PROVO, Utah — A new study encompassing 400 million voter records from elections held in 2014 and 2016 finds significant gaps in U.S. voter turnout. Conducted by Brigham Young University and the University of Virginia, the new research reports young people, minorities, and those who support the Democratic Party are much less likely to vote than Caucasians, older citizens, and Republican voters.
Additionally, these groups who are less likely to vote were also more likely to live in areas where their neighbors weren’t voting either.
“We’re finding that the circumstances of other citizens who live around you plays an important role in voter turnout,” says study co-author Dr. Michael Barber, BYU professor of political science, in a university release.
“Much of the country is segregated – especially by race and partisanship. Minorities are more likely to live around other minorities who are also less likely to vote. The same is true of voters of both parties. These patterns can create a situation that results in persistent patterns of lower turnout in certain communities for a variety of reasons.”
Thanks to voter file data provided by analytics firm The Data Trust LLC, study authors combined voter registration lists from all 50 states and created a file of roughly 400 million voter records covering two election cycles: the 2016 Presidential election and a 2014 midterm election. Researchers explain that this dataset was “unique in scope and breadth,” facilitating an unprecedented, comprehensive analysis of voter partisanship and turnout rates neighborhood-by-neighborhood.
“We wouldn’t be able to look at voter turnout with such a fine-grained analysis without the use of these new, enormous national datasets,” Dr. Barber adds.
Many non-voters are living in ‘turnout deserts’
The data shows notable gaps in voter turnout according to race. In 2016, white citizens voted at a rate between nine and 15 percentage points higher than African American citizens, Asian citizens, and Hispanic citizens. Meanwhile, in 2014, racial voting gaps were even larger. Caucasians voted at a rate nine to 18 percentage points higher than minorities.
A similar trend became apparent according to political affiliation. Republicans were more likely than Democrats to vote in both 2014 and 2016. As for age, older Americans (60+) voted at a rate roughly 40 percentage points higher than younger citizens under 30.
The research team explains that some of these voter turnout trends are attributable to social context. When researchers considered the distribution of voter turnout according to community, Black and Hispanic citizens, Democrats, and young people were more likely to live in so-called “turnout deserts” — or precincts with significantly lower than the national average voter turnout.
“Turnout deserts are located all across the country. It’s not as easy as simply saying they’re ‘only in rural or urban areas,’” Dr. Barber concludes. “People tend to live around people who are like them. If racial minorities are less likely to vote and they live around other minorities than the whole neighborhood is going to be less likely to vote.”
In conclusion, study authors say these trends are unlikely to turn around unless citizens pressure their elected officials to implement public policies addressing the issue.
The study is published in PLoS ONE.