Since its founding, the United States has struggled to fulfill its promise of equality to all Americans. Notably, a Civil War, several constitutional amendments, and various pieces of legislation have still failed to properly address the disenfranchisement faced by many Americans, and particularly Black Americans. Ensuring that Black voters can cast their ballot free from unnecessary obstacles is important because all eligible Americans should have an equal say in who is chosen to represent them.
Importantly, following the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which eliminated many of the hurdles Black voters faced at the ballot box, the number of Black elected officials more than doubled in southern states, rising from 72 to 159. Descriptive representation, or the extent to which an elected representation resembles their constituents, is a key factor to consider when electing a representative.
Research has shown that in many cases, minority legislators do in fact do a better job of representing their minority constituents than non minority legislators. Notably, Black legislators better represent their Black constituencies in roll call votes and are more intrinsically motivated to advance the interests of Black Americans.
But despite rising numbers of Black representatives, representation remains uneven. While the current percentage of Black elected officials in the House of Representatives is approximately the same as the percentage of the US population that is Black, about 13%, there are only three Black senators and zero Black governors currently in office. Additionally, only about 10% of state legislators are Black. Only three states, Nebraska, West Virginia, and New Hampshire, have legislatures where non-white voters are overrepresented.
Graph from the Washington Post
Notably by contrast, white voters are similarly overrepresented in both “blue” states and “red” states. White voters are overrepresented by about 13.4% in states that voted for Biden and 13.1% in states that voted for Trump.
Underrepresentation of voters of color is not just an issue in Congress and in State government. A 2014 report from Demos describes that there is also a great deal of underrepresentation of Black citizens on city councils. Demos found that one in six Black voters are not fully represented on their city council. Comparatively, only one in sixty-six white voters is not fully represented.
Image from Demos
Demos points to research done by Paru Shah of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, to partially explain this gap in representation. Shah notes that two of the factors considered by Black candidates when deciding to run are whether they would be the first member of their demographic group to hold office, as well as Black turnout in the jurisdiction in prior elections. Potential candidates can be deterred from running if they would be breaking a barrier and if they would be running in the face of historically low Black turnout.
The issue once again circles back around to access to the ballot. If Black voters are facing obstacles at the ballot box, not only does that reduce turnout, but it could be detering Black candidates from ever running. Equal access to the ballot has important ramifications for representation across all levels of government, from city councils to the presidency. Until states and Congress act, voting in this country will never be an equal right afforded to all eligible citizens.