Three reasons Doug Jones is Alabama’s first Democratic US senator since 1992

Three reasons Doug Jones is Alabama’s first Democratic US senator since 1992

Despite voter suppression tactics, black Alabamians turned out at historic rates.

Black Americans make up a full 27 percent of the total population in Alabama, according to US Census data – more than twice the national rate of 13 percent. The state’s politics, however, has remained ruby red for decades, thanks both to the hyperconservative politics of the white majority, and to a long history of voter suppression tactics that disenfranchised what should be a powerful voting bloc in Alabama.

Last night, however, Democrat Doug Jones was elected to the US Senate, and black Alabamians were the primary reason why: Jones won 93% percent of black male voters, and 98% of black female voters, who together comprised 28% of the vote total. Meaning they were, just slightly, overrepresented among voters. This would be remarkable in any state in any year, but in Alabama, where voter suppression has been a thing for decades, it could almost qualify as a holiday miracle. Black Alabamians did not just have to contend with the apathy ingrained through decades of disenfranchisement, but also strict voter ID laws, a series of DMV office closures “concentrated in the black belt” of the state – which makes it more difficult for black Alabamians to get drivers’ licenses – and laws against early voting and same-day registration. There were also some reports of people either not being permitted to vote, or being persuaded or intimidated against voting, for various reasons: inactivation, police showing up at polling stations, long lines.

At Vox, German Lopez explores what’s true and not true about voter suppression in Alabama.

Just enough voters chose to write in other candidates.

Before Jones’s upset last night, Alabama had not had a Democratic senator since 1992. That Democrat, by the way, was current Alabama senator Richard Shelby, who switched parties in 1994 and whose TV appearances the day before this election likely played a decisive role in Jones’s victory: Shelby blasted Roy Moore, admitted that he’d written in another Republican, and encouraged Alabama voters to do the same thing.

Jones won last night’s election by 20,715 votes. There were 22,819 votes for write-in candidates. That is striking. And just to provide a little bit more context: in the last six elections, the average number of write-in votes has been 5,571. If you take out 2014, the year Jeff Sessions ran unopposed and write-in candidates accumulated 22,484 votes, then the average is actually 2,189. Meaning last night’s write-in total was more than 1,000 percent of the average.

Two words: Roy Moore.

The former state Supreme Court justice was, possibly, the only Republican candidate who could lose to a Democrat in Alabama. Moore was already controversial heading into the contest, but was quickly saddled with numerous allegations of predatory behavior against teenage girls. He struggled to fight back against these accusations, even contradicting himself at one point, and in the final week of the election, he basically stayed home, appearing just twice in public. Meanwhile, Jones, whose campaign was flush with millions of dollars, ran ad after ad after ad, and campaigned with high-profile Democrats like Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ). If Moore was a particularly weak GOP candidate, Jones was a particularly strong Democratic one: he ran as a moderate willing to work across the aisle, and he’s got a serious civil rights pedigree, having successfully prosecuted two KKK members who attacked a black church with dynamite in 1963 (that case, by the way, wasn’t tried until the 90s).

The data bears this out: as the Washington Post reports, “every single county [in Alabama] swung left compared to 2016, with some moving more than 15 points.” Moore lost 12 counties that Trump won in last year’s election, and “underperformed Trump’s results by 14 percentage points in the north and central region, by nine points in the Black Belt and by 11 points in southern Alabama.” At the same time Moore was slumping, Jones was surging: he nearly matched Hillary Clinton’s vote total, which is utterly remarkable for an off-year, down-ballot election.

James Hohmann observes in the Post’s Daily 202 blog that “Alabamians, black and white, did not want to be embarrassed,” and cites exit poll data confirming this:

  • Jones won college graduates by 11 points, and tied Moore in support among white women with college degrees.
  • Jones won among 45-and-under Alabamians by 22 points, highlighting the quickly growing generational divide.

The business community, in particular, feared the tarnished image of Alabama that would come from a Moore victory: ahead of the election, businesses were “concerned that [Moore] could hurt the state’s economy,” according to The Hill. In fact, a major motivating factor for Sen. Shelby’s TV appearances was his business-friendly agenda, and his fear that a Moore victory could damage the deeply pro-business image of Alabama he’s cultivated over decades.

header image: "doug jones at Saturn," open minded in alabama / flickr

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