The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Black voters may play an outsize role in key Southern Senate races

Historically, when the federal government enforces the 15th Amendment, it means more competitive races in the South. Today, those involve Black candidates.

Clockwise from top left: Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.). (Ben Gray/AP); Cheri Beasley, Democratic Senate candidate in North Carolina. (Allison Lee Isley for The Washington Post); Herschel Walker, GOP Senate candidate in Georgia. (Megan Varner/Getty Images); State Rep. Krystle Matthews, Democratic Senate candidate in South Carolina. (Jeffrey Collins/AP); Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.). (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Across the South, several key Senate races hinge on the support of Black voters for Black candidates.

In North Carolina, Democrat Cheri Beasley aims to become the state’s first Black U.S. senator. And in Georgia and South Carolina, both major party candidates for Senate are Black. Sen. Tim Scott (R) faces Democratic challenger state Rep. Krystle Matthews in South Carolina, while Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) and Republican Herschel Walker will square off in Georgia in a race that could determine control of the Senate.

Collectively, these contests exemplify the importance of the Black vote in the Deep South — especially during the rare occasions in Southern history when the region has had a genuine, two-party competitive system of politics. Such systems have empowered Black voters, and in each historical moment when this has happened, their support has been key to victory in Southern elections.

History reveals that the South’s most vibrant periods of democracy have occurred when the right to vote was most vociferously guaranteed by the Constitution and the federal government.

The first of these periods came during Reconstruction after the Civil War when the 15th Amendment extended the franchise to Black men. The 1867 Reconstruction Act, among other things, required all Southern states to rewrite their constitutions to codify Black male suffrage. And federal troops were stationed in the South to enforce Black voting rights.

Seizing on the opportunity provided by these changes, the radical wing of the Republican Party built a coalition of Black men, Northern Republicans who moved to the South to assist with Reconstruction and a smattering of White Southerners sympathetic to the Republican cause.

The Republican Party became genuinely competitive in many Southern states, offering a powerful counterbalance to the usual dominance of white supremacist Democrats in the region. Many Southern states long controlled by proslavery leaders witnessed competitive elections for at least a decade. And in many of these states, Black Republicans played a major role in governance and politics. South Carolina’s state legislature, for example, included a majority Black State House in 1868 — a first in American history. The region also contributed critical electoral college votes to help Republican Ulysses S. Grant secure the presidency in 1868 and 1872.

Alarmed by the threat posed by this expansion of democracy, White Southerners seeking to preserve the region’s racist caste system responded with a variety of tactics. They introduced “colorblind” rules and tests that limited the Black franchise without technically violating the 15th Amendment, administered discriminatory fees for accessing polling places, stuffed ballot boxes and used violence to shatter this brief moment of biracial democracy, ripping the right to vote away from almost all Black Southerners for close to a century.

Between the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s and the civil rights gains of the 1960s, Black southerners continued to play a central role in politics, though not as voting participants. Instead, Southern Democrats fear-mongered about Black southerners to drum up White opposition to racial equality, thereby maintaining a stranglehold on the region.

Black southerners fought for voting rights during this period and scored some successes, including the 1944 Supreme Court ruling in Smith v. Allwright, which banned the all-White primary. But those successes were largely limited to Black political participation in urban centers such as Atlanta.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act changed that. It promised to reestablish a vibrant multiracial democracy in the South for the first time in nearly a century. After its passage, Black Americans across the South registered to vote and participated in elections in record numbers. This triggered a significant increase in competitive races between the two major parties, with Black voters now holding the power to swing elections. The region’s political leaders could no longer afford to ignore — or directly antagonize — Black voters, without paying a political cost.

But it was not until the early 1970s, and the advent of “New South” Democratic governors, that Black voters began to play a decisive role in national and statewide elections in the region.

In 1971, Ebony magazine said that: “Perhaps in no facet of life in The South Today have blacks forced as significant a change as in politics.” And Southern politicians knew it. In 1970, Democrat John C. West of South Carolina ran on a platform that acknowledged the gains of the civil rights movement. His victory over Republican Albert Watson, a protege of fellow Democrat-turned-Republican Strom Thurmond, showed that running an explicitly racist campaign in the South would no longer work. In neighboring Georgia, newly elected Gov. Jimmy Carter confirmed in his 1971 inaugural address that he would work for both Black and White Georgians, declaring “I say to you quite frankly that the time for racial discrimination is over.”

Since then, Black voters have continued to play a key role in the changing politics in the South.

They became the crucial bedrock of the Democratic Party in the region. As Black voting support became more important for Democrats, White voters completed a slow — but steady — migration to the Republican Party. It was completed by the 2000 presidential election, when for the first time in history the entire South went Republican; and solidified by the 2002 midterm elections, when Georgia elected its first Republican-led state government since Reconstruction.

Yet, over the past half-decade, the new Republican Party’s increasing struggles with White suburban voters, combined with the growth of Southern cities like Atlanta, Raleigh and Charlotte, and Black voters’ deep loyalty to the New Deal-rooted Democratic Party, have reinvigorated two-party competition in parts of the South. Once again, Georgia and North Carolina especially are seeing highly competitive elections, in which overwhelming Black support and high Black turnout are crucial for Democratic hopes.

Republicans, too, have now turned to the Black vote in the hope of reducing Democrats’ dominance just enough to win. They claim they are making inroads with Black voters because Joe Biden’s 2020 support among Black Americans decreased by three percentage points from Hillary Clinton’s record margin in 2016. Even so, the nearly ironclad support Biden received from Black voters in key battleground states proved critical in his victory.

The loyalty of Southern Black voters to Democrats since the New Deal may be best exemplified by a July poll from 11Alive, an Atlanta news station, which showed Warnock securing 85 percent of the Black vote to Walker’s 5 percent. Warnock and Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee for governor, have hinged significant parts of their campaign strategy on turning out Black voters across Georgia, including some who sat out previous races.

Black voters and activists, however, worry that new restrictions on voting rights and voting registration may curtail this hard-fought influence. States such as Florida have passed laws placing new restrictions on voting and voter registration that disproportionately affect Black people.

For example, in 2021, Senate Bill 90 made it a crime to drop off more than two ballots from nonfamily members at drop boxes. A federal judge ruled that this was discriminatory toward Black and Latino Americans, as drop boxes are a convenient way for members of those communities to vote without having to worry about long lines on Election Day. The judge explained that, “at some point, when the Florida legislature passes law after law disproportionately burdening Black voters, this court can no longer accept that the effect is incidental.”

Georgia’s Senate Bill 202 did something similar. Drop boxes for votes can only be made available indoors during the hours of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Republican officials blamed drop boxes for the nonexistent “voter fraud” that, in the eyes of many Donald Trump supporters, delivered the state to Biden in 2020. They’ve pursued such efforts despite zero evidence to substantiate such claims.

These, and other laws designed to crack down on purported “voter fraud” are a product of the way the Supreme Court has weakened the Voting Rights Act over the last decade in cases like Shelby County v. Holder and Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee. These rulings, and the laws that have been passed in their wake, increase the risk that for the third time in American history, the federal government’s unwillingness to enforce the 15th Amendment could weaken two party competition, Black political influence and democracy itself — not only in the South but throughout the nation.