In early 2021, Georgia enacted Senate Bill 202, an omnibus law containing a number of provisions restricting access to voting. When turnout went up in the state’s federal primary this year, some commentators suggested that this increase in turnout undermined any claim that the new law was really interfering with anyone’s right to vote. That is not a fair conclusion — we cannot know the effect of a new law simply by looking at the topline turnout numbers, especially in a primary. For one thing, voter turnout is impacted by many variables, and there were numerous reasons to expect high turnout in Georgia in 2022, including massive increases in campaign spending.
But an analysis of overall voter turnout leaves something else out too. Historically, even when overall turnout has gone up, the gap between turnout by white voters and nonwhite voters has persisted. In fact, in recent years, that gap has grown in many parts of the country. Research has shown that restrictive voting policies often harm communities of color the most.
Moreover, the Department of Justice and a number of organizations are suing Georgia based on the theory that S.B. 202 deliberately targeted Black voters. And in the last 25 years, there have been more violations of the law against racial discrimination in voting in Georgia than in any other state except Texas. So while turnout numbers alone cannot tell us what effect S.B. 202 has had, even a surface-level assessment of turnout in Georgia’s primary should include an examination of the racial turnout gap.
Our research reveals that even as primary turnout surged in Georgia, so too did the white-Black racial turnout gap. In the figure below, we plot the turnout rate for Black and white Georgians in each state primary going back to 2014. With the exception of 2020, white turnout exceeded Black turnout — but it was wider this year than any year in at least a decade. While 28 percent of Georgia’s white citizens aged 18 and older voted, that number was just 22 percent for Black Georgians — a 6 percentage point gap. In previous years, that gap never exceeded 3.5 percentage points. This is especially notable because there were Black candidates near the top of the ticket this year in both the Republican and Democratic primaries, which has been correlated with a significant increase in Black turnout in previous studies.
The 2020 turnout numbers for both groups were an outlier in 2020: the presidential primary fell on the same day as other primaries that year, driving turnout up. Regardless of whether we include 2020, however, the facts remain the same: in no year in the past decade has white turnout been so much higher than Black turnout as it was this year.
Higher engagement in the Republican primary this year probably contributes in part to the expanding racial turnout gap, as Republicans are disproportionately white. However, it’s unlikely this was the sole driver of the increased racial turnout gap for two reasons. First, turnout went up considerably in both the Democratic and Republican primaries. Second, the open primary system in Georgia allowed Democrats to vote in the Republican primary. The number of Democrats participating in the Republican party was apparently quite high, leading some Republican legislators to push for an end to open primaries.
So, it is true that turnout was relatively high across the board in this year’s Georgia primaries. But while Black turnout seemed to be closing in on white turnout in the last few primaries and even surpassed white turnout in 2020, that trend reversed sharply in 2022. We are not saying that S.B. 202 was the cause of this trend reversal, though it’s certainly possible that it was a contributing factor, as one early analysis makes clear. Instead, what this analysis illustrates is that a single, simplistic number — overall turnout — is a poor proxy for measuring the accessibility of the ballot in a given state. And given that primary voters are the least likely to be impacted by new voting restrictions, the high level of turnout in the primary tells us very little about what to expect this fall.
What we do know is that high turnout does not spell equal participation among white and Black voters in Georgia.
Notes on Methodology: We rely on L2’s racial categorizations throughout. In Georgia, L2 uses voters’ self-identified race when available. For the set of Georgia voters who do not self-report race when they register to vote, L2 uses proprietary algorithms to estimate race and ethnicity.
For each year’s primary, we use a snapshot of the registered voter file dated shortly after the primary election. The numerator is calculated by summing the number of ballots cast by self-identified white and Black voters, and the denominator comes from the Census Bureau’s five-year estimates of the citizen voting-age population (CVAP) ending with each year. The 2022 denominator is the CVAP from 2020, the latest year available.