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Why Is the U.S. Electorate So White? Because Our Voting System Is Broken. Here's How to Fix It.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

The demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, over white police officer Darren Wilson's fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, brought attention to a curious disparity. While two-thirds of the St. Louis suburb was black, its local government was almost entirely white. One culprit was simple: voter turnout. In the preceding local election, 6 percent of black voters cast ballots, compared to 17 percent of white voters, narrowly yielding a white-majority electorate. The resulting racial disparities on the city council were as predictable as they were dire.

Two generations after the 1965 Voting Rights Act and other Great Society reforms, America's electoral system still suffers from the legacy of Jim Crow: Our political officials and public policies don't represent the diversity and interests of the country's large and growing share of non-white citizens. Improving voter turnout is the most obvious solution to this problem, but doing so will require uncharacteristic boldness from our politicians.

One of the biggest structural factors keeping turnout low is that the majority of cities nationwide—Ferguson included—hold elections at times that don't coincide with federal or state elections. Since non-white voters skip non-presidential elections in higher numbers than white voters, moving local and state elections to the quadrennial presidential cycle would painlessly, efficiently increase turnout and produce a more representative electorate across the ballot. As a bonus, holding fewer elections would save money.

Republicans, who have won a national majority in only one of the past six presidential elections, could be expected to criticize such a move as a power-grab by Democrats. That would be a deeply cynical position for a party to espouse in a democracy, but this is the same party that has been pushing voter I.D. laws that make voting more difficult. While these laws' aggregate impact is still unclear, there's no doubt that they disproportionately affect poor and minority citizens.

We can also say with certainty that the widespread disenfranchisement of felons—another impediment to voting, with a clear solution—disproportionately affects black voters. Felony convictions barred nearly 6 million people from voting in 2012. Prohibiting people who have completed their sentences from ever voting again is a penalty driven by bigotry. Once they've paid their debt to society, felons don't forfeit other basic civil rights such as due process or equal protection. Disenfranchising them only serves to further ostracize former inmates, making it harder to reintegrate them upon release. It's also a penalty that falls conspicuously along old racial divides. The South contains a majority of the states that bar felons for life; in Florida, 23 percent of all black adults are barred from voting. Meanwhile, overwhelmingly white states such as Maine and Vermont allow inmates to vote even as they serve their sentences.

The high rate of felon disenfranchisement in states such as Florida and Virginia only worsens the racial bias of the Electoral College, which carries its own sordid legacy. By originally counting non-voting slaves as three-fifths of a person, the Electoral College rewarded slave states with disproportionately greater weight per vote. Under Jim Crow, the effect became even stronger, as freedmen counted fully for apportionment yet still largely could not vote. Even today, the Electoral College helps to limit true competition to a handful of battleground states that are in aggregate whiter than the nation as a whole. Iowa and New Hampshire, for instance, are small and overwhelmingly white, with proportionally more electoral clout per voter, while large, diverse states such as California and New York are uncompetitive.

Consequently, presidential campaigns' incentive to appeal to non-white voters diminishes. Here's how the nine truly contested states in 2012—Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin—compare as a group to the nation overall (using 2010 Census):

Adam Peck

While African-Americans make up a marginally larger share in these states than the country at large, the overrepresentation of whites is considerably higher. Hispanics' influence falls, as does that of Asian-Americans, half of whom live in predictably lopsided California and Texas. In the most crucial states, then, whites have an even greater say than in the rest of the country.

Junking the Electoral College would also increase overall voter participation. Campaigns would work to encourage non-participants nationwide to come to the polls, and history suggests turnout would surge: In 2012 eligible voter turnout in the nine swing states was 66 percent compared to 56 percent elsewhere. Gains in turnout would likely come largely from non-white groups, given the demographics of the other 41 states.

Rescheduling local and state elections, ending the disenfranchisement of felons, and abandoning the Electoral College—even if we could achieve all these changes, we'd still have an electorate that disproportionately represents white voters. The current gap is simply that wide. In 2012, total turnout was 72 percent white compared to a 2010 Census voting-age population that was just 67 percent white. And nearly five years after that Census, with whites an even smaller share of Americans at large, the 2014 midterm electorate was 75 percent white.

We need also to do more to get eligible voters to the polls. One radical approach would be to simply mandate that everyone vote. Australia, for one, has a system of compulsory voting in which citizens are required to vote under penalty of a modest fine (of course, secret ballots do allow for blank votes). Participation increased enormously when it was implemented in 1924. This reform would likely require a constitutional amendment, but the outcome is an electorate almost exactly aligned with the composition of the citizenry.

Many would chafe at the idea of compelling the exercise of a fundamental right. But consider how unresponsive our government becomes when turnout is low as it was in Ferguson’s city elections or 2014’s midterms.

Americans say they don't vote largely because they lack the availability. The structural impediments to voting—Tuesday elections, long lines, lack of easy transportation access—suggest our system evolved to place the heaviest burden on the working class, who are disproportionately non-white. By making Election Day a national holiday, expanding early voting hours, and providing vote-by-mail options, we could significantly shrink obstacles for those who cannot afford a car or take off from work.

Elections lack democratic legitimacy when they do not reflect the wishes of the citizenry. In the case of the United States, we're carrying a legacy of an electoral system that was designed and built to favor white voters. That it still works that way isn't a shock. What's shocking is that we know how to fix it, and still haven't done so.

This post has been updated.