Fact-checking the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

During oral arguments in Shelby County v. Holder, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts, made some assertions about voting statistics in Massachusetts vs. Mississippi.

From the transcript:

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Just to get the - do you know which State has the worst ratio of white voter turnout to African American voter turnout?


CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Massachusetts. Do you know what has the best, where African American turnout actually exceeds white turnout? Mississippi.

GENERAL VERRILLI: Yes, Mr. Chief Justice. But Congress recognized that expressly in the findings when it reauthorized the act in 2006. It said that the first generation problems had been largely dealt with, but there persisted significant -

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Which State has the greatest disparity in registration between white and African American?

GENERAL VERRILLI: I do not know that.

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Massachusetts. Third is Mississippi, where again the African American registration rate is higher than the white registration rate.

The impact of these assertions is greatly increased by the unexpectedness of “liberal” Massachusetts being the worst and “conservative” Mississippi being 1st in turnout and 3rd in registration, both big liberal issues.

According to the latest data from the US Census Bureau, neither of the assertions is true.

White and Black Voter Turnout November 2010 by jecarter4

As the table above shows, the White to Black turnout ratio in Massachusetts, while not in a good position, is not last, as Chief Justice Roberts asserted. And Mississippi is not even close to 1st; it’s 8th.

White and Black Registration November 2010 by jecarter4

Chief Justice Roberts’ second assertion, that Massachusetts has the worst disparity in voter registration between White and Black and that Mississippi is 3rd, is also incorrect, as is shown in the table above. Washington is at the bottom and Mississippi is 7th.

Interesting side note: Massachusetts does end up last in the disparity of registration between White and Black if the percentages are calculated using total residents over 18 instead of US citizens over 18. I don’t think anyone would argue for calculating voter registration percentages using persons ineligible to vote.

Of course the Chief Justice’s assertions would not have had the same impact if he had used Washington and Illinois instead of Massachusetts and Mississippi, but they would have had the imprimatur of truth.

The Chief Justice is even more inaccurate using turnout data from 2008.