Registration Still Key to Minority Voter Participation
by Project Vote, Mon Mar 19, 2007 at 02:01:19 PM EDT
By Ben Spears and Michael SlaterBen Spears is a Research Associate with Project Vote's Strategic Writing and Research Department (SWORD). Michael Slater is the Deputy Director of Project Vote and the Director of its Election Administration Program.
Contrary to a belief by the political cognoscenti that a wide gap exists between the voting rates of minorities and their white counterparts, the difference is small and appears to be shrinking. Once registered, blacks and other minorities vote at or near the same rates as whites. Registration rates, however, still show marked disparities between white and non-white citizens.
According to the Census, there were 14.3 million blacks registered to vote in 1996 and 11.4 million showed up at the polls - an 80 percent turnout among those registered. The same report shows that 5 million Latinos voted among the 6.6 million registered, or 75 percent; and 91.2 million whites voted of the 110 million registered to vote, or 83 percent.
Since that election the difference between the rate at which blacks and whites vote has narrowed. In 2002, white and blacks voted at a near equal rate--70 percent versus 68%--among those who were registered to vote. Fifty-eight percent of Hispanics voted. In 2004, registered whites voted at a rate of 89 percent, whereas 87 percent of registered Blacks voted and 82 percent of registered Latinos voted.
While minorities appear to be closing in on white voting rates, a 'voter registration gap' between white Americans and minority Americans remains. In 1994, Latino citizens lagged 15 percentage points behind white citizens (53% and 68%, respectively), and that disparity had increased by a percentage point, to 16 percent, by 2004 (58% and 74%, respectively). The gap between black and white voter registration rates is 5 percentage points, a two-percentage point decline from 1994 (in 1994, 61% and 68%; in 2004, 69% and 74%, respectively). Although disparity in registration rates persists, overall the number of registered voters for all races and ethnic groups has increased in the last ten years.
If blacks voted at their current rate but were registered at the same rate as whites, there would have been 1.1 million more blacks voting in 2004--a total of 15.1 million black voters. If Latinos registered at the same rate as whites, there would have been 2,175,198 more Latinos voting--a total of 9.7 million Latino voters.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the importance of voter registration in closing the disparity between white and minority participation, many states have erected barriers to registration. Some states have chosen to restrict voter registration drives while a few states condition registration on matching information on the registration card with information in other government databases. One state--Arizona--now requires proof of citizenship to register. Even states that are not overtly hostile to registration have ignored important federal mandates to offer voter registration opportunities to low-income Americans.
The great strides that have been made in voting shouldn't obscure the challenges still faced in voter registration. For more information on work being done to overcome the barriers to registration and participation for minorities, low-income voters, and young voters, please visit the Project Vote website.