December 18, 2020

This article was produced by Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access.

With vote counting and certification for the 2020 presidential election behind us, national and local news outlets have largely framed public understanding of what the electorate looked like this year.

Media organizations kept track of key facts like the proportion of votes cast by mail versus in-person, the rejection rate of absentee ballots, turnout rates in given counties and states, as well as the gender, education, and age of people who voted in the election. And one of the most critical categories for voter self-identification was race.

Research shows that race and ethnicity play a big role in political attitudes. In the key battleground state of Pennsylvania, there was overwhelming support for each candidate along racial and ethnic lines. According to exit polls, 92% of Black people in Pennsylvania voted for President-elect Joe Biden. And 69% of Latino voters supported Biden in the state.

Racial breakdowns of the vote reflect a shift from 2016. Biden got 89% of the Black male vote in the state, compared to the 83% who voted for Hillary Clinton. Nationally, Hispanic/Latino women voters produced an uptick in support for Biden: 69% compared with 65% for Clinton in 2016, according to data from the National Election Pool.

But strategies for accurately estimating voter turnout by race vary by state and by media organizations. In Pennsylvania, voter registration records do not include any individual-level data on race. That means individual counties in the state can not provide exact race-specific breakdowns about turnout.

Marc Meredith, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, said states that currently collect individual-level race data were those that had to comply with pre-clearance requirements under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“I don’t know of any states that collect the information that weren’t previously subject to (these) requirements, which were later thrown out by the Supreme Court in the 2013 Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder county decision,” said Meredith.

“The places that do collect it do it because it was information they needed to have to be able to comply with the law, (not because) it was a choice they made as a collective.”

In Alabama and South Carolina, residents are required to note their race on the respective state’s voter registration application. In states like Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee, racial identification is requested but not required.

In a country where voter disenfranchisement impacts every part of the election process, from registering to vote to casting your ballot, race-specific voter turnout data is imperative for organizations and local and state governments to check for election disparities. Being able to accurately say who voted in an election helps government officials, policymakers, and political scientists identify particular voting segments that have below-average turnout and uncover potentially discriminatory voting barriers that account for low political engagement.

Scott Seeborg is the Pennsylvania state director at All Voting is Local, a national and statewide campaign aimed at removing discriminatory barriers to the ballot before they happen. Seeborg said that in Philadelphia, residents register to vote at high rates. But a closer look at race-specific data of voter registrants tells a more nuanced story.

“At the same time we’re seeing a lower rate of Black and brown (voters) and applying for and returning vote-by-mail ballots,” said Seeborg.

This disparity, Seeborg said, led his team to discover that voters in Philly’s majority Black and brown neighborhoods were more likely to return their ballots later than voters in majority-white precincts. Seeborg said that trend increases the likelihood that their ballots will not arrive on time and might be rejected. Furthermore, race-specific data on rates of returned ballots enables voting rights organizations to identify obstacles for a particular segment of voters.

Data illuminates voting patterns and behaviors, which then incentivize election officials and good governments organizations to zero in on the actual barrier. In this case, a lack of clarity within Black and brown communities about mail-in ballot deadlines was the big issue.

“Due to what we have identified as a lack of education, voters in those areas request (mail-in) ballots later than whiter precincts,” said Seeborg.

Meredith said despite the lack of available individual-level data on race, political scientists can use the names of voters recorded in election poll books to identify their race.

In-person voters in Philadelphia sign poll books at their voting location to indicate that they are who they say they are. Eventually, the information from that poll book gets transferred into a database that shows which people within the city showed up to vote.

“There’s a lot of information about people’s race or ethnicity that’s contained either in the location where they live or also in different last names,” Meredith said.

He said many political scientists apply a statistical model that combines Census Bureau data of a geographical area with information on the voter’s last name to make judgments about the likelihood that the voter is of a specific race or ethnicity. It’s not always a perfect method.

“The (algorithm) may come back and say that someone with my last name and who lives at my address for example has a 75% chance of being white and a 25% chance of being one of some other races,” Meredith noted. “It’s hard to know exactly what that means about me specifically but if I aggregate all the information across all the registrants in Philadelphia you can get some sense of what voter turnout looked like by race.”

