Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has long opposed the Voting Rights Act, so it didn't surprise anyone when he was outwardly hostile towards the law during oral arguments this week. Indeed, the jurist seemed well prepared with talking points he delivered with great authority.
"Do you know which state has the worst ratio of white voter turnout to African-American voter turnout?" Roberts asked Solicitor General Don Verrilli. When Verrilli said he did not know, Roberts answered the question for him: "Massachusetts." Moments later, the chief justice did it again, asking, "Which state has the greatest disparity in registration between white and
African American?" Again the solicitor general did not know, and again Roberts said, "Massachusetts."
James Carter took a closer look at the latest information on voting and registration from the U.S. Census Bureau and found that Roberts appeared to be completely wrong. What's more, the Boston Globe talked to Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin, who's eager to explain just how mistaken the conservative justice is. "I'm calling him out," Galvin said.
Galvin was not alone in his view. Academics and Massachusetts politicians said that Roberts appeared to be misguided.... Galvin and political scientists speculated that Roberts drew his conclusions using US Census Bureau data known as "The Current Population Survey," which collects information on voting and registration every other year. Political scientists say this is one of the few national databases, if not the only one, providing state-by-state voting information.
But a review of those census data appears to contradict Roberts, showing such states as Washington, Arizona, and Minnesota with similar if not bigger gaps between black and white voters.
"The concept of black communities in Massachusetts not voting is an old slur, and it's not true," Galvin said. "I guess the point [Roberts] is trying to make is Mississippi is doing so much better they don't need the Voting Rights Act. He can still relay that conclusion, but he shouldn't be using phony statistics. It's deceptive, and it's truly disturbing."
Supreme Court justices almost never speak to the press, and Roberts' office did not respond to the Globe's request for information to support the claim he raised this week. And as a practical matter, it seems likely Roberts has made up his mind anyway.
But his rhetoric and our reality appear to be at odds.
Reading the transcript, it's clear that Roberts rejects the argument that Southern states, with a history of systemic discrimination and institutional racism, should be subjected to tougher scrutiny than other states. To that end, the justice was eager to argue that a Southern "red" state like Mississippi does a great job on registering and turning out African-American voters, while a Northern "blue" state like Massachusetts does an awful job.
But Roberts probably should have checked with a political scientist first.
According to the census figures, a larger percentage of blacks voted in Mississippi than whites, one percentage point more.
But political scientists caution against drawing sweeping conclusions from the census survey or using it to compare states. The black population in nearly one-fourth of states surveyed in 2010 was so small that it was not possible to make statistically reliable comparisons. And the margin of error for nearly another quarter of the states, including Massachusetts, was in the double digits.
"The margin of error is huge," said Michael P. McDonald, a professor of government and politics at George Mason University who specializes in American elections. "They're not reliable numbers." [...]
When scrutinizing voter turnout numbers, political scientists said it is imperative to look at those figures in the context of the election being held. Was it a national, state, or local election? Was it a midterm election? Did the candidates heavily court voters within communities of color? And what is the make-up of the black community, citizens registered to vote or immigrants who have not become citizens? Otherwise, the numbers exist in isolation, analysts said.
Massachusetts probably shouldn't hold its collective breath waiting for an apology, but here's hoping Roberts at least considers the details before striking down all or part of the landmark civil-rights legislation.