Preclearance Gone, Racial Voter Turnout Gap Up

Supreme Court Voting

             New Orleans        Britney Spears sang it loudly, “hit me one more time.”  She wasn’t talking about decisions of the US Supreme Court and its historically ultra-conservative majority, but she could have been.  This gut punch came from an analysis of the impact of their Shelby decision in 2013 that eliminated a central plank of the Voting Rights Act mandating preclearance requirements.

As a reminder, preclearance meant that counties and states with a history of racial discrimination in denying citizens the right to vote were required to get prior approval – preclearance – from the US Justice Department before they altered their voting laws in any way.  In a decision filled with infamy, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, he argued that the “conditions that originally justified” preclearance had largely disappeared and essentially that racial discrimination didn’t exist in the South and elsewhere.  The last decade has not been kind to Roberts’ argument:  boy, did he miss the train!

The nonpartisan Brennan Center looked at mountains of voter files in these counties since the decision and found, not surprisingly, that the “racial turnout gap” has increased significantly, growing by 11% between 2012 and 2022, and that without the Shelby decision “the white-Black turnout would have grown but by just six percentage points.”  For folks still in recovery from high school math, a 5% difference may not seem huge, but the Brennan Center found that “at least 62 elections for Senate, governor, and president in states with Section 5 counties were decided by under five percentage points.”

It’s no secret that an overt part of the conservative playbook over the last decade has been narrowing access to the ballot and depressing the vote of groups like minorities, women, and the young that are not natural supporters of their positions and candidates.  Intimidation at the polls, voter ID laws, and more have flooded state legislatures, particularly in the red states.  Changing, combining, or eliminating polling stations have been common, and previously would have been subject to preclearance approvals.  Make it harder to vote, make it take longer, make it a potential embarrassment, rather than a joyful privilege, and there will be fewer voters.  That’s the simple math of the human condition that we all understand.

The Brennan Center was not able to put a categorical number on the success of Shelby voter suppression, but they did find the racial gap was national and could be counted from the voter files:

The study identified a significant racial turnout gap nationwide, beyond the counties previously covered by Section 5. In the 2020 election, 9.3 million more people would have voted if nonwhite voters had participated at the same rate as white voters. In the 2022 midterms, that total would have been 13.9 million ballots.


That’s not a trivial difference or a rounding error, that’s huge.

Ok, it matters, and it’s gotten worse, so what are we going to do about it?  Vote yes or no, red or blue, but the issue here is clear:  vote!