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Racial Turnout Gap Grew in Jurisdictions Previously Covered by the Voting Rights Act

Between 2012 and 2020, the white-Black turnout gap grew between 9.2 and 20.9 percentage points across five of the six states originally covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Published: August 20, 2021

In 2013, when Chief Justice John Roberts delivered the Supreme Court’s major­ity opin­ion in Shelby County v. Holder, he argued that the Voting Rights Act of 1965’s preclear­ance require­ment under Section 5 was no longer needed because “African-Amer­ican voter turnout has come to exceed white voter turnout in five of the six States [Alabama, Geor­gia, Louisi­ana, Missis­sippi, and South Caro­lina] origin­ally covered by §5 with a gap in the sixth State of less than one half of one percent [Virginia].” Although this was true in 2012 — and only 2012 — the white-Black turnout gap in these states reopened in subsequent years, and by 2020, white turnout exceeded Black turnout in five of the six states.

Replic­at­ing the Shelby County opin­ion meth­ods

Using the same source of census data that was used in the Shelby County opin­ion, we show that the racial turnout gap has increased in most juris­dic­tions that were previ­ously covered by preclear­ance. Racial turnout rates are calcu­lated by divid­ing the number of ballots cast by the estim­ated citizen popu­la­tion above the age of 18. This analysis was compiled from the past 24 years of general-elec­tion voter data from eight states. The states used are based on the eight states the Voting Rights Advance­ment Act (VRAA), as intro­duced in 2019, will likely cover, accord­ing to recent congres­sional testi­mony by George Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity law professor Peyton McCrary. Those states are Alabama, Flor­ida, Geor­gia, Louisi­ana, Missis­sippi, North Caro­lina, South Caro­lina, and Texas — all of which were covered in whole or in part by the preclear­ance provi­sions of the Voting Rights Act before Shelby County.

Broad conclu­sions made about the turnout of eligible Latino and Asian voters in states where they are under­rep­res­en­ted can be impre­cise due to the small sample size provided by census data. We controlled for this defi­ciency in data by only analyz­ing states’ Latino and Asian Amer­ican turnout for years that had at least 30 Latino and Asian Amer­ican eligible voters accoun­ted for. Over­all, we found that the larger the Latino and Asian Amer­ican popu­la­tion of states, the closer the size the white-nonwhite turnout gap mirrored the results of the Bren­nan Center’s exam­in­a­tion of the same gap at a nation­wide level, due to the greater repres­ent­a­tion of these under­coun­ted groups. When this wasn’t the case, the white-nonwhite gap more closely mirrored the white-Black gap.

We also believe the white-nonwhite gap may be under­es­tim­ated, as the census data we use for analysis fails to provide inform­a­tion on Native Amer­ican voter turnout, a group that is signi­fic­antly impacted by discrim­in­at­ory voting laws. 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, which provides the basis for our assump­tion.

Racial turnout gaps in juris­dic­tions to be covered by the Voting Rights Advance­ment Act

While in 2012, just before the Shelby County decision, the white-Black turnout gap was shrink­ing in the states we analyzed, and in many instances even briefly closed, this trend has reversed in the years since. In 2012, seven out of the eight states had Black voter turnout higher than that of white voters. In 2020, the reverse is true — in only one of the eight states was Black turnout higher than white turnout.

In a few states, this reversal is espe­cially alarm­ing. Louisi­ana, South Caro­lina, and Texas had higher turnout gaps in 2020 than at any point in the past 24 years. South Caro­lin­a’s white-Black turnout gap widened the most, expand­ing by a stag­ger­ing 20.9 percent­age points within the eight years since Shelby County. While Black turnout exceeded white turnout in 2012, white turnout was more than 15 percent­age points higher than Black turnout in 2020.

A similar trend can be seen in the gap between white voters and all nonwhite voters. The total white-nonwhite turnout gap has grown since 2012 in all of the eight states likely to be covered under the VRAA. There is suffi­cient data to conclude that the gap has increased for Blacks, Hispan­ics, and Asians in Flor­ida, Geor­gia, North Caro­lina, South Caro­lina, and Texas. In Alabama, Louisi­ana, and Missis­sippi, the sample sizes in the avail­able 2020 census data are too small for Hispanic and Asian voters to make much of a differ­ence in an over­all white-nonwhite turnout gap estim­a­tion that is distinct from the white-Black turnout gap in those states. Notably, North Caro­lina went from having a larger share of nonwhite voters repres­en­ted in 2012 with a white-nonwhite gap of –9.3 percent­age points to having a gap of 5.4 percent­age points, a jump of 14.7 percent­age points, far greater than the national aver­age of 4.6 percent­age points.

Over­all, we see that the growth in the racial turnout gaps between 2012 and 2020 were even starker in the states likely to be subject to preclear­ance under the VRAA than those seen nation­wide. Seven out of the eight states had white-nonwhite turnout gaps that grew more than the national rate of 4.6 percent­age points between 2012 and 2020.  And in four out of the eight states to be subject to preclear­ance under the VRAA, the white-Black turnout gap grew more than the national rate of 10.3 percent­age points from 2012 to 2020.

Expand­ing the analysis to other nonwhite groups also reveals that, even in 2012, progress on clos­ing racial turnout gaps was not as signi­fic­ant as the Shelby County decision sugges­ted. The Court only examined the white-Black turnout gap, which did tempor­ar­ily close in many states in 2012, likely due to Barack Obama being on the ballot and Black voter turnout subsequently surging. But with the excep­tion of Latino voter turnout briefly surpass­ing white turnout in Flor­ida in 2012 and Louisi­ana in 2012 and 2016, Latino voter turnout has lagged behind white voter turnout for the last 24 years in every state where those rates are meas­ur­able.

Shelby Countys after­math

In 2013, the Supreme Court sugges­ted that the clos­ing of the racial turnout gap suppor­ted the conclu­sion that the need for preclear­ance was over. As this analysis shows, in the years follow­ing the Shelby County decision, these racial turnout gaps widened once again. The reopen­ing of the racial turnout gap likely has many causes, and it is possible that the ending of the preclear­ance condi­tion has played a role. What is clear, however, is that the trends iden­ti­fied by the Supreme Court have reversed them­selves with alarm­ing speed.