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Mellman: The systemic racism in voting

Mellman: The systemic racism in voting
© Greg Nash

You want evidence of systemic racism?

Black Americans have to overcome significantly higher barriers to voting than whites. Black people are forced to wait in considerably longer lines to cast their ballots than white people.

Whatever the views or intent of individuals, the system is producing an outcome that is both racially biased and highly consequential.

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We can repose high confidence in that basic conclusion because it represents the consistent finding of studies employing at least three distinct methodologies.

One approach simply asks people about their wait times using survey research. That’s what the Democracy Fund’s VOTER survey did and found almost twice as many Black people as white people waiting an hour or more to cast a ballot in 2020.

Only 7 percent of white people were forced to wait over an hour to vote compared to 13 percent of African Americans. Eighteen percent of white people had to stand in line for more than 30 minutes compared to 31 percent of Black people.

Thirty minutes is a meaningful metric, as the 2014 bipartisan Commission on Election Administration declared, “No citizen should have to wait more than 30 minutes to vote.”

On the other end of the spectrum, more than one in three white people had no wait at all, compared to just one in five African Americans.

The Bipartisan Policy Center together with MIT examined the same issue through a different lens, relying on poll workers at sample precincts providing information on wait times.

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In the lower turnout 2018 midterm, precincts with 10 percent or fewer nonwhite voters had an average wait time of just 5 minutes. But those precincts where over 90 percent of residents were not white suffered average wait times of 32 minutes. Voters in precincts that were nearly all Black had to wait more than six times longer to vote than those in white precincts.

Those voting in precincts where 80-90 percent were not white waited nearly three times longer than those voting in precincts that were 80-90 percent white.

A group of researchers from UCLA, University of Chicago and Carnegie Mellon adopted a third method, using geospatial data generated by 150,000 smartphones during the 2016 election.

This study found voters in Black neighborhoods waited 29 percent longer to vote and were 74 percent more likely to spend more than 30 minutes in line than those in white precincts.

Three studies, three different methodologies, two different election years, one crystal clear conclusion: Embedded in our electoral system is a systematic bias against Black Americans that renders it more difficult for them to cast ballots than for white Americans.

And lest you argue this is merely some spurious correlation, the data say it’s not. Once race enters the equation, the effects of income, the percent of renters in the area, ballot length, and even the number of voters disappear, leaving only race to explain the differences in wait times.

One consequence of this racial disparity is quite clear: In 2020, Black people were four times more likely than white people to report they did not vote because they left a line that was too long.

Texas Republicans are working hard to enshrine these disparities into law. The Senate version of their election bill creates a special formula for the distribution of polling places that only applies to the five largest counties in the state. Of course, those are the counties with the largest nonwhite populations.

An analysis by the Texas Tribune finds that within those counties, by and large, the number of polling places will be reduced in areas with high minority populations and increased in areas with higher white populations.

The intent may or may not be racist, but the effect surely is.

Whether out of racist motivation, or mere partisan loyalty, our nation continues to erect barriers to voting that create strong racial biases.

It’s past time for Congress to reduce illegitimate barriers to voting and, at the same time, to reduce systemic racism.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.