Targeting the Right To Vote
I’ve written about voting rights before, a topic that has become all the more urgent in the wake of recent efforts to restrict voting rights and the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act. Keith Bentele and Erin O’Brien have a piece examining recent GOP efforts at adopting various voting barriers: Jim Crow 2.0? Why States Consider and Adopt Restrictive Voter Access Policies. (Full disclosure, Erin is a good friend from my doctoral program, and I provided feedback on the paper.) Their empirical findings are going to get the most attention, and they are certainly important. I’ll review them below. But the larger implications are important too, and since I fear these may get lost I want to discuss them more fully.
Let’s start with the findings. Bentele and O’Brien provide a useful summary here:
• Restrictive proposals were substantially more likely to be introduced in states with larger African-American and non-citizen populations and higher minority turnout, as well as in states where both minority and low-income turnout recently increased.
• Restrictive laws passed more frequently in states where the proportion of Republicans in the legislature went up or a Republican governor was elected. Of the 41 adopted voter restrictions passed from 2006 to 2011, 34 (or 83%) were passed by Republican-controlled state legislatures. Furthermore, all of the bills requiring either photo ID or proof of citizenship passed in legislatures under Republican control. These are the kinds of measures most likely to reduce voting by Democrat-leaning constituencies.
• Increased competitiveness in the state’s previous presidential election contest was associated with more restrictive policy changes in states with larger Republican majorities (but led to fewer restrictive laws in states with larger Democratic majorities).
• States where minority turnout has increased since the previous presidential election were more likely to pass restrictive legislation.
More simply, as they say in the article, “the Republican Party has engaged in strategic demobilization efforts in response to changing demographics, shifting electoral fortunes, and an internal rightward ideological drift among the party faithful.” Those demobilization efforts are targeted towards black voters in particular, minority voters in general, as well as the poor, all of whom tend to vote Democratic, while they seek to avoid impacting elderly (white) voters who tend to vote Republican. It’s also worth noting that both the efforts and the research is not limited to voter ID laws, but includes proof of citizenship requirements, registration restrictions, and absentee and early voting restrictions. There is a tendency, even among liberals, to dismiss such efforts as simply a legitimate effort to ensure that people have ids. Leaving aside that this still can be a barrier to exercising a fundamental right, such arguments obviously don’t apply to all these restrictions. While they found a small influence for accusations of “voter fraud” this is dwarfed by these other considerations.
This research provides an important reminder that electoral politics is not simply a contest to get votes, but often involves efforts to suppress the vote as well. This is clear when you investigate the question rather than taking democratic legitimations as true. As such, it explicitly draws on and extends work such as Piven and Cloward and Alexander Keyssar.
The next question to be asked is why the recent aggressive push for vote suppression policies now. The across the board losses sustained by the GOP in 2008, combined with Obama retaining the presidency in 2012, were driven in large part by the mobilization and support of minority voters. At the same time, the Republican Party’s continued move to the right isolated and minimized the power of party moderates. Appeals to conservatives on issues like immigration, especially in conservative dominated primaries, are at odds with appealing to Latinos, for example. In addition, in the wake of the 2008 election, a steady drum beat over alleged voter fraud was offered to explain the loss and delegitimize the election, and (along with the rightward shift) to mobilize the party’s traditional constituencies. The first of these made addressing increased mobilization by those marginally attached to the electoral system an important concern, while the latter two made effective outreach, which is what standard democratic theory would predict, all but impossible. It’s worth noting that while there has been a great deal of talk that the GOP would improve its outreach and modify its message to reach out to women, minorities and the poor, such efforts haven’t amounted to much. Many commentators have mocked the Republican Party over this, without noting a likely reasons–it provided cover for the preferred elite strategy of demobilization. While voter suppression efforts have garnered plenty of attention, the question of why it was being pursued has often been left unstated.
Bentele and O’Brien also draw important conceptual links between voting restrictions and other developments, and intersection of federalism, race and class.
Our findings are deeply troubling in their own right. This is compounded by the fact that we view this legislation as yet an additional layer of exclusionary policy practices that work to reduce political participation and electoral access by the socially marginalized. The manner in which these restrictions have unfolded bear a number of similarities with modern developments in other policy arenas, especially criminal justice policy and poverty governance. First, they are race, gender, and class neutral on paper, but have disparate political impacts in practice. Second, much of this exclusionary policy action has occurred at the state level where policymakers are less encumbered by federal oversight. Third, the resulting variation in the accessibility to rights and benefits across states is strongly shaped by considerations of race and social control. The net effect of these policy regimes is to reduce, to varying degrees, full political incorporation among the socially marginalized.
As they note, punitive criminal justice and social welfare policies can themselves decrease political participation (in the case of the former, directly, through felony disenfranchisement laws). People who are already being marginalized are facing additional barriers to political participation, barriers which themselves are partly designed to facilitate passage of yet more punitive policies. Here, the research connects explicitly with work on neoliberal governance, in particular that of Joe Soss, Richard Fording and Sanford Schram.
But the picture painted here is not all negative.
[T]he multifaceted political and legal pushback that has emerged to counter recent efforts to reduce voter access underlines that it is not only the advocates of restriction that have been exercising their political agency, but also the supporters of inclusive voting rights. As a result, the issue is currently a matter of serious contestation. Supporters of voting rights can also take heart from the fact that the Democratic party as an enduring political institution (as opposed to a social movement) has a strong and consistent electoral incentive to fight and attempt to reverse recently enacted restrictive policies. On the other hand, given the internal dynamics of the GOP and the current political landscape facing that party, we expect the incentives to engage in suppression and other electoral manipulations to remain heightened and to pose a continuing and significant threat to full electoral participation in the years to come. The future of voting rights in the US will be determined by the ongoing political contest between the Republican and Democratic parties. At the same time, the contest itself will be influenced by the continuing political and legal struggles over access to the ballot.
I’m less convinced that the Democratic Party is incentive to push back aggressively. It seems to me that this issue has mostly been a resource for raising money and energizing the base. I tend to agree with Piven and Cloward that party elites have reasons to fear a large influx of new voters, suggesting Democratic pushback will not be too strong. I also believe that electoral incentives are overrated as a political force. But there are more grassroots efforts afoot–for example, North Carolina’s Moral Mondays–where efforts are being made to unite concerns for voting rights with the policy concerns of marginalized citizens all under a justice frame. To my mind, such efforts are necessary to ensure the right to vote is something more than symbolism.
Let me end with a plea I’ve made before. Election outcomes should not be driven by partisan-motivated rule changes. Voting rights should be as universal as possible. What is needed is a right to vote that is
- broad (ensuring actual access not just law on the books)
- simple (all citizens over the age of 18, at least, have a right to vote)
- fundamental (the right to vote should override administrative and other considerations)
- national (a vastly reduced role for varying state rules that allow for the most effective strategic demobilization) and
- constitutional (not changeable by fleeting electoral majorities)
In a democracy, there is no justification for limiting that right or making it difficult to exercise. The alternative position to the GOP one cannot be that prior levels of voting barriers were the right level. Everyone should have the right to vote.