In most elections, the intricacies of voting procedures rarely warrant headlines or interest most Americans. But in 2012, voter identification laws took center stage. In fact, in the five years preceding the 2012 election, almost half of states enacted some form of legislation restricting voter access — such as requiring photo identification or proof of citizenship to vote, more stringently regulating voter registration drives, shortening early voting periods, repealing same-day voter registration, or further restricting voting by felons.
These are the legislative realities. But the real intent of this legislation remains highly contested. On the left, voter identification laws are viewed as thinly veiled attempts by Republicans to depress turnout among Democratic-leaning constituencies, such as minorities, new immigrants, the elderly, disabled, and young. On the right, these laws are viewed as a bulwark against electoral fraud and a means of preserving electoral legitimacy. In a new article, we examined the dominant explanations (and accusations) advanced by both the right and left, as well as the factors political scientists know are important for understanding state legislative activity. We began with no assumptions about the veracity of any claim. What we found was that restrictions on voting derived from both race and class. The more that minorities and lower-income individuals in a state voted, the more likely such restrictions were to be proposed. Where minorities turned out at the polls at higher rates the legislation was more likely enacted.
More specifically, restrictive proposals were more likely to be introduced in states with larger African-American and non-citizen populations and with higher minority turnout in the previous presidential election. These proposals were also more likely to be introduced in states where both minority and low-income turnout had increased in recent elections. A similar picture emerged for the actual passage of these proposals. States in which minority turnout had increased since the previous presidential election were more likely to pass restrictive legislation.
The turnout of blacks and the poor was not the only factor, of course. Restrictive laws passed more frequently as the proportion of Republicans in the legislature increased or when a Republican governor was elected. Most of the voter restrictions adopted in this period, 83 percent, were passed by Republican-controlled state legislatures. Restrictive laws were especially likely to pass when states both had larger Republican legislative majorities and had become increasingly competitive in the previous presidential election. Meanwhile, states that had become increasingly competitive but had larger Democratic majorities were less likely to pass restrictive laws.
We also examined just the bills passed in 2011, when the vast majority of bills were adopted. The same findings emerged. States that passed more restrictive legislation in 2011 were those in which:
- Republicans controlled the governorship and both chambers of the legislative body.
- Forecasters viewed them as potential swing states in the 2012 election.
- Minority turnout was higher in the 2008 presidential election and those which have larger proportions of African-American residents.
- There were a larger number of allegations of voter fraud in the 2004 election–although this fact had a much smaller substantive impact relative to partisan and racial factors.
All this is most immediately relevant to the Supreme Court’s recent decision involving the Voting Rights Act. At root, the Court ruled that there is no compelling evidence localities previously covered under Section 5 of the Act intend to discriminate. Federal “preclearance” for changes to electoral law in these areas is therefore no longer warranted. Our findings call such assertions into question and, more broadly, suggest that challenges to the implementation and passage of voter access legislation are indeed merited on the grounds of racial bias.
Ultimately, recently enacted restrictions on voter access have not only a predictable partisan pattern but also an uncomfortable relationship to the political activism of blacks and the poor.