Politico today profiles Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson’s efforts to recruit black voters in South Carolina, the first GOP presidential candidate to make public overtures for votes and support by way of HBCU outreach at South Carolina State University.
HBCUs are the way to appeal to black voters, mostly because of their historic ties to black citizens and connections to community thought leaders and legislative voices. But this bit of information shows exactly why black colleges are critical to elections; not just presidential, but state elections as well.
The Republican has a challenge ahead of him. Recent polling suggests very few African-Americans are planning to participate in South Carolina’s Republican primary. CNN’s survey results did not find enough respondents planning to vote in the South Carolina primary to break out their results by voter preference. And in the 2012 GOP primary, of nearly 600,000 total participants, fewer than 12,000 were nonwhite, according to the South Carolina state election commission.
That number is more than a reflection of black dissonance from conservative platforms and candidates; it is a microcosm of the lack of political participation from black folks at large. According to the United States Election Project, black voter turnout has trailed that of white voters for six out of the last eight presidential elections – with the elections of Barack Obama being the exceptions in 2008 and 2012.
But look closer at the trends for black voters during the most important years for HBCUs – mid-term elections.
The mid-term elections, which typically yield lower voter turnout but decide gubernatorial, state and federal congressional seats in many states, show that black voters are dangerously absent from deciding these critical races. In the race for these seats, which decide federal and state appropriations to HBCUs, seats on executive boards for public HBCUs and districting for local voting, black voters are outpaced by white voters in every election dating back to 1986.
In the 36 states with mid-term or non-presidential election year voting, more than a third have HBCUs. And while states like North Carolina, Florida and Louisiana usually feature heavy HBCU student and alumni activism during mid-term elections, other states and HBCU communities completely drop the ball on candidates and initiatives with far greater impact on black college sustainability.
So while we debate the interest and appearances of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders at HBCUs across the country, and our nervousness grows about the possibility of a Donald Trump nomination, the truth is that none of these candidates matter more than the seats we fail to fill with HBCU interests in mind.
Neither Clinton, Sanders, or any other presidential choice will create substantive change for black colleges short of an Act of God or a real executive order, but governors and state legislators sit at the right hand of the support which matters most to our students and campuses.
HBCU students are the catalysts for voter registration and voter awareness drives in black communities across the country. If there is to be a reprioritization of how the black vote works and its value to democrats and republicans, the focus must begin with those who create policy with faster, wider-ranging impact to HBCU communities.
History says HBCUs sign off on the black vote for U.S. presidents. Maybe it is time for our communities to sway it in another direction, with more pointed political objectives and demands to save our schools.