Friday, December 04, 2009

Implications of the 2008 Election for the Voting Rights Act

Nate Persily

I have placed up on SSRN a revised version of my paper with Stephen Ansolabehere and Charles Stewart, "Race, Region, and Vote Choice in the 2008 Election: Implications for the Future of the Voting Rights Act," which will be published this spring in the Harvard Law Review. The article develops the arguments made in an amicus brief we filed with the Supreme Court on behalf of neither party in last year's voting rights case, NAMUDNO v. Holder. The article examines election returns and survey data from the 2008 election and previous elections to gauge the trends in racial polarization in the electorate and to assess whether the jurisdictions covered by section five of the VRA differ along these dimensions in any systematic way from those not covered by section five. The study finds the following:

Racial polarization in the electorate, as measured by the gap between whites and racial minorities in the share voting for a particular candidate, increased in the 2008 election. This is due in large part to Obama's increase in vote share among racial minorities as compared to his predecessors, especially John Kerry. Obama gained a greater share of the white vote (about 3 percentage points more) than Kerry did four years earlier. However, most of this gain can be attributed to gains among whites in states not covered by section five of the VRA. Among the covered states, as a group, Obama did just as well among whites as John Kerry. While he did better among whites in Virginia, for example, he actually did worse among whites in the Deep South states of Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi. (He also did worse, as compared to Kerry, among whites in some noncovered states, such as Arkansas.) Survey data indicate that in 2004 the differences in voting patterns among whites in the covered and noncovered states could be attributed to partisanship, ideology, and religiosity. In 2008, however, those same variables cannot explain away the differences in voting patterns between whites in the covered and noncovered states. Survey data concerning reported vote in the 2008 Democratic primaries and caucuses point to similar results, but the differences are not as stark as they were for the general election.

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