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McConnell waves off voting concerns since Black people turn out as heavily as ‘Americans’

Awkward phrasing isn’t the only problem with his argument

On Jan. 19, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said that African American voter turnout was “just as high” as for "Americans." (Video: C-Span)
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Shortly after the Senate voted down a proposed change to filibuster rules — thereby dooming a Democratic push to implement federal voting standards — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other top Republicans held a brief news conference.

At the center of the debate over implementing national early-vote and mail-ballot baselines was concern that non-White voters have been targeted both directly and indirectly by new restrictions. When the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, states that previously had to have voting-law changes vetted by the Justice Department were freed to do so without review. That included Georgia and Florida, Southern states that responded to President Donald Trump’s 2020 election loss by scaling back voting access.

A reporter raised the most extreme version of concerns about that change to McConnell, referring to the legislation that would no longer move forward.

“What’s your message for voters of color who are concerned that without the John L. Lewis Voting Rights Act they’re not going to be able to vote in the midterm?” he asked.

McConnell replied, “Well, the concern is misplaced, because if you look at the statistics, African American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans.”

As you might expect, this phrasing was poorly received.

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Presumably, McConnell meant that Black voters turn out at rates equivalent to Americans overall. In recent elections, that’s been true. Black turnout exceeded the national turnout rates in 2008 and 2012 before aligning with them in 2016 and 2020. Hispanic rates, by contrast, are well below the national rate while White turnout is above. (The numbers below are from Michael McDonald’s endlessly useful analyses of Census Bureau data.)

Of course, it’s also worth looking at those numbers another way: With the exception of 2008 and 2012, Black turnout and Hispanic turnout have consistently been below White turnout. Saying that Black turnout aligns with the national level ignores that disparity. It’s like saying that Amy earns the average income on her team, since she makes $50,000 a year, Beth and Claire make $20,000, and Danielle makes $110,000. See? Everything’s fair.

McConnell then pressed on.

“A recent survey, 94 percent of Americans thought it was easier to vote,” he continued. “This is not a problem. Turnout is up, biggest turnout since 1900. It’s simply — they’re being sold a bill of goods.”

The point about turnout being up significantly in 2020 is true. This was the same point President Biden made during his news conference on Wednesday, that turnout had been so high even without new federal rules, which he presented as a reason for some optimism. But this ignores a crucial point: Turnout was that high because voting access was expanded in response to the coronavirus pandemic. With more states implementing the sorts of changes that the Democratic proposal would standardize — and, of course, with a hyperpolarizing incumbent on the ballot — turnout was up.

The concern expressed by Democrats is that there has been a backlash to the 2020 turnout that manifests in those new voting laws. Nineteen states passed new laws scaling back voting access. Sometimes those were efforts to unwind new policies that had been implemented for the pandemic. Often, they were broader. The entire point is that the 2020 benchmark provoked a backlash. For McConnell to point to it as proof that the system is doing fine is like a kid trying to assure you he hadn’t broken a vase by pointing to its having been intact when he picked it up.

There’s a useful analogue here. When the Supreme Court decided to remove the preclearance provision from the Voting Rights Act in 2013, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. pointed to the lack of a racial disparity in turnout as a reason to do so. He described the law as having been “immensely successful at redressing racial discrimination and integrating the voting process” — and then used that success as a reason to upend the law. In a dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg memorably compared this to “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

This is McConnell’s argument now. He’s telling non-White voters that because they didn’t get wet in 2020, there’s no need to bar people from drilling holes in their roofs.

It may be the case that Democrats will turn out heavily in the midterms, anyway. Voting laws aside, the year is shaping up poorly for the party for multiple reasons, so it may be tricky after the fact to evaluate the role that those changes played. But it is certainly the case that pointing to a historic election with expanded voting laws as proof that everything’s copacetic is fraught.

It is also the case that awkward comparisons between minority groups and “Americans” doesn’t bolster confidence in one’s assessments of how those groups might be negatively affected by legislation.