Incarceration and Racial Inequality in Voter Turnout

Jake Rosenfeld, University of Washington
Becky Pettit, University of Washington
Jennifer Laird, University of Washington
Bryan L. Sykes, University of Washington

Recent research and press reports highlight increased voting rates among the demographic groups with rising rates of imprisonment. The standard surveys of voting in the U.S. exclude the institutionalized. Among marginal populations, the excluded have grown to such an extent to force a re-evaluation of our official turnout estimates. We merge Current Population Survey (CPS) voter data with counts of inmates provided by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), and provide turnout estimates that include the incarcerated for detailed sociodemographic groups. Results reveal that in recent elections official turnout rates of particular populations are grossly overstated. Among young black high school dropouts, only one in five voted in the 2008 election; exactly the same fraction that voted in 1980. Much of the narrowing of the race gap in voter turnout is attributable to the exclusionary effects of mass incarceration. The remaining difference results from turnout declines among whites.

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Presented in Session 86: Demography of Punishment