Tuesday, April 9

Voter suppression still driving gaps in Black and white voter turnout


USA TODAY’s “Seven Days of 1961” explores how sustained acts of resistance can bring about sweeping change. Throughout 1961, activists risked their lives to fight for voting rights and the integration of schools, businesses, public transit and libraries. Decades later, their work continues to shape debates over voting access, police brutality and equal rights for all.

WASHINGTON – Sixty years after civil rights activists launched voter registration drives across the South and the Voting Rights Act promised protections for all voters, stubborn gaps between Black and white voter participation persist in federal electoral contests, according to a USA TODAY analysis.

The gap shrank only a handful of times, the analysis found, such as when election changes made it easier to register to vote; Black candidates, including Barack Obama and Jesse Jackson, were on the ballot; and social justice issues became pressing national debates, as with police reform in the 2020 election.

Legal battles over redistricting and gerrymandering, as well as get-out-the-vote efforts, were also key factors in the ebb and flow of Black voter turnout, which never topped 58.5% between 1964 and 2000 during presidential elections, according to the USA TODAY review. It went as high as 70.7% for white voters during that period.

Black voter participation increased to 62% in 2012 with Obama’s second term before dropping to just below 56% in 2016 and then hitting nearly 60% in 2020, the analysis showed.

JESSICA KOSCIELNIAK, USA TODAY

“We were voting in 2020 because it was about life and death issues like COVID, issues like what was happening with George Floyd,’’ said Melanie Campbell, president of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. “There was enough at stake to show up and to take our lives in our hands and show up in the middle of a pandemic.”

USA TODAY analyzed gaps in voter participation using U.S. census survey data from the 1960s through 2020. Reporters also reviewed historic census data kept by the University of Minnesota’s National Historic Geographic Information System to examine congressional redistricting patterns after the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The USA TODAY analysis comes after some Republicans challenged the integrity of the election process in 2020 and as more than 19 states this year have passed laws advocates say restrict voter access.

Many of those states are in the South, where most Black people live. For example, Georgia, where Blacks make up 32.6% of the population, adopted this year some of the nation’s most restrictive elections laws. 

Some of those laws, experts warn, could substantially suppress Black voter turnout, posing one of the most serious threats to civil rights in decades.

“This is the worst we’ve seen since Jim Crow,’’ said Sean Morales-Doyle, acting director of the voting rights & elections program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan think tank. “There was a time in this country when people were willing to more blatantly say they were going after Black voters. And now what’s maybe really frightening is more and more politicians are saying the quiet part out loud again.”

Local election laws shift voter turnout

Election laws have often shaped if and when Americans vote. 

At the heart of many civil rights organizations’ efforts in Mississippi was to increase Black voter participation, said Robert E. Luckett, an associate history professor at Jackson State University. By the 1960s, Black people made up half the state’s population, but only 6% were registered to vote, he said.

“The right to vote was crucial and really cutting the legs out from underneath Jim Crow power structure built around political disenfranchisement,’’ he said.

After the Voting Rights Act was passed to help protect against discriminatory laws that required Black voters to pass literacy tests or pay poll taxes to vote, Black Americans did not cast ballots at the same rate as white Americans. 

Jennifer Riley Collins (left), Sharon Jimerson and Whitney May of the Mississippi chapter of the Black Women's Roundtable attended a congressional briefing, Nov. 4, 2021, on voting rights hosted by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala. “It’s important for voices like mine and Sharon’s to be heard,” said May, a graduate student at Jackson State University in Mississippi. “We can’t give up.”
Jennifer Riley Collins (left), Sharon Jimerson and Whitney May of the Mississippi chapter of the Black Women’s Roundtable attended a congressional briefing, Nov. 4, 2021, on voting rights hosted by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala. “It’s important for voices like mine and Sharon’s to be heard,” said May, a graduate student at Jackson State University in Mississippi. “We can’t give up.”
Deborah Barfield Berry

The gap between Black and white voter participation rates was the highest at 15 percentage points in 1966, the analysis found. It hovered around 12 points during much of the 1970s and fluctuated in subsequent decades. 

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The gap reached 5 points last year, the widest since 2006. 

Gaps closed significantly in 1986, 1998, 2000, 2008 and 2012, according to the USA TODAY analysis. Experts said the bids of presidential candidates Jackson and Obama helped boost turnout among Black voters. In 2008, Black voter participation was higher than white voter participation, the USA TODAY analysis found. That also happened in 2012 when Obama ran for re-election.

