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Analysis

Large Racial Turnout Gap Persisted in 2020 Election

70.9 percent of white voters cast ballots compared with only 58.4 percent of nonwhite voters — a disparity that will worsen with new restrictive voting laws.

August 6, 2021
voting
Justin Sullivan/Getty

In the 2020 elec­tion, voter turnout surged as more Amer­ic­ans cast ballots than in any pres­id­en­tial elec­tion in a century, despite a global pandemic. This was true for the entire elect­or­ate as well as for each racial group — more Black Amer­ic­ans voted in 2020 than any pres­id­en­tial elec­tion since 2012, and Latino Amer­ic­ans and Asian Amer­ic­ans also surpassed their previ­ous turnout records. (Unfor­tu­nately, we don’t have compar­able figures for Native Amer­ic­ans.)

These successes have been and should be celeb­rated. However, they must not be mistaken for signs that racial discrim­in­a­tion in voting is no longer an enorm­ous prob­lem, one that contin­ues to advant­age white voters to a degree that must be remedied.

The 2020 elec­tion must also be remembered for another turnout stat­istic: 70.9 percent of white voters cast ballots while only 58.4 percent of nonwhite voters did. As the graph below shows, 62.6 percent of Black Amer­ican voters, 53.7 percent of Latino Amer­ican voters, and 59.7 percent of Asian Amer­ican voters cast ballots in 2020.

There is ample evid­ence that the sorts of barri­ers being intro­duced this year dispro­por­tion­ately reduce turnout for voters of color. The gaps between white and nonwhite voters are bound to get worse. That’s why it’s neces­sary to reverse these new voting restric­tions.

Narrow­ing the gap, but only tempor­ar­ily

The differ­ence between white and nonwhite voter turnout has remained relat­ively unchanged over the last six pres­id­en­tial elec­tions, with a few notable fluc­tu­ations. In 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama was on the ballot, and turnout among Black voters in those elec­tions was higher than at any point since 1996. And in 2012, the gap between white and nonwhite voter turnout narrowed to 8 percent­age points, the lowest since 1996.

The graph below shows that after reach­ing that record low in 2012, the turnout gap expan­ded once again between white voters and nonwhite voters, reach­ing 12.6 percent­age points in the 2016 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion and 12.5 in 2020.

The graph also shows a decrease in nonwhite voter turnout between the 2008 and 2012 elec­tions. After the record turnout in 2008, many state legis­latures reacted by quickly passing a spate of new restrict­ive voting laws that made it dispro­por­tion­ately diffi­cult for voters of color to cast ballots.

In 2013, the Supreme Court used the narrow­ing of the turnout gap between white and Black voters in 2008 and 2012, as seen in the follow­ing graph, to justify gutting key protec­tions against racial discrim­in­a­tion in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That ruling in Shelby County v. Holder made it easier for states to enact restrict­ive policies.

The gaps between white voters and indi­vidual racial groups

2021 looks like 2009 in that high nonwhite voter turnout in the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion has been followed by restrict­ive voting laws, but there’s a crucial differ­ence. As the graph above indic­ates, the racial turnout gap narrowed between 2004 and 2008, but not between 2016 and 2020. The 2021 back­lash is coming at a point when the dispar­it­ies in turnout between racial groups are signi­fic­antly larger than they were in 2008 and 2012.

While the gap between nonwhite voters and white voters has stayed about the same in the 2016 and 2020 elec­tions, the gaps between white voters and voters of specific racial groups have varied. As the graph below demon­strates, the white-Asian gap narrowed signi­fic­antly, from 16.3 percent­age points in 2016 to 11.3 points last year, even as the white-Black turnout gap widened relat­ive to 2016, going from 5.9 percent­age points to 8.3 points. This is not to say that the white-Asian gap closed. As the graph makes clear, the white-Asian gap had previ­ously been very large, and although the white-Asian turnout gap reached its lowest level in at least two decades in 2020, white voter turnout was still more than 10 percent­age points higher than that of Asian Amer­ic­ans.

This narrow­ing of the white-Asian gap was offset by an increase in the white-Black turnout gap from 2016 to 2020. As the graph shows, the white-Black gap has consist­ently grown since 2012. In 2020, it reached the highest point in a pres­id­en­tial elec­tion since at least 1996.

The white-Latino turnout gap has previ­ously been very large, and the same was true in 2020. At 17.2 percent­age points, the 2020 white-Latino turnout gap was larger than the gaps between white voters and other racial groups, and it remained virtu­ally unchanged from 2016.

As noted earlier, the Census Bureau data we draw on for this analysis fails to give us insight into the relat­ive turnout of another group regu­larly impacted by discrim­in­at­ory voting laws: Native Amer­ic­ans. However, we do know from the National Congress of Amer­ican Indi­ans that registered voters in this group have a lower turnout rate than other racial groups and face unique diffi­culties access­ing the ballot box along with the ones faced by other nonwhite Amer­ic­ans.

2008 back­lash versus today

Like the back­lash after high turnout in 2008, we are now exper­i­en­cing another wave of restrict­ive voting laws, along with Brnovich v. Demo­cratic National Commit­tee, another Supreme Court ruling that weak­ens the Voting Rights Act and will make chal­len­ging racially discrim­in­at­ory voting laws even harder. This back­lash, however, does not come on the heels of the narrow­est racial turnout gap in a gener­a­tion. This time, it follows a racial turnout gap that remained steady and even grew for Black Amer­ic­ans.

Across the United States, polit­ical organ­izers success­fully mobil­ized communit­ies of color in 2020. But the record-break­ing over­all turnout was not enough to close the racial turnout gap. And in the after­math of the Supreme Court’s Brnovich decision in, the Voting Rights Act’s protec­tions for racial minor­it­ies are weaker than ever. It is imper­at­ive to stop the new restrict­ive voting laws and provide tools to fight race discrim­in­a­tion in voting.

Note: Through­out this analysis, we divide the estim­ated number of ballots cast by eligible voters (the estim­ated citizen popu­la­tion above the age of 18) for each race from Table 4(B) for 2006–2020, Table 4(A) for 2000–2004 and 1996, and Table 4 for 1998.