The Good News About Race and Voting

By Andrew Kohut

Election polling data show that few Americans of any race report any problems casting a ballot.

In the next several weeks the Supreme Court is expected to rule on the constitutionality of the requirement that several states, mostly in the South, get “pre-clearance” from the Justice Department before they make any changes to their election laws. The requirement was part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was an emergency measure to outlaw the profound racial discrimination that was disenfranchising African-Americans.

The justices won’t necessarily find a rationale for their decision based on current election polling data. Nevertheless, the experience of voters in recent elections will no doubt be illuminating to the justices, and to all Americans who are concerned with voting rights.

In the past three presidential elections, very few Americans reported having problems or difficulties voting according to Pew Research Center surveys. In its Nov. 8-12 poll in 2012, just 4% of whites answered yes to the question: “Did you have any problems or difficulties voting this year, or not.” Only 2% of African-Americans responded affirmatively.

Four years earlier, the comparable figures were 3% for whites and 4% for blacks, and in 2004, 5% and 3% respectively.

There were accusations leveled during the 2012 presidential campaign that black turnout was being discouraged in Florida and other key states by voter ID laws or attempts at deception or intimidation. Given these charges, Pew went a step further in the 2012 post-election survey than in previous surveys by asking voters if they knew anyone who tried to vote but could not. Blacks more often said they did than whites—14% versus 9%. But a follow-up question, “Why were those people not able to vote?” revealed that this difference was entirely accounted for by the fact that unlike whites, 6% of blacks reported knowing felons who tried to vote but could not.

The absence of a racial gap in reports of voting difficulties is consistent with a clear and persistent increase in African-American turnout since the mid-1990s. Post-election analysis by Pew and by the U.S. Census indicate that in 2012—for the first time in history—blacks voted at a higher rate, 66% (of age-eligible black citizens), than whites, 64% (of age-eligible white citizens. The Hispanic white turnout rate was just 48%—something to keep in mind when observers focus on the importance of the Latino turnout in the 2012 election.

The higher turnout of blacks in 2008 and 2012 does not merely reflect the presence of an African-American presidential candidate on the ballot. A Census survey, conducted after every federal election among a nationally representative sample of about 100,000 adults, has found that black turnout has risen in every presidential election between 2000 and 2012.

Further, the findings of Pew’s Elections Performance Index show that while problems in American voting—such as waiting times at polling places, or rejected voter registrations—are widespread, they are not particular to poorer states or Southern states. This lends further credence to the absence of a race gap in the incidence of voting problems.

The Census survey found on average slightly higher reports of voting among African-American voters than among whites in former Confederate states, 67% to 62%. Notably, in Mississippi and North Carolina, more blacks reported voting than whites by 10 and 15 percentage points, respectively. The racial gap in voting was more modest in non-Confederate states (67% among blacks versus 65% among whites.)

Those who want the Supreme Court to overturn the Voting Rights Act’s pre-clearance requirements can point to these surveys to show that the racial gap in voting has dramatically diminished, and has arguably disappeared. The legislation has accomplished its objective of ending racial discrimination in voting and is no longer needed. But those who oppose change can counter that it is unwise to change laws that have made such important difference in the workings of democracy.

Mr. Kohut is founding director of the Pew Research Center.

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