On March 3, 2015 the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies released "50 Years of the Voting Rights Act: The State of Race in Politics." The report surveys minority voter turnout and representation at all levels of elected government, among other measurements, as a means of evaluating the state of race in politics since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. While findings at the national level tell a story of progress with significant improvements still needed, the state of race in local politics deserves just as much attention.
The study found that local voter turnout averaged 27 percent—less than half of presidential general election turnout—and in some cases was lower than 10 percent. Furthermore, as overall turnout declines in local elections, there is evidence that the diversity of the electorate declines as well. Thus, older, whiter, and wealthier voters increase their voting power, indicating that low voter turnout in local elections is at least in part responsible for disproportionately white local governments across the nation.
The disparity between racial minorities' share of the electorate and influence in local politics reflects this low and unrepresentative turnout in local elections. African Americans account for 12.5 percent of the eligible voting-age population in America yet have been excluded from power at the local level, occupying 5.7 percent of local elected positions. Similarly, Latinos make up 11 percent of the voting age population, yet occupy only 3.3 percent of local elected positions. Elections have consequences: The study found that African Americans were the least advantaged group in America in terms of policy outcomes based on available data from 1972 to 2010.
These findings show that the conversation around reflective democracy must extend past the national political stage--where many tend to focus their attention--to our local democracies, which often have the largest impact on the daily life and welfare of citizens. FairVote's Promote Our Vote project is working to eliminate these barriers to reflective democracy by advancing pro-suffrage policies and practices in Maryland localities, in the spirit of establishing an explicit right to vote in the U.S. Constitution. To learn more and take action visit Promoteourvote.com, or check out the preliminary version of our Inclusive Democracy Toolkit for ideas and advocacy tips to increase voter turnout.