“Black politics in America changed after Jackson’s two runs,” said David Bositis, a researcher on voting rights and redistricting. “After he ran, it became clear that Black voters were essential to any Democratic nomination.”

The voting gap between white and Black voters was at one of its narrowest points in 2000 at 3.3 points, the review found. The close 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore saw low turnout for both Black and white voters. 

The election, which was marred by confusion over ballots and discrepancies in the counting of votes, ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court and led to significant changes, including more federal funds to update machines, same-day registration in some places and more early voting, including polls open on Sunday in some states.

“What happened after that had lots to do with making it easier for people to vote, correcting some of the problems, the barriers,’’ Campbell said. “That was still there over the course of that decade – up until Obama was elected.”

Rev. William Barber II (2nd L) of the Poor People's Campaign takes part in a voting rights protest in front of the White House Nov. 17, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Voting rights activists participated in civil disobedience to protest to press Congress and the White House to pass voting rights legislation.
Voting rights activists hold a sign during the Good Trouble Candlelight Vigil for Democracy supporting voting rights, at Black Lives Matter plaza in Washington, D.C., on July 17, 2021.
TOP: The Rev. William Barber II, second from left, of the Poor People’s Campaign took part in a voting rights protest in front of the White House Nov. 17, 2021, in Washington. ABOVE: Voting rights activists hold a sign during the Good Trouble Candlelight Vigil for Democracy supporting voting rights, at Black Lives Matter plaza in Washington, D.C., on July 17, 2021.
TOP: The Rev. William Barber II, second from left, of the Poor People’s Campaign took part in a voting rights protest in front of the White House Nov. 17, 2021, in Washington. ABOVE: Voting rights activists hold a sign during the Good Trouble Candlelight Vigil for Democracy supporting voting rights, at Black Lives Matter plaza in Washington, D.C., on July 17, 2021.
LEFT: The Rev. William Barber II, second from left, of the Poor People’s Campaign took part in a voting rights protest in front of the White House Nov. 17, 2021, in Washington. RIGHT: Voting rights activists hold a sign during the Good Trouble Candlelight Vigil for Democracy supporting voting rights, at Black Lives Matter plaza in Washington, D.C., on July 17, 2021.
ALEX WONG, GETTY IMAGES

Two years after Obama’s first win, some Southern states adopted redistricting plans that created supermajority Republican legislatures and diluted the strength of Black voters, said the Rev. William Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign and a national voting rights advocate.

Barber said those legislatures also proposed more restrictive election laws in response to Obama’s victory, which showed he could garner support from a diverse electorate in the South.

Barber said it’s a mistake to call the recent wave of laws another tactic of Jim Crow, which primarily targeted Black Americans. He said research shows those measures could also disproportionately hurt other people of color and low-income white voters.

“This is actually Jim and Jane Crow, Esquire,” he said. “It’s not just race. It’s also class and economics.”

The Brennan Center tracked more than 425 bills in 49 states in the 2021 legislative session that include restrictive provisions, such as reducing early voting hours, imposing stricter ID requirements and limiting the number of mail ballot drop boxes. Republicans said the bills protect against voter fraud.

“The ways in which the laws have changed often play into the pattern that we observe in the racial disparity in registration and turnout,’’ said Peyton McCrary,  a former historian in the voting section of the U.S. Department of Justice.

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Many states proposed more restrictive laws soon after the U.S. Supreme Court Shelby v. Holder ruling in 2013 eliminated a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that required jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to get federal approval before making election changes. 

David Becker, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation & Research, said some gains made after the Voting Rights Act could be at jeopardy if states succeed in limiting voter access.

“The last 50 years have been years of progress combined with some fits and starts,’’ he said. “Right now, we’re in a little bit of a fit with some problematic things.”

Former President Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived Nov. 19, 2012, at Yangon International Airport in Yangon, Myanmar, on Air Force One. Voting rights experts said Obama's reelection bid that year helped boost Black voter turnout.
Former President Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived Nov. 19, 2012, at Yangon International Airport in Yangon, Myanmar, on Air Force One. Voting rights experts said Obama’s reelection bid that year helped boost Black voter turnout.
Carolyn Kaster, AP


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