Poli-Sci Perspective is a weekly Wonkblog feature in which Georgetown University’s Dan Hopkins and George Washington University’s Danny Hayes and John Sides offer an empirical perspective on the issues dominating Washington. In this edition, Sides looks at race and voting in the wake of the Supreme Court decision overturning a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. For past posts in the series, head here.
Last Tuesday, a narrow Supreme Court majority struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 4 determined which parts of the country must, as stipulated by Section 5 of the VRA, submit changes in their election laws for federal approval. The formula was based on local election laws and voter registration statistics as of 1964. As the VRA was altered and expanded over the years, it still relied on these data from 1964. The Court’s majority ruled that it was outdated and unconstitutional. Chief Justice John Roberts’ opinion said, in essence, times have changed.
Most observers are skeptical that Congress has the will to craft a new formula, despite the apparent support of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). As political scientists Nate Persily and Sarah Binder have pointed out, the lopsided bipartisan votes to reauthorize the VRA in 2006 concealed significant opposition within the Republican Party.
Any revisiting of this formula has to take into account how race affects elections and, in turn, how election laws affect racial groups. Here are six findings from political science that should be in everyone’s mind.
1) Racial gaps in turnout are widespread in the areas covered under Section 4.
The majority opinion makes much of how racial differences in voter turnout have largely disappeared in the “covered” states such as Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi. This is at best only part of the picture. The majority tends to focus on presidential election years like 2004 and 2008. But in recent midterm elections, large gaps have remained in some states. At times, the turnout of whites exceeded that of blacks by as much as 20 points. Moreover, when you look within states at individual counties, there is significant variation. In some localities, blacks turn out at higher rates than whites; in many other places, the opposite is true.
2) Black gains in turnout may in fact derive from the VRA.
Many of the counties in which black turnout is highest—and even higher than that of whites—are in districts where blacks are the majority. This is because the turnout of racial minorities tends to be higher in areas where they are more numerous, according to research by political scientist Bernard Fraga. Often, districts with large fractions of racial minorities have been drawn to allow racial minorities to elect a candidate of their choosing—thereby ensuring that new district maps conform to prevailing interpretations of the VRA. It is an open question whether the number of majority-minority districts will decrease as a consequence of the Court’s ruling. Nevertheless, striking down this part of the VRA could ironically weaken the very evidence the majority uses to buttress its opinion.
3) Racial polarization in presidential voting is growing, and it is greater in covered counties than non-covered counties.
If the gap between black and white turnout has narrowed—albeit unevenly—the gap between black and white voting behavior remains large. Blacks and whites often have very different preferences about political candidates. And as political scientists Nathaniel Persily, Stephen Ansolabehere and Charles Stewart write, “the existence of adverse political preferences between minorities and whites exists by itself as a kind of danger sign as to what might happen if the VRA were to go away.” They show, for example, that whites in VRA-covered states were less likely to vote for Barack Obama in 2008, even after accounting for their party identification, ideology, education, income, age, gender, ideology and religiosity. But this apparent effect of living in a VRA-covered state did not emerge in 2004, when there was no black presidential candidate. This leads to the next point.
4) Attitudes toward African-Americans are less favorable in covered areas than in non-covered areas.
This is documented in an amicus brief filed by several social scientists (summarized here). For example, whites in VRA-covered areas were more likely to agree with statements like “If blacks would only try harder, they could be as well off as whites” and “Blacks have too much influence in American politics today.” This dovetails with other research showing that, despite the evident and important progress the South has made in terms of civil rights, negative racial attitudes are still more prevalent in the South than elsewhere in the United States. (Note that this is a relative statement, not a blanket claim about all Southerners—of which I am one, for what it’s worth.)
5) Several proposed changes to election law—such as more stringent voter identification—would disproportionately impact minorities.
Racial minorities are less likely to have up-to-date forms of identification that would comply with at least some versions of these laws. See here for data from Texas or here for data from California, New Mexico, and Washington.
6) Voter identification laws are more likely to be adopted in covered states.
According to the aforementioned amicus brief, 30 percent of the 16 states partially or fully covered by the VRA require identification to vote, compared to 11 percent of states not covered by the VRA. There are similar differences in terms of the specific kinds of voter identification laws.
Taken together, these findings could easily be leveraged in defense of Section 4, as many have done. At the same time, these facts do not necessarily imply that the exact formula should stay the same in perpetuity. But they do suggest that a new formula could defensibly include many of the areas that were covered by Section 4 of the VRA as of 1964.
In other words, times have changed, but perhaps they haven’t yet changed enough.