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Can Dems Reclaim the South? Once Solidly GOP, Virginia and NC Emerging as Battleground States

StoryOctober 30, 2008
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Four years ago, President Bush swept the Southern states, but polls show Barack Obama could win North Carolina, Virginia and Florida. We speak to Chris Kromm, executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: With the election four days away, North Carolina has emerged as a key battleground state for the first time in decades. Senator Barack Obama is attempting to become the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state since 1976. Obama campaigned in Raleigh, North Carolina on Wednesday. He is scheduled to campaign today in Sarasota, Florida and Virginia Beach, Virginia.

Republican John McCain held multiple rallies in Florida on Wednesday and campaigned in Fayetteville, North Carolina on Tuesday. Four years ago, President Bush swept the Southern states, but polls show Barack Obama could win North Carolina, Virginia and Florida.

AMY GOODMAN: Our next guest has been closely following the presidential race in the South. Chris Kromm is executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies, publisher of the journal Southern Exposure. He writes for the blog “Facing South” at south. He joins us in Raleigh.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Chris. Talk about what’s happening now in the states that have early voting, a state of emergency declared by the Republican governor, Governor Crist of Florida, saying he wants the polling stations opened for twelve hours a day right through the election, including Saturday and Sunday, and some local elections officials balking and saying they’re not going to do it.

CHRIS KROMM: Well, this is clearly a historic election. And for the first time in decades, key states in the South are in play and could decide the election this year. So I think everybody is paying attention to what’s happening in the South. And I think it’s — what we’re seeing is a train wreck, where an easily anticipated record turnout across the South, people turning out in record numbers, registering in record numbers, but for some reason, it seems election officials in many of these key Southern states have still been unprepared for the deluge of voters.

And you saw that most clearly in Florida, this key swing state with twenty-seven Electoral College votes, people waiting in line four hours, six hours in Miami-Dade County. And this is a big problem. It means disenfranchisement for people who have to work, who have families to take care of, if they have health problems. People just can’t stand in line that long. And finally, after early voting started on October 20th, it wasn’t until yesterday that the state took action and decided this is a state of emergency, and they needed to extend both the hours and the polling locations to accommodate this record turnout.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Chris Kromm, this exactly was going to be my question, because these long lines, when clearly the — while you’re getting many people voting, it’s not as if it’s actually Election Day. The problem is the number of polling places that are open for early voting in many of these states. How many states are doing early voting for the first time this year, as opposed to having done it in previous elections?

CHRIS KROMM: Well, a lot of these states, they’re coming online for the first time, of doing early voting. And that’s the deep irony about this. This was a reform that a lot of people really pushed for, because they were worried about the long lines. Some people may remember, in 2004, there was a lot of speculation, and some pretty hard evidence, that in a state like Ohio, long lines could have really made the difference. One estimate has it that up to 129,000 voters in the state of Ohio just walked away, because the lines were too long in places like Cleveland and other major metro areas. And that was a state that’s decided by a few tens of thousand voters less than that. So, this is a sort of thing that can change an election. People don’t understand that long lines and long waits, that’s a voting rights issue.

And what it gets to is whether or not a state is prepared. And the whole idea behind early voting was to take the pressure off of Election Day. People had seen those long lines on Election Day, and the whole idea is, if you can do early voting, you can take some of the pressure off. But it still seems that election officials didn’t anticipate or they weren’t prepared, even though it seemed early in the spring we knew that there was going to be record turnout. But for some reason, these election officials just didn’t allocate enough resources and spaces to accommodate these voters.

AMY GOODMAN: Isn’t it also a great way for people to go to the polls early in the states where they can, in case there’s a problem, that they could go back, like if they say, for example, that they aren’t registered, that they can begin to deal? Can they come back if they’re turned away once?

CHRIS KROMM: Oh, exactly. And this isn’t to say that people shouldn’t try early voting, and we don’t want to scare people into thinking they shouldn’t go try to vote because there’ll be a long line. You can always check online. There’s a number of websites that are cropping that will tell you what the waits are at different early voting sites. So people should definitely keep at it.

But this criticism is directed at the election officials. And so, for example, in Florida in 2005, a Republican-controlled legislature pushed through legislation limiting the number of early voting sites and the hours that they could operate in that state. And a lot of people are saying that that is the reason why we’re seeing the long lines today. So this is a question of policy. You can avoid these kind of problems if you have the right policy in place to accommodate the voters. And that’s why it took an executive order, the governor of Florida, Crist, Charlie Crist, saying it was a state of emergency; you needed that to change it in the state of Florida. And now you’re looking at other states. The same issue is happening in Georgia. And right now the secretary of state and the governor are saying that — they’re throwing their hands up in the air and saying they can’t do anything.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I’d like to add that it’s not just in the South. Reports here in New York City and New York State in the past few days indicate that election officials don’t have enough people assigned for Election Day for the expected surge of voters, and they’re looking at a possible major, major problem here in terms of huge lines on Election Day here in New York State. It just seems to be almost that the country got used to the fact that about 50 percent of the population was actually voting in elections, and if it gets up to 60 or 70 percent, there seems to be almost like a meltdown in the system’s ability to be able to handle that many voters.

CHRIS KROMM: It is, and you do see it across the country. We focus on the South, obviously. And I think there’s a unique history of how this affects voters in the South. Clearly, I think, all the research suggests that when you have these long lines, the impact of disenfranchisement is especially hard on working families, African American voters, Latino voters. And I think that’s why you especially see, for example, the Obama campaign is particularly concerned about the impact this could have in a close swing state like Florida or Virginia, where you know that it’s going to be decided by — you know, it could be tens of thousands of votes — of course, in 2000, decided by 530 — over just over 500 votes. So this is the sort of thing that could have a very big impact.

