Obama: The Price of Being Black

Restoring the Right to Vote

by Erika Wood
Brennan Center for Justice, 34 pp., available at www.brennancenter.org

Crawford v. Marion County [Indiana] Election Board

US Supreme Court, April 28, 2008

Florida State Conference of the NAACP v. Browning

US Court of Appeals, 11th Circuit, April 3, 2008

In May, Hillary Clinton described many of her core supporters as “hard-working Americans, white Americans.” Primary voting in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia confirmed her surmise. Her remark seemed, without saying so, to claim an advantage over Obama that was due to his race. But there’s more we need to know. We can see how being a farmer or a bond trader or a gun collector might influence your vote. And we understand why black Americans would want a person of their race in the Oval Office. But just what is there about being white that might incline someone toward one candidate instead of another?

Senator Clinton implied that this identity was salient for some voters and that she could appeal to it. Polls showed that some 15 to 20 percent of white voters in those three states said that “race” was a factor in their vote, and we are left to wonder just how much of a factor and how many more would have said the same if they had been frank with the interviewer. People are uneasy talking about the subject of race, but the feeling persists that Obama’s half-ancestry could tip the scales on November 4.


Barack Obama can only become president by mustering a turnout that will surpass the votes he is not going to get. This may well mean that more black Americans than ever will have to go to the polls, if only because the electorate is predominantly white, and it isn’t clear how their votes will go. Obstacles to getting blacks to vote have always been formidable, but this year there will be barriers—some new, some long-standing—that previous campaigns have not had to face.

For many years, the momentum was toward making the franchise universal. Property qualifications were ended; the poll tax was nullified; the voting age was lowered to eighteen. But now strong forces are at work to downsize the electorate, ostensibly to combat fraud and strip the rolls of voters who are ineligible for one reason or another. But the real effect is to make it harder for many black Americans to vote, largely because they are more vulnerable to challenges than other parts of the population.

Licensed to Vote

In a 6–3 decision in April written by John Paul Stevens, Crawford v. Marion County Election Board , the Supreme Court upheld a 2005 Indiana law requiring voters in that state to produce a government document with a photograph at the polls. In practical terms, this meant a passport or a driver’s license. Since less than a third of adults have a passport, the Indiana case focused largely on how many adults lack a license to drive. During oral arguments, several justices pressed the plaintiff’s lawyer for an answer. For reasons I cannot fathom, he kept using the number 43,000, for a state whose voting-age population is 4.6 million. In fact, the Federal Highway Administration, in an easily obtained report, says that 673,926 adult residents of Indiana have no license, which…

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