Monday, September 19, 2005

Brennan Center folks wrong on race and absentee balloting

The Brennan Center has published a long response to the Carter-Baker report. I've been working my way through it tonight.

One thing jumped out at me: their claim that there is a "double standard" with respect to absentee balloting, that is "especially disturbing in light of data, examined by the Commission's predecessor, that white voters are about twice as likely as black voters to cast an absentee ballot."

This is not supported by the original report that they reference. Hansen reports data from the 1996 Current Population Survey regarding absentee balloting, showing that 9% of whites report voting absentee while only 4% of Blacks report voting via this mode.

Here's the problem--in 1996, a number of states had already begun to relax their absentee balloting requirements. States with large African American populations, especially those located in the South and NE, still had very restrictive rules. We don't know whether the differences found in the 1996 CPS report are due to regional differences in laws or something about race.

Stein's work in Texas is cited just below the table in the Hansen report (on pg. 4), and I quote: A better sense of the demographic composition of early and Election Day voters comes from a study of Texas by Robert Stein. The Texas investigators interviewed voters as they exited polling sites on Election Day and as they exited early voting stations during the three-week period of early voting in 1994. Stein found some significant differences between early and Election Day voters. The most important was age: Just as older voters tend to vote absentee so older voters tend to vote early. In fact, more than a third of the early voters in 1994 were over the age of 60 and more than half were over 50. In contrast, the youngest voters, who are overrepresented among absentee voters, were underrepresented among early voters. The circumstances that cause absentee usage among the youngest voters, absence from the jurisdiction during Election Day, are also the circumstances that preclude early voting. Stein also found some small differences in early voting by gender, with men more likely to be early voters than women, and by income, with poorer voters more likely to turn out early (the opposite of the pattern for absentee voters).

This is in line with other data that I've seen to this point: there are few if any racial differences in early or absentee voting, and what patterns exist seem to be driven more by partisan mobilization patterns than by anything fundamentally racial.

5 Comments:

Anonymous Justin Levitt said...

Above, Professor Gronke critiques our citation of the 2001 Commission on Federal Election Reform for the proposition that in-person voters are subject to a disturbing double standard when compared to those who vote absentee. Although the 2005 Commission recommended enhanced photo identification requirements for citizens voting in person, it recommended only that an absentee voter’s signature on an absentee ballot be compared to his signature on a voter registration application. The signature comparison for absentee voters is substantially less burdensome for the voter. This is particularly worrisome, we pointed out, because “white voters are about twice as likely as black voters to cast an absentee ballot.” As support for this proposition, we cited the report of the 2001 Commission, coordinated by Dr. John Mark Hansen; Hansen clearly and directly found that “use of absentee ballots varies by race. Blacks are only half as likely as whites to vote absentee.” John Mark Hansen, Coordinator, Task Force on the Federal Election System, Report, at V-3 in Task Force Reports to Accompany the Report of the National Commission on Election Reform (Aug. 2001).

Professor Gronke critiques our reliance on Hansen’s report. His criticism on this issue, however, is unfounded – and flawed in three distinct ways.

First, Professor Gronke notes that several states have relaxed their absentee ballot requirements since 1996, when the data that Hansen used was collected. Although it is true that expanded absentee ballot laws (including no-excuse absentee laws) have increased the legal opportunity to vote absentee in several states, it does not necessarily follow that these laws have mitigated the differential racial impact of absentee balloting. We are unaware of any studies examining the racial impact, if any, of these recent reforms. But it is not obvious that liberalized rules – even in states with large African-American populations – would decrease the disparity. For example, expanded rules regarding who may vote absentee would not remedy disproportionate information regarding the process for absentee balloting -- “the resources to know to arrange to vote in advance,” Hansen at V-2 – among different racial communities. Nor would it remedy a disproportionate preference or habit for absentee voting. Indeed, to the extent that different racial communities differentially use absentee ballots for reasons unrelated to legal opportunity, expanded access would increase the total racial disproportion. Ultimately, Professor Gronke’s claim that these liberalized absentee laws might mitigate the overall racial impact of absentee voting is at this point only speculative.

