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Census: Black Voting Rate Topped Rate For Whites In 2012

Voters wait in line to cast their ballots at Cleveland Avenue Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo., on Nov. 6, 2012.
Julie Denesha
Getty Images
Voters wait in line to cast their ballots at Cleveland Avenue Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo., on Nov. 6, 2012.

Black voters showed up at the polls at higher rates than whites in last year's presidential election, driving the rate of minority participation to historic levels, a new government report shows.

While voting and turnout rates from 2012 were known soon after President Obama's re-election, the survey by the U.S. Census Bureau offers new details on the social and demographic characteristics of the electorate by age, gender, race or Hispanic origin, and geography. It also offers hints about why people didn't register to vote or ultimately cast a ballot.

Here are six takeaways from the bureau's findings, which result from a survey of the civilian, voting-age population:

1. The electorate is "increasingly diverse"

About 1 in 4 voters last year was either black, Asian or Hispanic, reflecting a steady increase in minority participation in presidential elections since 1996, when the bureau began issuing the post-election report.

At the same time, the number of white, non-Hispanic voters also declined — the first time any race or ethnic group decreased since 1996. About 2 million fewer whites voted last year compared with 2008. Contrast that with the black, Asian and Hispanic voters, who increased by roughly 3.5 million from the last election.

"The American electorate is growing increasingly diverse," said Thom File, a bureau sociologist who authored the study.

2. Black voter participation is growing

Blacks voted at historic rates, surpassing the participation of whites for the first time since 1968, when the bureau first began publishing data on voting and race.

About 1.7 million additional black voters reported going to the polls last year compared to in 2008. Black turnout rates have also increased incrementally in each presidential election since 1996.

The study also revealed a gender gap among black voters. Black women voted at higher rates than black men by roughly 9 percentage points — about 6 percentage points higher than other race/ethnicity groups. (Women outvoted men overall by 4 percentage points).

3. Hispanic turnout was flat

Hispanic turnout decreased slightly in 2012 and has remained relatively flat since 1996, with just under half of eligible Hispanic voters casting ballots. Whites voted at higher rates than Hispanics in every region of the country except the South Atlantic, according to the report.

4. Young voter participation is down

Last year, the overall turnout rate among all groups dropped when compared to the 2004 and 2008 elections. That's in part because of a sharp decrease in the participation of voters under 25 — a group that had started to vote more regularly in recent presidential elections.

The trend was evident across all race groups and Hispanics, with young whites reducing their participation by roughly 7 percent, though other groups also declined. Only black voters older than 45 increased their turnout rates in any statistically significant way last year.

5. Why people didn't vote

The report itself didn't contain information about what factors prevent Americans from voting or even registering to vote, but the bureau released spreadsheets with details from the survey responses.

The responses were predictable. Nearly 20 percent of those surveyed said they didn't vote because they were too busy. About 14 percent said an illness or disability prevented them from going to the polls. And about 13 percent said they didn't like the candidates.

But minor differences among subgroups were evident in some cases. About 14 percent of whites, for example, said they didn't vote because of the candidates. Compare that with only 3 percent of blacks who felt that way. Six percent of black respondents said transportation problems prevented them from voting, a little over twice the rate of other subgroups. And a higher rate of Hispanics said their were "out of town" for the election.

6. State-by-state comparisons

The underlying data also showed that voting rates differed by state, though File cautioned against forming conclusions without considering the survey's margin of error, which ranges from plus or minute 1 percentage point to 2.7 percentage points.

Washington, D.C. (which, of course, isn't technically a "state"), had the highest participation rate: About 77 percent. Other states topping the list, in rank order, were: Mississippi, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Maine.

West Virginia had the lowest rate of participation, slightly less than 50 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. Other states with low rates included: Hawaii, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, Tennessee, Arizona, Utah, California and Nevada.

Download the report and underlying data here.

Update 6:41 p.m. EDT: The Pew Hispanic Center has posted its own "six takeaways" and some nice charts from the study.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Matt Stiles is a data editor for NPR's news apps team.
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