Do D.C. census data herald the end of the black electorate?

UPDATED 6:45 P.M.

After detailed census data were released last week for the District, most discussed was that fact that the city’s black population was just barely holding onto the majority status it has held for more than 50 years.

But in terms of the District’s electorate, it appears that the black majority might have already disappeared.

According to 2010 Census figures, only 47 percent of District residents 18 and over identified themselves as non-Hispanic African Americans. That compares to the 55.7 percent who so identified themselves in 2000. Meanwhile, the proportion of non-Hispanic whites of voting age rose from 31.8 percent to 38.3 percent. The voting-age Hispanic population grew modestly, from 7.3 percent to 8.5 percent. Those 18 and over identifying themselves as multiracial rose slightly, from 1.6 percent to 1.9 percent.

Caveats galore here: The census data in no way correspond to who is actually registered to vote in the District. While it would be fabulous to know how rates of registration vary among various demographic groups, neither the Census Bureau nor the Board of Elections and Ethics keeps that sort of data. Here’s the best I can do — a comparison of BOEE voter registration figures:


From January 2003 (the earliest data readily available from the BOEE) to this month, voter registration has increased 25.6 percent citywide, well outpacing population growth.

Notably, the biggest registration gain took place in Ward 8, the most heavily African American ward and the only ward to lose population since 2000. Ward 2, which saw the greatest population growth in that period, actually saw lower-than-average registered-voter growth. Both wards remain under-registered for their populations.

Long story short: It’s hard to draw any broad conclusions about how and when the demographic changes will affect citywide politics. As last year’s mayoral race showed, a candidate alienates black voters at his or her peril. That said, in 2012 and beyond, the racial mathematics for a non-black citywide candidate stand to be much improved.

Much will depend on the political engagement of two very disparate groups: poor, largely black residents and wealthy, largely white newcomers — neither of which have traditionally been particularly interested in participating in city politics.

UPDATE, 6:45 P.M.: Keith Ivey makes the valuable point that the Democratic primary is typically the decisive election in District politics. Thus he asks: Isn’t the Democratic electorate more African-American than the electorate at large?

Here’s a version of the above chart, but for registered Democrats only:


So Ivey has a point.

Here’s one admittedly crude analysis: For the electorate at large, voters in the traditionally “black wards” (4, 5, 7 and 8 — 228,013) contain 4.9 percent more voters than the “white wards” (1, 2, 3 and 6 — 216,773). But for the Democratic electorate the black wards contain 18.2 percent more voters (191,609) than the white wards (156,700).

In other words: The Democratic party’s overall dominance on city politics combined with black voters’ relatively overwhelming preference for Democrats has the effect of amplifying the importance of the African-American vote. Barring the emergence of a candidate who can win a general election without a “D” next to his or her name, that doesn’t look to change anytime soon.

Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.

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