“Racial Turnout Gap Has Widened With a Weakened Voting Rights Act, Study Finds”


When the Supreme Court knocked down a core part of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. argued that some of the law’s protections against racial discrimination were no longer necessary.

He wrote that the once-troubling turnout gap between white and Black voters in areas with histories of discrimination at the polls had largely disappeared, and that “the conditions that originally justified” the civil rights law’s attention to these places, mostly in the South, no longer existed.

But a new, yearslong study by the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan think tank focused on democracy and voting rights issues, suggests otherwise.

Before the decision, counties with a history of racial discrimination at the polls were required to obtain permission from the Justice Department before changing voting laws or procedures. This was known as “preclearance” under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, and it was the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder that effectively killed this part of the law.

Since that decision, the gap in turnout rates between white and nonwhite voters “grew almost twice as quickly in formerly covered jurisdictions as in other parts of the country with similar demographic and socioeconomic profiles,” the Brennan study found.

The “racial turnout gap” refers to the difference in the percentage of eligible white and nonwhite voters who cast a ballot in a given election. This gap is watched closely by voting rights groups and civil rights leaders as an indication of potentially harmful laws or procedures that could have suppressive effects on communities of color.

According to the group’s report, the turnout gap between Black and white voters in those former Section 5 counties has grown by 11 percentage points since the Shelby decision, between 2012 and 2022. The study relied on nearly one billion voter files to estimate that, had the decision never occurred, the white-Black turnout gap would have nevertheless grown, but by just six percentage points.

Though that difference may appear small, the study’s authors contend that such gaps are “potentially huge” in modern politics: Since 2012, at least 62 elections for Senate, governor and president in states with Section 5 counties were decided by under five percentage points.

“Obviously, it matters from a moral standpoint, but it also matters because the margins are significant, particularly given how close elections are around the country,” said Kareem Crayton, the senior director for voting rights and representation at the Brennan Center.

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