Race, Roll-Off, and Racial Transition: The Influence of Political Change on Racial Group Voter Roll-Off in Urban Elections


  • *Direct correspondence to James M. Vanderleeuw, Department of Political Science, Campus Box # 10030, Lamar University, Beaumont, TX 77710 〈vanderlejm@my.lamar.edu〉. The data used in this article are available on request from the authors. The authors gratefully acknowledge support from the Lamar University Center for Public Policy Studies and assistance from Erica Williams in preparation of this article.


Objectives. Many cities in the United States have undergone or are undergoing racial transition from a majority white to a majority black population. Accompanying this is a change in the racial makeup of elections and officeholders. This article seeks to explain racial patterns in voter roll-off as a city undergoes racial transition.

Methods. Using a fixed-effects regression model, we analyze the level of voter roll-off (from the top-of-the-ballot mayoral contest) among black and white voters across Memphis City Council elections, from 1967 through 2003.

Results. The level of voter roll-off among racial groups is sensitive to the racial aspect of political change. Black voters are most likely to continue to vote in council contests when there is a racial choice among candidates, when blacks have previously been elected, and when blacks occupy the mayoralty and a majority of council seats. Whites are most likely to vote in racially competitive council contests, as well as when there are a large number of white candidates, and when whites hold a majority of the council seats.

Conclusions. In settings such as Memphis, where race has played a pronounced historic role, the racial context of political empowerment has a strong influence on electoral participation. Elections below the top-of-the-ballot become more salient, and political efficacy grows among racial group members when that cohort occupies institutional positions, particularly the majority of positions in a governing institution.