Voter turnout dipped in 2016, led by decline among blacks

The percentage of eligible Americans who showed up to the polls in November dipped slightly to the lowest rate in sixteen years, led by a sharp drop-off in the number of black voters casting ballots.

New data released Wednesday by the Census Bureau shows an estimated 61.4 percent of Americans over the age of 18 cast ballots, down from the 61.8 percent who voted in 2012 and well below the 63.8 percent who voted in 2004, the recent high-point of voter participation.

White voters were most likely to turn out; 65.3 percent of whites told Census Bureau surveyors they voted in 2016, more than a full percentage point higher than their participation rate in 2012. 

But voter turnout among black voters fell almost seven percentage points, to 59.4 percent, the Census figures show — after hitting an all-time high of 66.2 percent in 2012.

Fewer than half of Asian Americans and Hispanic Americans turned out to vote; 49 percent of Asians and 47.6 percent of those of Hispanic origin showed up to the polls last year.

Demographers point to declining black turnout and relatively low Hispanic turnout — two voting blocs on whom Democrats are increasingly reliant — as two of a handful of reasons Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton fell short in a handful of key battleground states last year. 

{mosads}Black turnout fell 2 points and Hispanic turnout tumbled by a whopping 34 points in Michigan, a state President Trump won by just over 10,000 votes after Clinton fell short of matching President Obama’s vote totals in Detroit. 

In Wisconsin, another state Trump barely won, fewer than half of black voters cast a ballot; four years ago, when Obama carried the state, 78 percent of blacks voted.

Turnout among black voters fell seven points in Florida, and turnout among Hispanic voters there, who make up critical voting blocs stretching from Miami-Dade County to Orlando, fell eight points. That ended a streak of four consecutive elections in which black and Hispanic voters showed up in increasing numbers. At the same time, white voters, who disproportionally backed Trump, turned out at a slightly higher rate in Florida than they had in 2012.

“These numbers point up a fairly pervasive decline in black turnout along with modest though uneven gains for whites,” said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institute. The declining turnout and Republicans’ success in winning over more white voters “helped to explain shifts to Trump in several swing states.”

November’s contests were decided by an electorate that looked whiter than what many demographers had expected. Between 1980 and 2012, the share of the electorate made up of non-Hispanic whites dropped from 87.6 percent to 73.7 percent; in 2016, demographers expected that number to drop again, as the diverse millennial generation takes on a larger role in the body politic, replacing older generations that were less racially diverse.

But the Census Bureau data shows that 73.3 percent of the electorate in 2016 was made up of non-Hispanic whites, a statistically insignificant drop from four years before. The unexpected stasis, even as the country becomes more racially diverse, is explained by the drop in minority turnout.

That made 2016 only the second election since 1980 that the share of the electorate made up of non-Hispanic whites did not decline by a significant margin.

The decline in black participation is all the more stark after 2012, when for the first time the Census Bureau said blacks voted at a higher share than non-Hispanic whites. Still, the percentage of blacks who voted in 2016 was six points higher than the recent nadir, in 1996, when only 53 percent of blacks cast a ballot.

The data offers both hope and warning signs to Democrats plotting their political comeback, and Republicans trying to hold on to their victories.

On one hand, the data shows Democrats can chart a path back to political power by boosting turnout even at the margins among Hispanic and black voters. The party does not need to replicate Obama’s 2008 and 2012 turnout machines; it simply needs to come close in large urban centers in key states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Florida.

On the other, it shows the demographic shift that threatens to doom Republicans — who are more reliant than ever on white voters — is manifesting itself more slowly in the electorate than in the population as a whole. That fact gives Republicans time to build new inroads to minority communities, where the party has struggled to attract support.

Younger voters grew as a share of the electorate, both as more millennials reach voting age and as they become turnout targets for both parties. Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida, said turnout among voters between 18 and 29 years of age grew by 2.5 percentage points, the largest increase of any age group.

But older voters are still much more likely to cast a ballot: More than 70 percent of those over the age of 65 voted in November, far higher than the 43.4 percent of 18-29 year olds who voted. Two-thirds of those between the ages of 45 and 64 voted, according to Frey’s analysis.

The Census Bureau’s data relies on a survey the agency conducts to supplement the much larger Current Population Survey. 

Other surveys have concluded that a smaller number of eligible voters actually cast ballots: One study for the group Nonprofit Vote, in which McDonald took part, found 60.2 percent of the nation’s 231 million eligible voters cast a ballot in November.

That figure was higher than the percentage of eligible voters who turned out in presidential elections between 1972 and 2000, though it fell below the recent pinnacle achieved in 2008.

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