In December, I wrote an article titled “Evidence That the Jim Crow Era Endures for Older Black Voters in the South.” The article, based on voter registration and census data in Georgia, noted that older black voters who reached voting age before the passage of the Voting Rights Act were significantly less likely to be registered to vote compared with whites of similar age and black voters who reached voting age in the years afterward. The implication, I wrote, was that black registration and turnout rates were suppressed by the lingering effects of Jim Crow laws, which disenfranchised African-American voters. The evidence underlying that statement is research suggesting that voting is a habit. Therefore, someone with fewer opportunities to register and vote should be less likely to vote than a similar person who had more opportunities.
It is somewhat more complicated. Data and analysis from four political scientists suggest that the lower rate of registration among older black voters might not be because of disenfranchisement under Jim Crow.
Ryan Enos, Andrew Hall and James Feigenbaum of Harvard and Anthony Fowler of the University of Chicago looked at the question using a different data set, the Catalist voter file. Catalist data has a big advantage over state voter files: It includes estimates for the race of every registered voter. That’s useful because only a handful of states, none of them outside the formerly segregated South, ask voters about their race. The Catalist data allows a comparison between black voters in and outside the South that isn’t possible with official voter registration data.