Minnesota consistently ranks at the top in terms of voter turnout. It earns accolades for the quality and competence of its election administration. Recently Secretary of State Steve Simon challenged Minnesotans to register and vote so that the state can continue to be the leader when it comes to election turnout. Yet that high turnout comes with a racial gap that is among the worst in the country.
Minnesota is a land of racial disparities, such as in education. Minnesota Department of Education data point to blacks and other students of color scoring 30 points or more lower on achievement tests compared to whites. U.S. Department of Education data show Minnesota near the bottom of the list in on-time high school graduation rates for blacks, with an overall 67 percent graduation for black males (compared to 90 percent for white males), according to the 2015 Schott Foundation for Public Education report. The black/white male graduation gap is one of the highest in the country. A 2014 study found black students 10 times more likely to be suspended or expelled from Minneapolis schools than white students.
Income and employment
Second, look at income and unemployment. A 2013 Minnesota Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report found the unemployment gap for blacks to be three times that of whites. A 2015 report by the Center for Popular Democracy found the gap to be second worst among states in the nation, only behind Wisconsin. And 2015 U.S. Census data point to Minnesota as having one of the highest black/white gaps in medium family income in the nation. WalletHub, a personal finance site, documented the financial gap between whites and minorities in Minnesota as the biggest in the nation, with median income (4th highest), home ownership (3rd), poverty rate (3rd) and education level (14th).
In criminal justice, groups such as the Sentencing Project note Minnesota among the worst when it comes to racial disparities in terms of incarceration. And the Institute for Metropolitan Opportunity 2015 report “Why Are the Twin Cities So Segregated?” confirmed what john powell and I had documented a generation ago at the Institute on Race and Poverty: that the seven-county metro region has one of the worst residential and educational segregation patterns in the country.
Now consider the racial disparities in voting. WalletHub earlier this year released a study examining political engagement among blacks, using six criteria. It found Minnesota ranked 16th. Among notable failures, Minnesota was 45th in the nation for black voter turnout in the 2014 elections. According to the U.S. Census Bureau in the 2012 elections, 80.2 percent of white non-Hispanic citizens registered to vote, compared to 66.9 percent and 56.1 prcent for blacks and Hispanics. In terms of actually voting, white non-Hispanic turnout was 74 percent, compared to 49.2 percent and 32.5 percent for blacks and Hispanics. For Asian-Americans, their registration was greater overall than for white non-Hispanics at 87.6 percent, but actual turnout was only 56.2 percent.
Why the disparity in registration and voting? It is no coincidence that the poverty, education and incarceration disparities along with the residential segregation are related to the lower voter turnout. Political scientists have long documented the correlations between income, education, and geography. High incarceration rates bring felon disenfranchisement, contributing to decreased eligibility to register and vote.
Low voter turnout compounds other disparities
Low voter turnout among people of color feeds upon itself, compounding other racial disparities and problems. People of color are unable to electorally challenge employment or housing policies. They are unable to challenge policing policies, and they are unable to challenge the voting laws and procedures that may hinder their political engagement.
Minnesota must address the racial voting disparity, especially in light of the growing diversity of the state population. It will require not just addressing problems in the voting laws including felon disenfranchisement, but also tackling the other racial disparities that contribute to the voting problems. If it does not, Minnesota risks perpetuation of a second-class citizenship for many of its people.
David Schultz is a Hamline University professor of political science and the author of “Election Law and Democratic Theory” (Ashgate, 2014) and “American Politics in the Age of Ignorance” (Macmillan, 2013). He blogs at Schultz’s Take, where a version of this piece first appeared.
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