Blacks in the United States die younger and are jailed at much higher rates than whites. While both these disparities are widely known, few people consider how profoundly they shift the economic and sociopolitical balance of racial power between these two racial groups.
To state the obvious, Americans who are dead or in jail cannot vote (with few exceptions to the latter, but not many). Disproportionately high rates of early death and incarceration mean more blacks go “missing” from the electorate, and these people cannot make their voices heard in politics.
Dying younger means fewer chances to vote over a lifetime
The black infant mortality rate is 2.2 times that of whites, and those who die before their first birthday never have the opportunity to participate in politics. Actually, all individuals who die before reaching age 18 never get the opportunity to vote. Most important, people who die between the age of 18 and the age of their life expectancy have fewer life-years to participate in politics compared with those who survive as expected.
Black people, on average, die in higher proportions than whites at all ages before their age of life expectancy. Early deaths of blacks not only prevent many blacks from voting in the election immediately after death, but in subsequent elections as well. The point here is the effect of early mortality on political disadvantage is cumulative, increasingly diluting the political voice of blacks compared with whites.
The current life expectancy at birth of all Americans is a little short of 79 years. Because Americans can first vote at age 18, they can participate in about 15 presidential elections in their lifetimes. This means that even one fewer election in which black people cannot vote compared with whites would be a lot — a 7 percent possible participation difference between blacks and whites due solely to early mortality.
And, unfortunately, there is more to this story.
The “new Jim Crow” — higher incarceration rates for blacks — means few opportunities to vote over a lifetime
Blacks not only die at much younger ages than their white counterparts, but they are also incarcerated at much higher rates. For instance, research has shown that, despite similar rates of illicit drug usage, black people are more than 13 times more likely than white people to be jailed on drug charges. Overall, incarceration rates for blacks are six times higher than that of whites. In the majority of states, felons and ex-felons cannot vote.
That is what we discuss in our recent article, finding that, as of 2010, 2.74 million voting-age black people were “missing” from their communities because of excess mortality and incarceration. To this number we add the 1.17 million black people released from prison, but still banned from voting, to find that, were black and white living conditions equal in the United States, approximately 3.9 million more black people would have been able to vote in 2010.
By “excess mortality and incarceration,” we are referring to black people who would not have died or been imprisoned if they had the same mortality and incarceration rates as whites. Because these two rates are not the same, many blacks end up “missing” from their communities.
We estimate the extent of the “missing” black population in the United States using a model that compares geography-specific gender ratios for blacks with gender ratios for whites. Assuming that differences in gender ratios result from excess mortality and incarceration that disproportionately affect black people — especially black men — we are able to produce estimates for the “missing” black population nationally as well as across state and federal legislative districts.
Accounting for missing black people throughout geographies, we estimate a national black disenfranchisement rate of 13.2 percent. That is, 13.2 percent of the national voting-age black population that would have been enfranchised, were black and white living conditions in the United States equivalent, cannot vote.
In which states is “black missingness” the worse?
We took a look at where this “black missingness” might be worst. Based on our estimates, the states of Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia have total black disenfranchisement rates between 20.7 and 24.3 percent. We also looked at local levels throughout the nation and found that in 20 congressional districts, black disenfranchisement rates range from 20 to 38.6 percent.
Missing black voters also affect state legislatures. We identified the 20 legislative districts in the United States with the highest black disenfranchisement rates caused by early mortality and excessive incarceration. There, we estimate black disenfranchisement rates range between 27.4 and 44.3 percent, and 31.4 and 42.9 percent, respectively.
Does “black missingness” affect who gets elected?
Yes. Excess mortality and incarceration could have shifted the outcome of 11 gubernatorial and seven Senate elections between 1970 and 2004, according to our research. That is because black people overwhelmingly vote Democratic; they do not split their tickets. The large numbers of missing black voters in congressional and state legislative districts influence state policies, the balance of power between political parties and local electoral representation — meaning, who gets elected.
Since racial disparities in health and incarceration result in such a large number of missing black voters, an observer might ask: How truly representative is American democracy?
David Cottrell is lecturer in the department of government as Dartmouth College.
Michael C. Herron is professor of government at Dartmouth College.
Javier M. Rodriguez is assistant professor of political science and co-director of the Institute for Policy and Inequality Research at Claremont Graduate University.
Daniel A. Smith is professor and chair of the department of political science at the University of Florida.