Racial bloc voting and political mobilization in South Carolina


Over the last quarter century, major changes in Southern social structure have been accompanied by more positive white attitudes on racial issues. Has voting behavior reflected these changes? The question has important consequences. The degree of racial bloc voting and political mobilization often determines outcomes not only of elections but also of voting rights lawsuits. Data from 130 black/white elections in South Carolina were used to determine rates of racial polarization and mobilization. Bloc voting remained high. Other variables had little explanatory power. Some secondary factors helped explain variations in the generally high levels of polarization by race.

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    Thanks to Election Data Services for data analysis, under my direction, for elections between 1980 and 1983; and to Thomas Keeling and Ellen Weber, Department of Justice, and Dennis Hayes and Adell Adams, NAACP, for assistance in supplying data.

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    This decision rule modestly (< 5%) decreased white and increased black RBV. It provides a conservative measure of white RBV.

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    See James W. Loewen,Social Science in the Courtroom (Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath, 1982), pp. 189–190. Some commentators have criticized the use of ecological regression to determine RBV. Thernstrom (1987: 207) says “expert witnesses cannot definitively answer the question of who has voted for whom, much less why.” Jacobs and O’Rourke claim “the only way to know with a high degree of certainty how individuals have voted is by asking them”; they go on to recommend exit polling (1986: 320). However, exit polling reveals only how individualssay they have voted. If these critics mean to invoke the ecological fallacy, we note that ecological regression does not commit this fallacy so long as its central assumption holds. Ecological regression assumes minimal correlated error—here, that the rate of RBV shows little correlation with the independent variable, percent white in the precinct. Several pieces of evidence support this assumption: correlation coefficients were extremely high; curvilinearity was slight; homogeneous precincts analysis confirmed ecological regression results; and analysis at two different levels, county and precinct, yielded similar results.

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    If we define low white RBV as < 60 percent of white voters voting for white candidate(s), then 4 of these 130 contests qualify: SC Senate District 7 Seat 1, 1972 Democratic primary (55.9%); Charleston County Council District #2, 1978 general (58.0%); SC House District 111, 1980 Primary (34.7%), and SC House District 102, 1982 General (52.8%). I am working with local experts in South Carolina to understand these four elections.

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    Garrow tested in South Carolina Salamon and Van Evera’s conclusion from Mississippi that fear of white retaliation deterred black turnout (Lester Salamon and S. Van Evera, “Fear, Apathy, and Discrimination,”American Political Science Review, 67 (1973): 1290–1299). His data strongly supported their hypothesis for 1970 but offered much less support in each subsequent year through 1976. This volatility convinced him that their fear model was probably wrong, so he believed that rapid changes in socioeconomic characteristics of the black population could explain his new patterns. However, demographic variables changed more slowly than fear in this period. Owing in part to massive school desegregation in about 1970, fear did decrease markedly in the early 1970s in some counties in Mississippi and South Carolina, facilitating black political organization (Steven F. Lawson,In Pursuit of Power: Southern Blacks and Electoral Politics, 1965–1982 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985); James W. Loewen, “Afterward: Between Black and White Twenty Years Later,” inThe Mississippi Chinese: Between Black and White (Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland, 1987). Some counties where blacks had been most oppressed but were most numerous now became sites for black political mobilization. Decreased fear and increased black political organization can explain Garrow’s data.

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    Such subregional variations should finally put to rest the so-called “65% rule,” which was an appropriate finding only for the case in which it was first developed,Kirksey et al. v.Hinds County Board of Supervisors, 402 F.Supp. 658 (S.D. Miss. 1975). The proportion minority a district must be in order for the minority to have an equal chance has always been an empirical question. In Beaufort County, blacks did not even have to be in a population majority in order to have an even chance.

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    To avoid the possibility that effects from type of election or year might confound the results, analysis was confined to Democratic primaries and runoffs, 1980–84.

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Loewen, J.W. Racial bloc voting and political mobilization in South Carolina. Rev Black Polit Econ 19, 23–37 (1990). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02899930

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  • Vote Behavior
  • Political Mobilization
  • Black Candidate
  • Exit Polling
  • Bloc Vote