And it does get to a bigger issue, that the United States tries to position itself across the world as a beacon of democracy, but historically elections are very under-funded. And you find out every election season that our elections system is actually fairly fragile and that all it takes is a little glitch, and you suddenly find out problems that are the sort of things that could sway an election.

AMY GOODMAN: Chris Kromm, talk about your own state. Talk about North Carolina. Very close. What are you seeing right now? Obama was just there. You’re speaking to us from Raleigh.

CHRIS KROMM: That’s right, one of the closest states in the country. We produce at Facing South — if you want to go to our website, we call it the Southern Swingability Index, of what are the tightest states. And North Carolina is clearly going to be one of the closest states in the country this year. It’s less than two percentage points between Barack Obama and John McCain.

And that’s where you find issues like voting glitches, or another issue we have in our state is an issue where states — the ballot has a somewhat confusing design, where when you vote straight ticket in our state, it doesn’t include the vote for president. You have to vote for president separately. And what that ends up doing is confusing a lot of voters, especially first-time voters. And so, of course, this year, you see this major turnout, a skyrocketing of new registrations and new voter turnout. It’s these voters who are most vulnerable to being confused by this ballot. And what it leads to is what’s called undervotes, people who submit a ballot, they go to the polls on Election Day, but then they don’t register a vote for president, because they get tricked up by the presidential race being separate from the straight ticket voting. And you’re already hearing these anecdotal stories of people coming out of the polls crying. The whole reason they came out — it’s like “I came out to vote for president today, and I just found out that I missed ticking that box.”

Now, the state, to its credit, is doing a great job trying to educate voters about this. A lot of nonprofit groups are doing the same thing. But by our estimates, in 2004, upwards of 50,000, 60,000, maybe even 70,000 voters didn’t register a vote for president because of this confusion with the ballot, again. So that’s the sort of thing in a tight race that could determine the outcome of an election.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And you mention that North Carolina is so close. Why? Since it’s been so reliably a Republican state in presidential elections for decades now, what’s been the change that has made it possible for North Carolina, places like Virginia and obviously Florida, to be so much in play?

CHRIS KROMM: Well, I think, overall, the direction of the South really is changing. I think a lot of the people who look at the South and kind of write it off as being a place that’s not going to be in play really aren’t paying attention to the way the demographics of the region are changing, the growth of urban areas, the changing racial makeup of the South. It’s just becoming a different region. You especially see this in places like Virginia and North Carolina. Florida, of course, has its own dynamic. And these states, I think, every year, you’re going to see them becoming more battlegrounds, just because of the way they’re changing, and especially this year.

I think what you’re seeing is kind of a perfect storm of factors. On one hand, you have a candidate like Barack Obama, who is just inspiring the base, in this state, of Democratic voters like no other candidate has in decades. In this state, we’ve had 1.6 million early voters already turning out to the polls, a record turnout. 28 percent of those are African American voters. It’s this surge of voters at the base of the Democratic Party. And I think only a candidate like Barack Obama really could have mobilized the base in that way.

On the other hand, you have a candidate like John McCain, who I think, in a way, has demobilized his base, because you have Christian conservatives who don’t identify with him as much, so you don’t have that base as activated.

You had, on top of that, issues like the economy. The North Carolina economy has been devastated this year. Two of our biggest and growing sectors are manufacturing and finance, two sectors that have been absolutely hammered this year. Unemployment is skyrocketing; it’s about to go over eight percent, one of the hardest-hit countries in the — states in the country. And that is really pushing especially — one of the most interesting polls I found is white moderate voters in the mountains, who were so disillusioned with the direction of the economy that you started seeing them gravitating towards Barack Obama for president.

And I think it’s this perfect storm of factors, and then you add on things like we’re the only state in the South that has same-day voter registration, which means today, if you haven’t registered to vote yet, you can still go and register and cast your vote at the same time in North Carolina. And that’s the sort of thing that’s going to bring out lots of voters.

AMY GOODMAN: Unemployment in North Carolina? And in early voting, how many African Americans have come out? How many young people have come out? Do you think the numbers are going to be as overwhelming as has been predicted?

CHRIS KROMM: Well, right now, it’s on course to be that way. And we don’t know how much early voting is going to measure up with what happens at the end of the day. But if that is any indication, there have been 1.6 million early voters. That’s eclipsed — we eclipsed the 2004 early voting within the first few days in this state. 28 percent of those have been African American voters, when the percentage of the population that’s African American is 20 percent, so a hugely — a big, disproportionate surge in the African American vote in the state. A third of those voters have been under forty-five, so, again, a surge in this youth vote. And that was a real critical issue, too, because people were saying that Barack Obama was banking on this youth vote, but would they really turn out? Historically, that’s been a base, a voting base, that has been really up for question, whether or not they’ll actually turn out on Election Day. So far, the evidence is, with early voting in North Carolina, they are turning out. So, we’ll see how that measures up to the final tally on Election Day. But I promise you, it’s going to be one of the closest states in the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Not since Jimmy Carter has North Carolina voted for a Democratic presidential candidate.

CHRIS KROMM: That’s absolutely right. And there’s some speculation that the 1992 election with Bill Clinton, it wasn’t actually that close, but it was close enough that people speculated whether issues like the confusing ballot, because there were so many undervotes in that race where the president didn’t get counted, whether that’s something that could have made a difference. But there’s no question.

AMY GOODMAN: Chris Kromm, thanks so much for being with us. We’ll link to your website at ours. He’s director of Institute for Southern Studies. Again, on Election Day, we’ll do a five-hour special starting 7:00 p.m. Eastern time; the next morning, two hours, the morning after.

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