Over the last three years, anyone who has followed the pitched battle over letting eligible American citizens vote or not should be familiar with the political dynamic behind it. Following the 2010 midterm elections when Republicans made major gains across the country, a tsunami of bills were introduced that were clearly designed to throw up obstacles to voting for traditionally Democratic constituencies: African Americans, low income people, immigrants, among others. Remarks made by a number of Republican officials — like Pennsylvania state House Republican leader Mike Turzai who came straight out and said the state’s voter ID law would “allow” Mitt Romney to win in 2012 — hardly helped make the objective behind these laws a secret.
Important new empirical research published in December in the journal Perspectives on Politics by Keith G. Bentele and Erin E. Obrien at the Univeristy of Massachusetts-Boston, however, shines a bright light on just how crass this effort has been and how clear the motives of the Republican state lawmakers have been in proposing and passing laws that would deny eligible citizens the right to vote.
Bentele and O’Brien remove any doubt about the racial motivations – which may coincide with partisan motivations – of the legislators who seek to restrict voting rights. They found in those states where minority turnout rose from the prior presidential election and where there were a larger percentage of minority voters in the years 2006 to 2011, the number of laws restricting voting rights proposed by lawmakers also went up. Similarly, in those states where the percentage of low-income voters rose, the response was to propose more laws making it harder to vote. In those states with a bigger African-American population, more restrictive legislation also passed and became law.
The partisan motive is also further detailed. Unsurprisingly, the more dominant Republicans were in office in the state, the more restrictive voting laws were passed. Moreover, in “swing states,” where Republicans feared losing power, Republican lawmakers responded by passing lots of laws to make voting harder in 2011.
One other finding in the report is in some ways unexpected, except perhaps for those who were fighting this legislation in the states at the time. Where there was an especially dramatic increase in minority voting compared to the previous presidential election, there was not an increase in restrictive voting laws passed, and in fact these states were less likely to pass such legislation in 2011. The authors postulate a rationale for this:
This could be indicative of a different political calculus confronting legislators in the context of states with larger shares of mobilized minority voters. Specifically, the possibility of public anger, or backlash might undermine or even reverse any electoral benefits of actually passing restrictive legislation…the electoral benefits of reforms with disproportionate suppression effects appear to be weighed against the risks of galvanizing turnout among groups targeted for demobilization…
Indeed, post-2012, there was much educated speculation that this was what had taken place. But it’s important to note that to the extent there was a backlash against proposed restrictive voting laws, and legislatures were effectively stymied in passing such legislation for fear of the repercussions, this did not occur in a vacuum.
Here’s the context: In the aftermath of the 2010 elections, a great number of voting and civil rights organizations, along with allied litigators, groups and individuals mounted an unprecedented coordinated effort to fight these vote suppression efforts state by state and even locality by locality. The battles were in the courts, courts of public opinion, on the floors of the state legislators and in the offices of the many governors who were persuaded to veto some of the more pernicious of the laws passed by state legislatures.
This is an important point. Because it’s happening again — or rather — it’s still happening. Many of the restrictive laws remain in various stages of litigation that could go either way.
In North Carolina this year, we saw both recent and long-past history repeat itself: Republicans took over all branches of the government and immediately took a state that had had one of the best voting systems in the country and with dramatically increasing rate of voter participation, and passed what some scholars have deemed the most restrictive voting law since the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965.
So the advocates, the litigators, and the concerned citizens are out in force again. The Department of Justice has, helpfully, joined the fray, in North Carolina, Texas and elsewhere.
Though it is unfortunate that we must continue to have to fight so hard for the people’s right to vote in this country, it is clear we must remain vigilant and active. With Bentele and O’Brien’s research we’ve confirmed what’s behind these laws without much doubt, and brings the hard work we have to do to fight back into sharper focus.
Tova Andrea Wang is a Senior Fellow at Demos and an expert on election reform and political participation in the United States and internationally. She is the author of The Politics of Voter Suppression: Defending and Expanding American’s Right to Vote (Cornell Press 2012).