Election 'turnout gap' between white and nonwhite voters is large and decisive, book shows

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The gap in voter turnout between white and nonwhite citizens is large and growing, resulting in profound challenges for American democracy, according to a new research-based book by an Indiana University political scientist.

"The Turnout Gap: Race, Ethnicity and Political Inequality in a Diversifying America," by Bernard L. Fraga, assistant professor of political science at IU Bloomington, is the most comprehensive analysis to date of the causes and consequences of racial and ethnic disparities in turnout.

While nonwhite citizens make up a growing share of the U.S. population, Fraga shows, the turnout gap means their views don't get a fair shake in politics and policymaking. The findings have important implications for the Nov. 6 midterm elections and the future of American politics.

"These disparities matter because of the impact they have on electoral outcomes," he said. "They lead to outcomes that don't represent the preferences of all Americans."

Published this month by Cambridge University Press, "The Turnout Gap" draws on historical records of voter participation, decades of survey results and recent voter-file data at the individual level.

Political scientists have relied on surveys to measure voter turnout, and survey data show that African-American turnout is somewhat lower than white turnout while Latino and Asian-American turnout is considerably lower, even controlling for citizenship. But Fraga, using voter-file data, shows that surveys underestimate the gap. Those data indicate that minority turnout is about 20 percentage points lower than white turnout nationally, with a gap twice as large in some states.

Those discrepancies influence elections, with white voters disproportionately supporting Republicans and minorities more likely to back Democrats. If minorities had voted at the same rate as whites in 2016, data indicate, Hillary Clinton would be president, and Democrats would control the Senate.

Why does the turnout gap persist? Fraga said that despite recent results, in most elections minorities are not perceived to be important for deciding who wins and who loses. As a result, they are less likely to be targeted for get-out-the-vote campaigns, which further depresses minority voting.

He examines alternative explanations for the turnout gap and finds that they don't hold up. For example, it's true that African-Americans and Latinos tend to be younger and poorer than the general population, and those demographic groups vote at lower rates. But Asian-Americans are, on average, more affluent and highly educated, and they have the lowest voting rates of all.

Fraga also looks at voter ID laws and other measures that are blamed for low minority turnout. He finds they disproportionately affect minorities but don't explain the turnout gap. States that enacted such laws didn't always see a drop in minority voting. And some states with restrictions have relatively high minority turnout rates.

He also draws on a "natural experiment" that results when voters are redistricted to different congressional districts. Voter turnout increases for members of racial and ethnic groups when they are moved to a district where they are in the majority and can influence outcomes, he said.

Minorities, especially Latinos and Asian-Americans, have grown rapidly as a percentage of the U.S. population. But white voters will remain the largest and most influential group in most of the country for generations to come, Fraga said, so the turnout gap is likely to persist.

"Demographics are not destiny," he said. "There are no easy fixes to the problem of low minority turnout."

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