Second, those reading the quoted description of the Robert Stein study, out of context, might arrive at a mistaken impression of its impact on our conclusion. The quoted passage implies that Hansen found Stein’s 1994 data to give a “better sense of the demographic composition” than 1996 data showing that whites are twice as likely to vote absentee. Hansen, however, found both studies to be reliable. The 1996 Current Population Survey analysis found a substantial racial distinction in the rate of absentee (by mail) voting, but little difference in the composition of early (in person) voters. In this context, Hansen stated that “[a] better sense of the demographic composition of early and Election Day voters comes from a study of Texas by Robert Stein.” 1996 absentee voting demographics showed, two-to-one, a racial disparity; 1996 early voting demographics showed few demographic differences, so Hansen turned to the Stein study – a study comparing in-person early voting to in-person election day voting in Texas in 1994 – for more early voting detail. The Stein study casts no additional light on the demographics, racial or otherwise, of absentee voting.

Finally, Professor Gronke’s critique misses the real import of the distinction between these two studies. Stein’s early voting study examined individuals appearing personally at the polls before election day; these individuals would all be subject to the 2005 Commission’s recommendation that “persons presenting themselves at the polling place” be required to present the enhanced government-issued photo ID. The fact that there is no racial disparity in the rate of this early voting means only that the photo ID requirement will impact this population exactly as it impacts the population as a whole – with increased burdens on the elderly, students, people with disabilities, urban residents, low-income individuals, and people of color.

In contrast, Hansen has shown that individuals who vote absentee – the majority of which occurs by mail – were disproportionately white in 1996, and we see no particular reason to believe that that disproportion has changed. It is this mail-ballot population that the 2005 Commission recommends exempting from its burdensome enhanced photo-identification requirement. We remain disturbed by the disparity.

--
Justin Levitt
Associate Counsel
Brennan Center for Justice
at NYU School of Law

1:51 PM  
Blogger Paul Gronke said...

Justin,

I appreciate your attention to this issue. Please note that in personal communications with the Brennan Center, I have not challenged the rest of their report, only told them that I thought the comments about absentee ballots were based on old and inconclusive data and that I recommended that they delete those paragraphs from the report.

I continue to disagree with your characterization of the CPS data on absentee balloting, however.

You miss the basic statistical point of my post. The states with high proportions of African Americans are the same states that had not liberalized their absentee balloting requirements. Thus, we have no idea whether the four percent difference found in 1996 (ancient histoy as far as absentee balloting gotes) was a result of race or a result of geography.

Hansen never said he found the CPS results "reliable." He simply reported them, then commented that the Stein study gives us a "better" sense of the differences. And in that "better" study, racial differences were not apparent.

You are correct about the Stein study--it shows no evidence of racial disparity in in-person early voting in Texas. This is the only evidence we have at present.

Based on that slender reed, the rest of your post continues to assume race ("mitigate the overall racial impact...") as the only possible causal factor in those differences.

And note: if the difference is due only to disproportionate preference among African Americans for precinct-place voting, I don't see how you can possibly claim a disparate racial impact of the Carter/Baker recommendations.

4:02 PM  
Blogger Arizona foreclosures said...

Professor Gronke critiques our reliance on Hansen’s report. His criticism on this issue, however, is unfounded – and flawed in three distinct ways. Texas

12:37 AM  
Anonymous stone said...

You miss the basic statistical point of my post. The states with high proportions of African Americans are the same states that had not liberalized their absentee balloting requirements. Thus, we have no idea whether the four percent difference found in 1996 (ancient histoy as far as absentee balloting gotes) was a result of race or a result of geography.

Hansen never said he found the CPS results "reliable." He simply reported them, then commented that the Stein study gives us a "better" sense of the differences. And in that "better" study, racial differences were not apparent.

12:38 AM  
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10:56 PM  

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