On Wednesday the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that determined which jurisdictions received increased federal oversight of their election procedures. Prior to the ruling in Shelby County v. Holder (summary here), states and counties with low voter turnout or registration during the 1960s, and a history of discriminatory election practices, needed to receive “preclearance” prior to changing any laws or regulations dealing with the electoral process. As the court warned in Northwest Austin Municipal Util. Dist. No. One v. Holder (2009), use of a coverage formula based on election results from 40 years ago “raise[s] serious constitutional questions,” culminating in the present ruling’s call for Congress to “fashion a coverage formula grounded in current conditions” rather than “40-year-old facts having no logical relation to the present day.”
In this post, I address the “present day” turnout situation, making use of a nationwide individual-level database of turnout records, compiled by Catalist, LLC. Focusing on the gap between African-American and non-Hispanic white turnout rates, I’ll show that recent state-level election results appear to back up the Court’s assertion that black voter turnout is often not substantially lower, relative to whites, in southern states. However, the narrow focus on state-level figures hides the fact that higher black voter turnout may actually be associated with VRA-mandated redistricting, instead of a robust sea-change in Southern politics.
First, do covered jurisdictions in the South still display the same pattern of low African-American participation that appeared in the 1960s? In most Southern states, citizens are asked to indicate their race when they register to vote. Outside of the South, where race is not on the registration form, Catalist estimates the race of every registrant via census block demographic data and name matching. (I discuss the validity of these estimates here.) In the figure below, I subtract the black voter turnout rate from the non-Hispanic white voter turnout rate for the 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2012 general elections. States subject to the coverage formula struck down in Shelby have borders outlined in blue. (Though I have not indicated them, portions of six other states, such as North Carolina, are also covered via the coverage formula struck by the court. A full listing ishere.)