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Racial disparities in voter turnout have grown since Supreme Court ruling, study says

Voters cast their ballots in North Charleston, S.C., on Oct. 16, 2020. A new study says the turnout gap between white and nonwhite voters in the U.S. is growing fastest<em><strong> </strong></em>in jurisdictions that were stripped of a federal voting protection by a Supreme Court decision.
Logan Cyrus
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AFP via Getty Images
Voters cast their ballots in North Charleston, S.C., on Oct. 16, 2020. A new study says the turnout gap between white and nonwhite voters in the U.S. is growing fastest in jurisdictions that were stripped of a federal voting protection by a Supreme Court decision.

The turnout gap between white and nonwhite voters in the U.S. is growing fastest in jurisdictions that were stripped of a federal civil rights-era voting protection a decade ago, according to a new study.

The protections in Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act required some states and localities with a history of voting discrimination to obtain federal approval before they could make any changes to their voting laws or procedures.

It most recently covered nine states, most of them in the South, as well as certain counties and towns in a handful of other states.

In 2013, the Supreme Court effectively guttedSection 5 in Shelby County v. Holder — clearing the way for states to pass laws for measures like redistricting, changing poll locations and adding restrictive voter ID requirements without federal review.

A new study by the Brennan Center for Justice, a think tank that advocates for expanded voting access, measured the impact of the Shelby County decision between 2012 and 2022.

The researchers looked at nearly a billion voter records and compared the rate at which white and nonwhite Americans vote in elections. The study refers to the difference between white voters and other groups as the "turnout gap."

The gap can be wide: In three elections from 2018 to 2022, 43% of eligible white voters cast their ballots every time, while that figure for Black voters was 27%, 21% for Asian American voters and 19% for Hispanic voters, according to the Pew Research Center.

Understanding the effect of any voting law can be difficult because a number of factors can alter turnout, including how competitive the election is and who's on the ballot.

And across the U.S., the turnout gap between white and nonwhite voters is increasing for various reasons.

But the think tank found that the turnout gap was growing faster in places formerly covered under Section 5 and that it was growing fastest between white and Black voters in those areas.

"What we found was that these jurisdictions fell back into their pattern of adopting laws and policies that made voting difficult for people of color," says Kareem Crayton, the center's senior director for voting rights and representation.

In Shelby County, the Supreme Court ruled that the protections against voting discrimination were outdated

In 2008, Ernest Montgomery, a Black city council member in Shelby County, Ala., lost his bid for reelection after his district was redrawn to include fewer Black voters.

That was considered discriminatory under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. So the city was ordered to draw a new map and conduct another election, which Montgomery won.

In response, leaders in Shelby County filed a federal lawsuit, arguing that Section 5 was outdated and unconstitutional. In 2013, the Supreme Court sided with Shelby County in a narrow 5-4 vote.

In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the "conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions."

But Crayton argues that not only was Roberts' characterization inaccurate, but it had major repercussions on voting access.

"Unfortunately, that actually produced a series of horrible laws, and the burdens of those laws are experienced by voters of color," Crayton says.

According to the Brennan Center, states formerly covered in whole or in part under Section 5 have passed at least 29 laws that have made voting more difficult in the past decade.

Crayton adds that it is also difficult to track all the changes made to voting laws at the state and local levels because officials are no longer required to submit those changes to the federal government.

Many ballots go uncast by eligible voters because of the Shelby County decision, study says

Section 5 jurisdictions included the entire states of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia, as well as certain parts of California, Florida, Michigan, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota.

The study compared the turnout gap between white and nonwhite voters in areas once covered under Section 5 with estimates of the turnout gap in places that were never part of Section 5 but had similar demographic and socioeconomic characteristics.

It found that between 2012 and 2022, the turnout gap between white and nonwhite voters in counties once covered under Section 5 grew by 9 percentage points, while the gap in noncovered counties went up by 5 points.

Similarly, the gap between white and only Black voters in Section 5 areas grew by 11 points, while the gap in noncovered comparable areas rose by 6 points since the Supreme Court ruling.

"It may not seem like a lot in terms of a percentage number, but that number represents hundreds of thousands of voters over time that are not part of our political process because those votes weren't cast," Crayton says.

According to the study, the effect of the Shelby County decision continues to widen the turnout gap. The turnout gap between formerly covered and noncovered areas was larger in 2022 than in any election since the ruling, researchers said.

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Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.