Doug Jones, Alabama, and a Different Kind of Electorate
There’s no need for me to re-tell the story of Doug Jones’ win in Alabama’s US Senate race on Tuesday night, but it is imperative that we in Alabama recognize the historic implications of Jones’ victory— and act on them to continue making progressive changes. The national spotlight was on us for weeks as we prepared to make the choice: a twice-removed judge accused of predatory sexual behavior and proven to have radical ideas about politics and religion or a mild-mannered civil-rights lawyer who prosecuted Klansmen and focused on the issues. During that period, news reports uncovered quite a few uncomfortable matters, including this one unrelated to the election: “Alabama has the worst poverty in the developed world, UN official says.” In Alabama, we’ve lived with political dysfunction and severe poverty for most of our history, but recently, our political and economic degradation was put on display daily and worldwide. The national media spared no expense in airing our dirty laundry for us.
Notwithstanding the revelations that were news to most of the country or the oversimplified “a Democrat won in Alabama” hurrah, this race and Jones’ win have shown us some important things about Alabama and its electorate, which defy the mainstream media’s “deep red state” designation:
First, when African Americans mobilize and vote, outcomes are not “deep red.” According to post-election figures, more than 90% of African-American voters chose Doug Jones this time. Likewise, Alabama’s only Democratic and only African-American House member, Terri Sewell, represents the Black Belt region that went so heavily for Jones. Keep in mind: this is the same area where voting was made difficult by driver’s license office closures that came soon after the state’s voter ID law was passed.
Second, a majority of younger voters did not go for Roy Moore. In late November, the state’s Young Republicans chose not to support Moore, and in the December 12 election, 60% of voters ages 18 to 29 went for Jones. Turnout among younger voters was also higher than normal this time. Those facts may foreshadow a sea-change from the electorate that put Moore into the Chief Justice seat twice.
Third, Jones’ support was strongest in urban and suburban areas and across the poverty-stricken Black Belt, while Moore’s support was mainly rural and in the upper and lower thirds of the state. If you look at the colors on the county-by-county map, Alabama is not as “deep red” as one might presume.
Fourth, the number of write-ins showed that more than 20,000 voters could not support either party’s candidate. That many write-ins indicates that Alabamians will show up to the polls but want more choices. These votes also contradict the rhetorical bombast that all conservative Alabamians were going to choose “party over principle” and would rather “support a child molester than a Democrat.”
Fifth, there was the disappointing realization that 40% voter turnout is high in Alabama. While Secretary of State John Merrill predicted 25% turnout, voters showed up in numbers well above his prediction (and the criticism of his handling of the election flowed freely). Granting that some voters still on the rolls are either deceased or have moved away, turnout should still be higher than this.
Beyond my open support for Doug Jones as the candidate that I wanted to support, my mind was also focused on one other factor of national importance. With the slim majority in the US Senate, now even slimmer with Jones’ win, implementing a radical conservative agenda just became more difficult. Not only does the Senate have to work with the House to pass legislation, the Senate handles the confirmation of appointees. Without a decisive majority in the Senate, the process of confirming of federal judges with lifetime appointments becomes more of a discussion than a shoo-in. Doug Jones’ partial term in the US Senate will run through 2020, the same year that Donald Trump will be up for re-election.
Though Doug Jones’ margin of victory on Tuesday was small, he did win. It might be tempting to spend time decrying the swell of support for Roy Moore, but what shouldn’t be ignored is this: a pro-choice, pro-Second Amendment civil-rights lawyer was elected to one of Alabama’s two US Senate seats. Furthermore, Alabama’s other US senator, Richard Shelby, himself a former Democrat who switched parties, declared that voters should not support Roy Moore. We learned throughout this campaign and on election night that yes, Alabama still does have its large “deep red” contingent of people who represent or exemplify the stereotypes, but that is not the whole story. One other truth is that Tuesday’s election showcased how a significantly more progressive contingent of African Americans, younger voters, and moderate-to-liberal whites could get out and vote to send a moderate Democrat to represent Alabama in Washington, DC.
The challenge now: doing it again in 2018, in 2020, in 2022 . . .