights may vary from state to state, it’s one that all Americans should be committed to winning.

Could you talk about how the changing demographics of the electorate are likely to affect the racial composition of Congress, given that today people of color are not represented in proportion to their presence in the population or the electorate? The 114th Congress is 83 percent white, 9 percent Black, 6 percent Hispanic, 2 percent Asian American and 0.4 percent Native American, numbers that do not coincide with those groups’ percentages in the population. Why do you think there is such a lag?

I think there are a lot of reasons why Congress is not racially or ethnically representative of the U.S. It’s a function of demographic reasons, the way in which our congressional districts have been drawn among other things. The face of our country is changing rapidly and I think we should strive to have a Congress that represents our country. But there is oftentimes a lag between demographic shifts in the population at large and those changes occurring within the electorate. For example, in California people of color became a majority of the population in 1999. But it wasn’t until 2014 that voters of color made up a majority of the eligible electorate. As the demographic changes within the electorate catches up to those of the population as a whole, I think there will be a greater potential for Congress to be more representative of the racial and ethnic composition of our country.

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