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Increased Voter Turnout Myth: Prisons Dramatically Disenfranchise Young Black Men

When incarceration rates are accounted for, about the same percent of black males voted in 2008 as in 1980.

Pundits, pollsters, and political scientists have all observed that the 2008 election of Barack Obama coincided with record high voter turnout among young blacks. While the number of young black voters surely broke records, the fraction of young black male voters did not. This will likely also be true in the 2012 Presidential Election, and we can credit the historically large number of young black men behind bars for that.

Incarceration not only determines who is eligible to vote but also who is counted in voting statistics. Inmates cannot vote in 48 states, and they're not included in the data sources used to construct voter turnout rates.

At the same time, political parties and candidates are keen to know who is eligible to vote. They target advertisements to specific demographics, and use voter turnout drives to bring eligible voters to the polls. Political scientists have spent decades studying voter turnout in order to understand political engagement and the democratic process. Through the Current Population Survey, the federal government has collected data about voter turnout every other November since 1964. These data are used by policymakers to assess how shifts in electoral policies affect voter turnout.

After Reconstruction, many states instituted a number of voting restrictions that reduced the electoral participation of black Americans. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and separate ballot boxes were common in much of the South until the Voting Rights Acts of 1965 and 1970. Poll taxes and literacy tests disproportionately affected the eligibility of black voters. Because blacks faced higher risks of poverty and lower levels of educational attainment and literacy than native-born whites, they bore the brunt of voting restrictions. Data from the CPS show an increase in voter turnout rates among black Americans after Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

In 2008 voter turnout rates among young black men rivaled those among whites for the first time in American history according to conventional statistics. Yet, the full extent of disenfranchisement exacted by mass incarceration is obscured by the way we collect data. Recent data from the Sentencing Project suggests that 13 percent of black men are excluded from the democratic franchise because of their involvement in the criminal justice system. When incarceration rates are accounted for, only 20.4 percent of young black male dropouts voted in the 2008 election—nearly identical to the 20.7 percent that turned out to vote in the 1980 election that pitted Ronald Reagan against Jimmy Carter.

Adjusting turnout rates to include inmates suggests that the primary explanation for unexpectedly high turnout rates among black men is a phenomenon called "sample selection." Excluding inmates from calculations of voter turnout removes the most unlikely voters, which artificially boosts the estimated turnout rate in exactly those groups that are most likely to be disenfranchised.

The irony is that during the 2012 election season changes that are likely to impact voting have gotten plenty of attention. That's critical since voter ID laws are likely to disenfranchise people who don’t have state-issued IDs—like the elderly, youth, and people who are poor—and mail-only voting restricts the voting rights of people who are highly mobile, unstably housed, or homeless. However, because a felony conviction carries potentially long-term restrictions on voting like poll taxes, literacy tests, and separate ballot boxes, mass incarceration also serves to disenfranchise black voters.

The perception of growing political involvement of young black men is simply an illusion, an artifact of survey methods. It is likely that those same methods will obscure our assessment of the impact of new voting laws on other socially marginalized groups. We need better data to accurately assess how far we’ve come as a nation and to ensure—as Lyndon B. Johnson pledged upon signing the Voting Rights Act—that all Americans share in the process of democracy.

polling place photo via Shutterstock

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