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The Supreme Court and Young Voter Turnout


Georgia, with its long history of the suppression of Black voters, has been ground zero for fights about voting rights laws for decades. The state has often seen stark differences in turnout between white and nonwhite communities, with the latter typically voting at a much lower rate.

But not always: In the 2012 election, when Barack Obama won a second term in the White House, the turnout rate for Black voters under 38 in Lowndes County — a Republican-leaning county in southern Georgia — was actually four percentage points higher than the rate for white voters of a similar age.

It proved to be temporary. According to new research by Michael Podhorzer, the former political director of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., by 2020, turnout for younger white voters in Lowndes was 14 percentage points higher than for Black voters of the same age.

What happened in between? It is impossible to tell for certain, with many variables, such as Obama no longer being on the ballot.

But a growing body of evidence points to a pivotal 2013 Supreme Court decision, Shelby County v. Holder, that knocked down a core section of the Voting Rights Act. The court effectively ended a provision requiring counties and states with a history of racial discrimination at the polls — including all of Georgia — to obtain permission from the Justice Department before changing voting laws or procedures.

The result has been a slew of laws that included restrictions to voting, like limiting voting by mail and adding voter ID requirements. (One new Georgia provision, which restricts most people from providing food and water to voters waiting in line within 150 feet of a polling place, was featured in a recent episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”)

For years, political scientists and civil rights leaders argued that the high court’s decision would lead to a resurgence in suppression of historically marginalized voters because local and state governments, many in the South, no longer needed federal permission to change voting laws and regulations. Two new studies bolster that theory.

This month, research from the Brennan Center found that the gap in turnout rates between white and nonwhite voters “grew almost twice as quickly in formerly covered jurisdictions as in other parts of the country with similar demographic and socioeconomic profiles.”

In other words, the turnout gap tended to grow most quickly in the areas that lost federal oversight after 2013.

The study by Podhorzer analyzed turnout at the county level. He found that the growing racial turnout gap since the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby had been felt most acutely by younger voters across the country.

These are trends that worry Democrats when it comes to areas like Lowndes, which is home to Valdosta State University, with more than 12,000 students.

Podhorzer found that older voters are more resilient to voting changes because they have established voting habits. But younger or first-time voters are far more likely to be dissuaded or prevented from voting.

It is “a sort of generational replacement, where older and established voters keep up their voting habits, while new restrictions stymie younger voters,” Podhorzer said in his report, which will be released this weekend.

In Bulloch County, Ga., Winston County, Miss., and Newberry County, S.C., the racial turnout gap among young voters grew by 20 percentage points or more between the 2012 and 2020 elections. In each of those counties, the gap for both Gen X and even older voters never grew by more than 11 percentage points.

Turning out the youth vote in November will be critical, especially for President Biden. He won 60 percent of voters under 30 in 2020, according to exit polls, a key part of his coalition. But the 2022 midterms saw a downward trend in the youth vote, and young voters have expressed exasperation with the president heading into this year’s election.

A caveat: Using turnout to assess the impact of changes to voting laws is an imperfect appraisal at best, as it fails to consider other motivational factors, like close races or polarizing candidates. It also ignores aspects of the cost of voting, such as the time it takes.

Seeing a more substantial racial turnout gap among young voters cuts against some conventional wisdom about recent changes to voting laws. Political pundits have often argued that limiting access to voting by mail or reducing the number of polling locations is likely to affect older voters who are often less mobile.

But Bernard Fraga, a professor of political science at Emory University, in Atlanta, noted that seeing a larger racial turnout gap in young voters was “fairly consistent with the previous literature about who should be most impacted by these kinds of laws.”

“For populations that have historically been disenfranchised, or are just less likely to turn out to vote, small changes in the voting calculus can have a much bigger impact,” Fraga said, “because they’re less resilient to these kinds of suppression.”

By all estimates, a relatively small number of voters in just a few states are likely to decide this year’s presidential election: the undecided voters in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Wisconsin.

Do you live in one of those states? Are you unsure whether you’ll cast a ballot for President Biden, former President Donald Trump or someone else? If you’re leaning in one direction, could you be persuaded to change your mind? Are you thinking about not voting at all?

My colleagues covering the election for The New York Times and I want to hear your perspective on politics.

I’ve been covering national politics for The Times for the last five years, often focusing on how voters think about the political debates and divides in the country. I frequently hear from those who are most committed to one party or another, but I’m eager to hear from voters who are still sorting out their choice. What worries you? What inspires you? What will convince you one way or another?

We will read every submission and reach out to some respondents to learn more. We will not share your contact information outside the Times newsroom, and will not publish any part of your submission without following up and hearing back from you first.

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