But the process of scanning the poll books to the database can take between four to six weeks or more after an election. That’s largely due to the fact that in states like Pennsylvania it’s done by hand. Every voter has a barcode that’s scanned into the database, and it’s a very labor-intensive task.

“In some other states they have what are known as electronic poll books,” Meredith said. “In Florida, you could watch the individual voters coming in to vote and it was updating in real time. Here we have more of a pen and pencil process and it just takes a bunch of time to get the information into a computer system.”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, e-poll books are used in at least 41 states. Maine remains the only state that does not permit e-poll books at all.

The right to a secret ballot in Pennsylvania creates challenges for tracking race

Journalists and news organizations depend on other data sources to effectively account for race before and during an election. Some reporters conduct an aggregate level analysis that uses the racial composition of the various neighborhoods to determine turnout by race.

Ryan Briggs, a data reporter at WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR member station, said he and his data team used a census map to trace out an area using census tracts to roughly conform to a given electoral ward or subdivision. They were then able to establish the racial demographic of a specific ward, and compare that to votes cast in the ward itself.

But Briggs said this method also presents some challenges.

“The underlying issue is that census tracts and political wards subdivisions don’t always perfectly align so it can be hard to get a precise estimate of exactly what the racial demographics are of a given political ward,” said Briggs. “But you can try to kind of compare them by grouping together census tracts so they confirm as closely as possible to a ward.”

So if there’s a ward in Philadelphia that is 85% Black, and overall turnout in that ward was 67%, journalists can begin to make statements about Black voter turnout in that particular part of the city. But there are limitations to this method because you have to make a lot of assumptions about which racial group was causing a particular trend in that area.

“There’s only so much you can do without that individual-level data,” said Meredith.

Briggs said the right to a secret ballot complicates this work. Voters in Pennsylvania don’t give out personal information at the voting booth, let alone race and ethnicity. And Pennsylvania is one of the 44 states that has a constitutional provision guaranteeing secrecy in voting. The right to cast a secret ballot has been a mainstay of the U.S. system of governance for the last hundred years.

“Everyone has voted secretly so it’s hard to perfectly (say) here’s Person A, they’re a white male and they voted for Candidate A, and here’s Person B and they’re a Black female and they voted for Candidate B,” said Briggs. “Because the voting process is secret, (we’re) just trying to come up with these very general trends.”

‘It’s just about looking around the margins’

Charles Stwart, a professor of political science at MIT, said one of the ways to ascertain the race and ethnicity of voters in a given election without infringing on the right to a secret ballot is exit polling.

“The idea behind the exit poll is to try to understand what’s in the mind of the voters when they voted on Election Day,” said Stewart. “They were originally used to try to understand who was supporting which candidate, especially for the presidency.”

That’s in addition to their election-calling function. Most major news networks don’t depend on exit polls alone to call an election. Instead, they wait until after the polls have closed on election night to weigh exit poll results with actual votes cast to reflect the actual election results.

Exit poll surveyors are sent out to randomly selected sample precincts and are instructed to approach voters coming out of their polling location after casting their ballot.

“They’re not giving discretion to the interviewer about who they talk to either,” said Stewart. “The instructions to the surveyor are (something like) start when the polls open, talk to the fourth person who comes out the door, and then talk to every 10th person. They’re essentially randomizing the voters that they’re supposed to go to.”

Voters who participate in exit polls are asked to self-select their race on the form surveyors give to them. One of the biggest issues with exit polls, though, is the non-response bias.

Edison Media Research currently conducts all exit polls and election projections for four major news organizations — ABC, CBS, CNN, and NBC — that participate in the National Election Pool. In the 2004 election, the Edison poll vastly overestimated the vote for John Kerry. Exit poll results showed Kerry ahead in Ohio, Florida, and New Mexico — all states the former U.S. senator lost to Bush in the 2004 election — as election night news coverage predicted a Kerry win. Stewart said this was largely due to the age of surveyors,  who tend to skew younger, which meant middle-age and older voters were less comfortable and less likely to speak to surveyors in the first place. In 2004, the average age of Edison interviewers was 34.

