MSc student Ann Bandolik outlines the partisan and racialised trends identified in the proposal and passage of restrictive voter-access policy in the USA as part of her MSc dissertation.
On November 8 2016 79,646 votes across the three swing states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin delivered 46 electoral votes to Donald Trump and thus the presidency of the United States, without a majority of the popular vote. While this margin was not as extraordinary as Florida’s 540-vote margin that swung the 2000 Election, it represents the latest episode in a trend of heightened competition in electoral victories. Crucially, it demonstrates that policies designed to impact the voter franchise, with even trivial effects, could pose serious consequences on electoral outcomes.
Between 2012 and August 2017, 569 restrictive voter-access policies were proposed and 84 passed across all 50 US states (see maps below).
Bills included voter-ID laws, proof of citizenship requirements, restrictions to early and absentee voting, registration, and felon and social minority disenfranchisement, which all set the stage for the latest revamped effort to demobilise and disenfranchise American voters: simple “common sense” measures, sold to voters as a necessary burden to instill public confidence in the democratic process. These policies have been proven to depress turnout, by targeting certain groups with “surgical precision,” which have held up in several federal court cases.
These tactics represent new, fundamental features of the modern US election system as state legislatures continue to increase the hurdle for voters, where direct and indirect costs place disproportionate burdens on certain segments of the electorate. This typically includes young, old, ethnic minorities, and lower socio-economic groups.
Efforts to manipulate the franchise have intensified in recent years, represented by the sheer volume of legislation attempting to restrict electoral access. Most of this comes as a direct consequence of the Shelby County v. Holder case, a momentous Supreme Court decision that invalidated key provisions of 1965’s Voting Rights Act, a landmark for voter equality, and continues to present significant concerns for precedent in American democracy.
In contemporary politics, a direct attack on voting rights would not be politically tolerated; however targeting voters throughout the registration and voting process under the guise of ballot security remains feasible. At the centre of these legislations, there exists an on-going war waged amongst academics, policymakers, and pundits alike on the trade-offs between voter fraud and ensuring election integrity versus voter suppression. This has resulted in an increasingly partisan issue, where Republicans primarily have adopted the former platform and Democrats the latter.
Conventional wisdom acknowledges that Democrats benefit from diversification and high turnout in elections. While the electorate becomes younger and more diverse, party strategies deeply reflect their incentives to win elections, by either recruiting new voters or minimising the turnout of the opposition. Coupled with the significant tightening of electoral victory margins, this could mean a growing necessity to renew these policies, going beyond a simple justification to ensure election integrity.
Over the last six years, the renewed struggle to shape voter-access has intensified. With new data, academics and legislators are able to contend more confidently that voter fraud is not a widespread epidemic. Only a handful of voter fraud cases have been flagged as more than clerical errors, as several reports highlight concerns regarding its methodology being built on inherent racial bias.
Voting rights have become a highly politicised and racialised issue. My dissertation has provided an empirical analysis of how this legislation became a strategic attempt to ‘game’ the electorate. While several studies have looked at the consequences of these policies on turnout, few have taken a macro-overview approach to examine their implementation. I argued and proved that these policies are exclusionary reforms, strategically enacted to establish a partisan advantage.
By building on the seminal foundations of Bentele and O’Brien’s (2013) Jim Crow 2.0? Why States Consider and Adopt Restrictive Voter Access Policies, I examined this policy puzzle, in light of the latest developments shaping the political landscape, by categorising and counting restrictive policies from 2012 to August 2017. Both the frequency of proposed and passed bills were analysed based on the partisan control of state legislatures, difference in party vote shares in previous presidential elections, minority turnout, and other state demographics.
Additionally, I looked at how these factors influence states’ participation in the controversial new Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program. ‘Crosscheck’ is the latest initiative which has been promoted to prevent voter fraud, to ensure accurate and current voter registration rolls. The same system was initially designed to track foreign travelers in the wake of the September 11th attacks, but shut down “over concerns about racial profiling”. State participants in the Program contribute to databases on registered voters, in an attempt to prevent “double voting.” As of 2016 the Program has expanded to include 27 states, but remains controversial. Updating voter rolls is essential for accurate elections, but the act of “voter caging” (the act of challenging the legality of voters’ registration status) threatens the Program’s legitimacy.
The results revealed strategic, partisan, and racialised trends in the proposal of policy and participation in Crosscheck. Now and going forward, empirical data regarding the motivation of this legislation is crucial to understanding the ‘new norm’ of American Democracy, especially as federal courts preside over voter discrimination lawsuits. Such legal precedent is decisive for not only individual voters but also the future legitimacy of the US’s democratic process.
While this legislation is not necessarily novel, it signals a return to Jim Crow-era America, veiled simply within more sophisticated state and federal level agendas that fit into today’s contemporary political system, as the electorate becomes more diverse and progressive. Restrictive efforts are a response to America’s recent trend towards inclusion, equity, and diversity, and clearly voter suppression is an attempt to revive and legitimise racist and classist mentalities in the wake of the Obama era. This represents the latest chapter of civil struggle and the latest mechanism to actively disenfranchise voters under the guise of voter fraud.
The implications and consequences are limitless, which crucially presses what this means for the future of one of the most advanced democracies, and is especially relevant again leading up to the 2018 Mid-Term Election.
Perhaps the public will recognise these policies as a direct assault on their civil liberties, and that the future of voting rights lies in their hands. It is up to their continued awareness and efforts, to write a new page that proves there is a life after the Voting Rights Act that ensures the protection of democracy for every eligible American.
Ann Bandolik is an MSc graduate in Political Science and Political Economy from the LSE Department of Government, and wrote her dissertation on Voting Rights in America, and is now pursuing a career at Deloitte in Tax.
Note: this article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Department of Government, nor of the London School of Economics.