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A supporter holds a sign during Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Doug Jones' election night party in Birmingham, Alabama, U.S. December 12, 2017. Politics

What Black Voters Won

Alabama is proof that they can deliver elections for Democrats—but only if the party delivers for them.

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama—At the viewing party for Doug Jones supporters on Tuesday night, you could feel the energy shift from nervous anticipation to joy and jubilation as it became clear that Jones would be the next United States senator from Alabama, the first Democrat elected to represent the state in the Senate since 1992, and the first Democrat elected to statewide office in nearly 10 years.

The mixed crowd—young and old, black and white—erupted in cheers and shouts and dancing and tears. People who had been voting Democrat their whole lives, to little avail, were in shock. They had accomplished the impossible.

That this was a narrow win over a deeply flawed opponent didn’t dampen the enthusiasm. “Doug Jones’ victory doesn’t just represent what’s right with Alabama, it represents the best of Alabama,” said newly minted Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin.

Jones owes his victory to the people in that room, and rooms like it across Alabama, whose enthusiasm overcame decades of structural disenfranchisement, along with last-second attempts to subvert Democratic votes.

Despite those obstacles, black voters, both rural and urban, came to the polls in massive numbers, while Republican voters—especially those in the white rural regions of the state—simply didn’t turn out. According to exit polls, the electorate was 29 percent black—a rate that rivals presidential elections. That performance was the product of a massive organizing effort from Democrats, affiliated groups, and grass-roots activists. National and statewide organizations like the NAACP worked in concert with churches, fraternities, sororities, and activist groups like the Ordinary People Society to register black Alabamians, get them proper identification, and bring them to the polls. It’s an effort that should stand as a model for other states, which should begin organizing posthaste to build durable ties with these voters. (By the same token, Jones should demonstrate the importance of recruiting good candidates for every race, even ones that seem hopeless at the start.)

Jones also saw improved margins with younger whites, winning voters under 45 with nearly two-thirds of the vote and contributing to his 30 percent share of the white vote overall. But the extent to which black voters were critical to Jones’ victory—voting for him by a margin of more than 20 to 1—has led some liberal observers to say that they “saved” the Democratic Party in the state. This is a mistake. Black Alabamians were voting their interests; voting because they saw a chance to move the needle just a little in their direction. If they demonstrated anything beyond that, it was continued commitment to equality and rule of law, core principles of American democracy that were realized with blood and struggle in the not-so-distant past by black Alabamians that still live and breathe.

What these voters are still waiting for, and what many Democrats are still hesitant to argue for, are policies that speak directly to the unique nature of black poverty and disadvantage.

Alabama is marked by stark racial inequality. Downtown Birmingham is thriving, but circle its outskirts—neighborhoods like East Lake or Collegeville—and you’ll see the crushing deprivation and disinvestment. A drive through Selma reveals abandoned homes and boarded-up businesses, and it is genuinely difficult to describe the acute isolation and poverty of the Black Belt, where hundreds of thousands of black Alabamians are ignored by state leaders and virtually forgotten by those in Washington. One senator cannot solve these problems. By voting for Jones however, those black Americans have tilted the balance of power and may hasten the reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program—an issue Jones mentioned frequently on the campaign trail and again in his victory speech—or prevent cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, thus keeping a rotten status quo from decaying further.

But that’s not all that black Alabamians—and black voters across the South—need from the Democratic Party. If the story of the Alabama election is black turnout, then it’s also one of rare triumph over a concerted effort to suppress black votes and the need to tackle voter suppression with all the might the left can muster.

Across Alabama, observers reported efforts to discourage black voting, from police officers entering polling stations in predominantly black areas to search for voters with outstanding warrants, to voters being told they were “inactive” despite regular attendance at the polls. Thousands waited in long lines to vote—lines that didn’t exist in wealthier, whiter parts of the state. On Twitter, one Alabamian claimed that her precinct was denying voters the right to cast a ballot if they didn’t remember the county they were born in, while voting rights groups collected hundreds of reports of voter suppression activity.

And this is before we get to policies designed to put obstacles in the way of black Alabamians. A 2011 law mandated strict photo identification to vote in the state, and actions taken in 2015 closed voter ID offices throughout the rural counties of the Black Belt, where many black Alabamians reside. The state later lowered some of those hurdles, but the impact remains. Proponents of those policies argue any suppression is an unintended consequence—that no one wanted to keep black voters from the polls—but in Alabama, the evidence is stacked against them. One advocate of the original voter ID law claimed, on record, that it would undermine Alabama’s “black power structure,” and two of the law’s sponsors were caught on tape attacking black Alabamians in explicitly racist terms.

It’s impossible to know how many voters were turned away as a result of these actions. But there’s no question that these efforts benefited the Republican candidate, Roy Moore. And while Jones prevailed in this contest, it was a narrow margin that could have easily gone the other way. Given slightly higher turnout in Moore territory, voter suppression could have made the difference between a Jones win and a Moore win. The election, quite literally, could have been stolen.

Alabama ought to remind Democrats that they have no option but to counter voter suppression and put voting rights at the front of their agenda. There’s still time to repair the Voting Rights Act and keep Shelby County v. Holder—a case that originated in Alabama—from empowering reactionaries. But it has to be a priority and part of a larger suite of reforms, from automatic voting registration and early voting, to mail-in balloting and felon enfranchisement.

Those efforts are inextricably linked with Democrats’ broader future in the South. Jones’ victory raises the question of what this race might mean for other Democrats running below the Mason-Dixon line. Jones ran as a liberal candidate, on a liberal platform, and refused to back down from his pro-choice views. Is the right-leaning moderation traditional of white Democrats in the South a relic of the past? Does the future of the party’s fortunes in the former Confederacy lie with candidates who don’t turn away from openly liberal politics? The results on Tuesday suggested the answer might be yes.

It’s still an open question how Democrats can overcome the extreme racial and partisan polarization of the white electorate—a polarization so strong that most of the state’s white voters backed Moore, all but ignoring the credible accusations of sexual molestation and the equally credible charges that he pursued sexual relationships with teenagers as a man in his 30s. Moore was so confident this polarization would carry him through that he effectively stopped campaigning in the final weeks of the race, betting that white voters would buoy him against the allegations and the opposition. Looking at the slim, 1 ½ point margin between Moore and Jones, it almost worked. And it speaks to larger issues in the overall American political system.

Writing for Vox, Ezra Klein notes that Moore was the result of our weak parties and strong partisanship. This time, the norms-destroying candidate lost. But there are no guarantees for the future. And given we’ve already put one of these figures in the White House, there’s a good chance one will emerge again and find success where Moore failed.

Step away from the excitement of Jones’ win—from the history of it all—and this victory is fraught. It was a successful campaign by a strong candidate that nonetheless demonstrates the profound challenges ahead. Democrats, and Americans who value decency and rule of law, have much to celebrate in the wake of Alabama. But it’s important not to mistake this respite from reactionary politics as a genuine calm. The storm is still on the horizon.

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