Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
A new study shows how the high early death and incarceration rates of African Americans skew election outcomes.
Last April, The New York Times reported that there were 1.5 million African-American men “missing” due to early deaths or incarceration. Or, as NYT summarized it: “More than one out of every six black men who today should be between 25 and 54 years old have disappeared from daily life.”
These are men who should be alive and accounted for, but who have instead been vanished due to multiple strains of racism enshrined in the nation’s health and criminal justice systems. The impacts of their erasure are felt not only in families and communities, but also in the workforce, schools, and the electorate.
The consequences of their absence from that last realm, that of the voting public, has further disenfranchised an already over-disenfranchised black population. This is the finding of a new study from the Dartmouth sociologists David Cottrell and Michael C. Herron, along with the University of Florida political science professor Daniel A. Smith and Javier M. Rodriguez, a researcher at the University of Michigan’s Population Studies Center. In their paper, “Mortality, Incarceration, and African-American Disenfranchisement in the Contemporary United States,” the researchers say that, when considering democratic participation, the effect of this disappearance of African Americans is actually worse than what the NYT reports.
There are actually 2.74 million African-American men and women of voting age missing from the electorate—13.2 percent of the black voting population—due to unequal living conditions between black and white Americans, according to the study. These are people taken out of the electorate due to early death or being jailed—what the researchers call “disproportionate disenfranchisement,” defined as:
[D]eceased or incarcerated African-Americans who would be alive and free to vote, respectively, were African-American and White living conditions equivalent. African-Americans who are not in their communities due to disproportionate death or incarceration—but who would be alive and in their communities if African-American living conditions were equivalent to White conditions—are said to be missing.
This number does not include the 1.17 million African Americans disenfranchised due to laws that don’t allow people previously imprisoned for felony crimes to vote. Combined, close to four million black would-be voters are disenfranchised, as of 2010, due to the exorbitant criminalization of African Americans and the legacy of racial health disparities. Here’s the math on that, from the paper:
- 3,902,862 African Americans are disenfranchised in total due to disproportionate mortality, incarceration, and prior-felony conviction.
- 2,017,344 voting-age African Americans are missing due to “excessive mortality.”
- 718,380 voting age African Americans are missing due to excessive incarceration.
- 1,167,138 voting age African Americans are disenfranchised by laws restricting ex-felons from voting.
- There are 193,401 African Americans in Tennessee alone—almost a quarter of the African-American population—who are disenfranchised.
Such a massive absence has an obvious effect on presidential races; consider that the 2000 Bush-Gore election was decided by a few hundred votes in Florida, which is the reigning state of black disenfranchisement. But the consequences are felt much more painfully in down-ticket races, such as those for seats in Congress, state legislatures, and even city councils. Here’s what disproportionate disenfranchisement looks like in four cities that the paper’s authors studied:
For Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit, most of the black disenfranchisement among those populations is because of death or jail. Baltimore is part of a state that strips voting powers away from those formerly imprisoned for felony crimes. The total disenfranchising effect in Baltimore could have an impact on election results for its tenth city council district, where African Americans would be the majority but for early mortality and carceral living conditions.
Roughly 5,000 people voted for that district’s city council seat in the primary election held in April— that’s in a district of nearly 50,000 people. It also happens to be a district known for having some of the highest concentrations of air pollution in the U.S. That district also staged a years-long battle between a youth-led coalition of residents and a New York-based company that hoped to build the nation’s largest trash incinerator facility there, which would have polluted the air even more.
The difference in votes for the top two Democratic candidates and top two Republican candidates in the April primary was nearly 100 votes each. Meanwhile, there were thousands of African Americans who could not vote in that district due to disenfranchisement. As it happens, the Republican city council candidate Michael Nolet told The Baltimore Sun, perhaps self-servingly, that one of his chief concerns for the district was its high levels of disenfranchisement.
The figure below, from the report, gives a glimpse of what the voting population in Baltimore’s districts could look like if all things were racially equal:
In the figure above, the solid black bars represent the actual number of African Americans who are able to vote in a city council district. The hollow portion above each solid bar reflects the size of the black population that can’t vote due to disenfranchisement. The solid red dots represent the total African-American populations in those districts, while the hollow dots signal what the black populations would be if not for early deaths, prison, and the racism behind it all.
If a solid red dot is above a solid black bar, that means African Americans do not have an enfranchised voting majority in that district (or, at least didn’t in 2010). If a hollow dot is placed below the hollow bar-extension’s dashed margins, that means the disenfranchised population would’ve been large enough for an African-American majority in that district—meaning that disenfranchised population could have significantly affected that district’s election outcomes.
That is true for Baltimore’s City Council District 10, where black lives mattering has as much to do with being able to breathe as it does with police-involved deaths like Freddie Gray’s. There are numerous other examples among congressional and state legislative districts where disenfranchisement has skewed the voting populations so much as to possibly impact election results. The paper states that:
- There are 73 congressional districts where at least 20,000 African-American men and women have been disproportionately disenfranchised due to early mortality, incarceration, or prior felony convictions.
- There are 29 congressional districts that have more than 40,000 disproportionately disenfranchised African Americans, and three with more than 80,000.
- There are five congressional districts in Virginia and Florida alone where the rate of disproportionately disenfranchised African Americans is above 30 percent.
As shown in the charts below, there are dozens of state legislative districts where at least a quarter of the African-American population is disproportionately disenfranchised. There are 19 districts that disenfranchise more than a third of their black populations, and a handful that disenfranchise more than 40 percent of black voters.
The magnitude of these numbers not only affects the number of voters, but also the number of African Americans who could’ve run for office. This means that some would-be Barack Obama, Cory Booker, Mia Love, or Muriel Bowser is in a cemetery or corrections center.
There are limitations, of course, to this study: Had these missing African Americans been accounted for, some of these districts would be drawn differently, and gerrymandering has its own disenfranchising effects. Also, the researchers assume that the millions missing would still all participate in elections at the same rate as white voters.
But if all things were truly equal—if black people didn’t die earlier due to heart disease, cancer, gun violence, nor had to stress about dealing with racially biased police, prosecutors, and judges—it’s hard to imagine they wouldn’t have comparable electoral participation rates with whites. Imagine what Tamir Rice would have voted for, or what elected official he could have become, had his life not been cut so short.