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Systemic Racism– an example: “Racial Disparities in Voting Wait Times”

photo by Dkadume courtesy of

This article, from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) in November 2019, is an example from the ancient “before times” (that is, pre-pandemic) of pervasive racism in America. The underlying research for this article demonstrates that there is systemic racism built into our very democracy. This racism is nearly invisible, yet it reduces the participation of Black people in the electoral process by making them wait longer to cast their votes.

I present the abstract here:

Equal access to voting is a core feature of democratic government. Using data from millions of smartphone users, we quantify a racial disparity in voting wait times across a nationwide sample of polling places during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Relative to entirely-white neighborhoods, residents of entirely-black neighborhoods waited 29% longer to vote and were 74% more likely to spend more than 30 minutes at their polling place. This disparity holds when comparing predominantly white and black polling places within the same states and counties, and survives numerous robustness and placebo tests. We shed light on the mechanism for these results and discuss how geospatial data can be an effective tool to both measure and monitor these disparities going forward.

Overt racism, supported by poll taxes or literacy tests, has been outlawed since 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was passed over the objections of 19 Senators, all from Southern States. The Act was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013. In that year, the Court handed down a decision that cut out an important part of the Act (4b, the preclearance provision)– as described by the Guardian on June 25, 2020:

… the Supreme Court issued one of the most consequential rulings in a generation in a case called Shelby county v Holder. In a 5-4 vote, the court struck down a formula at the heart of the Voting Rights Act, the landmark 1965 law that required certain states and localities with a history of discrimination against minority voters to get changes cleared by the federal government before they went into effect.

It’s hard to overstate the significance of this decision. The power of the Voting Rights Act was in the design that the supreme court gutted – discriminatory voting policies could be blocked before they harmed voters. The law placed the burden of proof on government officials to prove why the changes they were seeking were not discriminatory. Now, voters who are discriminated against now bear the burden of proving they are disenfranchised.

Immediately after the decision, Republican lawmakers in Texas and North Carolina – two states previously covered by the law – moved to enact new voter ID laws and other restrictions. A federal court would later strike down the North Carolina law, writing it was designed to target African Americans “with almost surgical precision”.

… While statewide voting changes get a lot of attention, most of the voting changes the justice department reviewed were submitted by local jurisdictions. Now it’s much harder to even hear about those local changes – which include polling place closures or changing the way candidates are elected – let alone stop them

The Justices who voted to strike down the preclearance provision (Section 4b) were: Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, Kennedy, and Alito. Since that decision, Scalia and Kennedy have been replaced by Kavanaugh and Gorsuch. In order to restore preclearance, the Congress would have to pass (and the President would have to sign) a new provision 4b that would, presumably, take into account any changes that have taken place in the last 40 years.

The Court’s reasoning for striking down 4b was that “the coverage formula violates the constitutional principles of “equal sovereignty of the states” and federalism because its disparate treatment of the states is “based on 40 year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day”, which makes the formula unresponsive to current needs.” (The Court failed to do any digging into the facts on the ground as to whether there had been any changes in government proclivities in the last 40 years– and, apparently, there have been no changes, as the experiences of the past seven years have made plain.)

Notwithstanding this reasoning, “Research has shown that the coverage formula and the requirement of preclearance substantially increased turnout among racial minorities, even as far as the year before Shelby County. Some jurisdictions that had previously been covered by the coverage formula massively increased the rate of voter registration purges after Shelby County.” (Quotes are from Wikipedia’s article, “Voting Rights Act of 1965“)

The fact is that local jurisdictions have felt free to eliminate polling places and allocate outdated or malfunctioning voting machines in areas where Black people are over-represented, while areas where White people predominate have enjoyed updated voting machines and additional polling places.

Systemic racism is alive and well all over America. This is only one example of the invidious discrimination that people of color face in this country. The current administration has rolled back or eliminated all attempts to make progress against systemic racism. If re-elected, they will redouble their efforts to “comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted.”

Propagandists from authoritarian countries like China and Russia will again be encouraged to engage in “whataboutism” by highlighting the many examples of systemic racism in this country to make us look bad and distract attention from their complete lack of democratic representation. We need to practice what we preach and eliminate these racist practices.

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