“So that would have skewed the respondents younger and because in 2004 respondents were more likely to vote Democrat, it biased the sample that way,” said Stewart.

The Edison poll projections also affected election night narratives about racial subgroups. On Nov. 2, 2004, the NEP reported that Bush won 45% of the Latino vote, a 10-point gain from 2000.

“In contrast, a pre-election survey of Latino voters by the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank with more than 10 years experience polling Latino voters, reported Bush garnering just 30% of the vote,” according to a 2006 article published by Cambridge University Press.

Ultimately, the Edison poll overestimated the Latino vote for Bush in 2004. Election scholars say methodologies for randomly-selecting sample precincts for exit polls are a big part of the problem. Typically precinct numbers are placed in a hat and drawn out of the thousands of precincts in a given geographical area. Then, they do what’s called purposive random sampling, which is when they pick precincts that represent the overall demographics of that given area, which means accounting for things like size, voter turnout, and race.

But massive residential segregation persists in the United States, and according to an analysis by the Washington Post, “deep and persistent segregation” is common for African Americans, who are more likely to live in majority-Black neighborhoods. That’s due to a legacy of racist Jim Crow laws and the local and federal housing policies over the decades that mandated segregation by refusing to insure mortgages in and near African American neighborhoods.

But according to the 2006 Cambridge University Press article, election scholars say looking at voting behaviors in precincts that are more racially diverse may be skewing election projections. Voters of all races are more likely to vote in precincts where they are the majority. So talking to voters in racially-homogenous precincts in a given exit poll may lend itself to more accurate projections. That’s mainly because the person of color who’s voting in a significantly more diverse precinct may not be representative of that racial subgroup as a whole.

“A more accurate representation of racial and ethnic voters, and therefore the city at large, might be found if we conducted most of the exit poll interviews in high concentration racial precincts instead of mixed-race precincts,” according to the 2006 article.

Many news organizations, including The Associated Press and Fox News, lost faith in the integrity of Edison’s exit polls, and stopped working with the company after the 2016 election. In 2017, the AP announced that it would conduct its own exit poll — called AP Votecast — because it felt traditional Election Day-only polls didn’t account for the 40% of the electorate across the country who vote early or by mail and absentee ballots.

According to Stewart of MIT, AP Votecast doesn’t do any in-person surveying.

“They don’t send people to the polling places,” said Stewart. “They just draw a sample of (registered) voters and they keep calling them until they vote.”

Participants selected as part of the random sample can be contacted by phone and mail and can take the survey by phone or online. The shift to contacting voters who don’t show up in person on Election Day is a timely one when accounting for racial turnout, as voters of color, in particular, are expected to vote by mail more frequently in the elections to come.

Christine Chen, the founding executive director of Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote, said APIA early voting was more than three times as high as 2016 numbers. And HIT Strategies, a research firm based in the Washington D.C. area, conducted a survey of  800 Black, Latinx, and APIA voters, finding that “nearly half (48%) of the people of color surveyed (were) likely to vote by mail in the November election.”

If news organizations are to predict race turnout accurately, it’s imperative then that early and mail-in voters are included in the polling process.

But without access to individual-level data on voter registrants’ race in key states across the country, the work of accounting for how people of a particular racial background showed up to vote requires making a lot of assumptions.

“In general, hundreds of thousands of people of all races, colors, creeds turned out to vote this year, (there’s) no question about that,” said Briggs of WHYY. “ It’s just about looking around the margins: What were the trends this way or that way. And is there anything we can learn about where people’s feelings might be shifting one way or another.”

No method is completely foolproof, but Seeborg of All Voting is Local said understanding the disparate impact of disenfranchisement on voters of color enables legislation and policies that benefit those voters.

“We know that going into 2021 and 2022, it’s going to be important that local and state election officials take this data into account, and not only use it to paint a picture of the success of the (high) vote by mail rates,” Seeborg said. “They must begin looking at why density black and brown precincts voted (by mail) at a lower rate and react to that data in a proactive way so that it results in deeper community engagement.”

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Sojourner Ahebee is a Philadelphia-based reporter and audio producer. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, WHYY(NPR Member Station), Roxane Gay and Tressie McMillan Cottom's…
Sojourner Ahebee

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