With Restrictive Voting Laws in the Way, Our Fight for Racial Equality in Voting Is Far From Over

This post and project was co-created with Daniel Shang and Selina Zhou.

It was not until the 1960s that Black Americans could get involved in voting and make their voice heard. However, ever since then, new laws were enacted, and some were criticized as tools to restrain Black Americans from the poll.

In this post, we aim to explore some of the laws and see if they do have a preventative effect on Black voters by visualizing relevant data. This post is part of the MQM: Business Analytics Spring 1 Data Visualization Competition. As business analytics master students at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, we would like to take this great opportunity to explore the topic and raise awareness of racial disparity, especially in voting.

Image from sidebarsblog.com

Black Representation

The right to vote is the foundation of U.S. democracy. Since the 15th Amendment, African Americans’ voting rights are protected by the constitution. Between the 14th Amendment and the 15th Amendment, the U.S. had its first black Senator. However, following the Reconstruction Era until the culmination of the Civil Rights Movement, Jim Crow laws imposed requirements such as literacy tests, poll taxes, and religious tests, effectively denying minorities’, including Black Americans’, voting rights. Therefore, during this period, the number of Black members in Congress went back to rock bottom. Fortunately, after the Voting Rights of 1965, the U.S. established protection of voter registration and voting for minorities, including Black Americans. Since then, the number of Black members in Congress has increased, especially Black Democrats. Besides, the gap between the number of Black Republicans and Democrats grows at a faster speed.

Black Americans in Congress by Year

Overall, there are 163 Black Americans from 30 States who have served in Congress. California and Illinois have far more Black members in Congress than other states.

Black representation keeps increasing. In 2021, 12.5% of Congress members are Black, about equal to the share of the Black population. Many people, including the five Supreme justices, think that we are close to voting equality. They believe that the fair Black representation and more Black Americans in powerful positions mean that the inequality is mitigated. Therefore, in 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by a 5-to-4 vote, freeing nine states, mostly in the South, to change their election laws without advance federal approval. In the trial, Chief Justice Roberts stated that “the Voting Rights Act of 1965 based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day.”

However, it’s too early to say we are close to equality. There is still a considerable gap between Black Democratic representation and Black Republican representation.

Percentage of Black Americans in Congress by Party

Besides, even if we just look at the Black representation rate, many states in the south still have a fairly large gap between the share of Black Americans in Congress and the share of Black Americans in the Population.

Besides, since the “right to vote” is not explicitly stated in the U.S. Constitution, states may legally deny the “right to vote” by enacting various voting restriction laws such as voter ID laws and felony disenfranchisement policies from which we observe more racial disparities.

Voter ID law

We researched different voter ID laws in different states to see if they lead to a voting rate disparity, since these laws are considered potential voting restrictions. In the U.S., six states (Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Wisconsin) strictly require photo ID, and three states (Arizona, North Dakota, Ohio) strictly require non-photo ID at the poll. The word “strict” here means that if the voter does not have acceptable identification, they must vote on a provisional ballot and take additional steps after Election Day for it to be counted. To see whether these laws have a different impact on the two groups, we collected voting rates from 2000 to 2018 by race in each state. Then, for each of the eight states (North Dakota does not have data accurate enough for our purpose and is thus omitted), we find the exact year when the voter ID law was enacted and see if the voting rate changes before and after that time point.

We visualized the voting rates of Black citizens (in purple) and those of White citizens (in orange). The gray bars at the bottom of the graph indicate the absolute difference in citizen voting rates in that year. A gray bar above zero means that White citizens have a higher voting rate, while a gray bar below zero indicates that a higher percentage of Black citizens voted. Among the eight states, six states show a decline in voting rates after the law was enacted, especially for African Americans. For example, Arizona passed the voter ID law in 2004, and it took effect in that year’s election ballot. Voters were required to provide evidence of U.S. citizenship and present state-issued IDs before voting. As the figure shows, 2004 became the year with the third-highest voting rate difference between Black and White citizens, and the following 2006 was the year with the highest voting rate difference.

As another example, Wisconsin enacted a voter ID law in 2011, which took effect in the 2016 election. On the graph, we see the highest voting rate difference between Black citizens and White citizens in 2016 and the second-highest in 2018. Similar patterns also occurred in Ohio, Georgia, and Mississippi.

In addition, we found that all nine states’ voter ID laws were enacted when the republican party was in power, and four out of nine states were swing states, meaning that either party could win in the states during an election. The remaining five states are safe states for the republican party. Combining these facts, we can reasonably speculate that the republican party is likely using voter ID law as a tool to dwarf the democratic party by disenfranchising more people of color.

Felony Disenfranchisement

Another way to restrain people from voting is through felony disenfranchisement laws. These laws have prohibited millions of citizens convicted of felony offenses from voting since as early as 1792. We also find that these laws have a disproportionate impact on African Americans when tracing the process of a felony conviction with data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

We start with the drug offense, a major category of a felony conviction with racial disparity historically. Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and established much harsher sentences for crack cocaine offenses than for powder cocaine cases. For instance, the distribution of 500 grams of powder cocaine carries a minimum 5-year sentence. In contrast, for crack, the distribution of just 5 grams carries the same sentence, which implies a disparity ratio of 100:1. The following graph shows the yearly trend of the percentage of Black people (in purple) and White people (in orange) arrested due to crack cocaine. We observe that the percentage of the Black population arrested due to crack cocaine was four times more than the White population in 1999. Then Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, which reduced the disparity ratio from 100:1 to 18:1. We see an immediate reduction in the disparity between Black and White people afterward. This indicates the effectiveness of relevant laws and an urgent need for real equality for the community of color since the current percentage of Black people arrested due to crack cocaine is still 3.5 times more than White people.

Then we move one step further to look at the imprisonment rate due to drug offenses. The imprisonment rate here refers to the number of prisoners per 100,000 population. From the graph below, we observe that even though the pattern shows a sharply decreasing gap, the imprisonment rate of the Black population is still four times more than that of the White population at present. On the contrary, the three opioid waves spread in the White community had little impact on the imprisonment rate of White people.

It is reasonable to infer that the racial disparity in imprisonment rate leads to the disparity in felony disenfranchisement rate. Since each state has its own felony disenfranchisement law, we then explore the differences and connect the strictness of the laws with the state felony disenfranchisement rate. There are five levels from the strictest to the least strict: post-sentencing, prison, parole & probation, prison & parole, prison, and no restriction. We find that states with stricter felony disenfranchisement laws such as Wyoming, Tennessee & Florida, correspond to larger racial disparity in disenfranchisement rate (in darker red), which supports our statement that stricter laws disproportionately affect the Black voting population.


In conclusion, we cannot deny the progress toward racial equality in overall representation in Congress and in rights exercised in voting activities; however, we discover that different forms of racial disparity policies still exist and have disproportionately impacted the Black voters. These laws, especially voter ID laws and felony disenfranchisement policies as we discussed above, are disguised and utilized politically to disenfranchise a higher rate of the Black population and therefore cause racial disparities in voting rights. We believe it is important for people to understand these hidden problems and to take immediate actions to ensure voting rights equality for minorities.

Business Analytics Student at Duke

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