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Getting a traffic ticket makes you less likely to vote, research finds

That’s especially true for Black Americans ticketed within six months of going to the polls.

A poll deputy sets up a sign outside a polling station during special elections on Jan. 11 in Lauderhill, Fla. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The Black Lives Matter movement has pointed out that some U.S. cities repeatedly ticket those least able to pay, using fines and fees to fund government services.

These regressive taxes hit Black Americans hardest. Research finds that cities with more Black residents are likely to rely more on ticketing, and that traffic stops often target Black drivers. In some states, unpaid tickets lead to jail time.

Now, new research finds another consequence of ticketing: After motorists are stopped by the police, they’re less likely to vote in the next election. This could affect this year’s midterm elections, particularly as some officials direct law enforcement officers to arrest voters, in part to discourage voters with criminal records.

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Why would getting a traffic ticket affect voting?

It may not be obvious why traffic stops would cause registered voters to stay home on Election Day.

Scholars have found that more disruptive forms of criminal legal contact, like arrests and incarceration, consistently reduce voter turnout. These “routine interactions” with local officials teach Americans about government and their relationship to it. If voters think that police are exploiting them to raise revenue, this can prompt a self-preserving withdrawal that political scientists call “strategic retreat”: When people are afraid that government will harm them, they disengage.

Interactions with police are among the most frequent and significant types of contact many Americans have with government officials. A recent study, which I co-authored with Kevin Morris, found evidence that even “lighter” police contact — like a traffic stop — can affect voting. Many more Americans are stopped for an alleged traffic violation each year than spend a night in jail. This low-level criminalization could be affecting elections more than has been previously understood.

Ticketing depressed voter turnout in Tampa

In our recent study, we used a publicly available data set detailing traffic stops in Hillsborough County, Fla., home to Tampa. That city’s police department was subject to a Justice Department investigation for its de facto ticketing quotas and disproportionate ticketing of Black bicyclists.

Unusually, the traffic stop data set includes individual identifying information, which allowed us to match traffic stops to voters using Florida’s voter file. With that, we looked at more than 200,000 drivers who were stopped soon before the 2014, 2016 and 2018 federal elections to see whether they voted in the next election.

Traffic stops are not random. People in our study were more likely to be Black and male than the average Tampa resident. It could be the case that stopped drivers were less likely to vote in the first place compared to people who were never stopped, or those who don’t drive at all. To account for problems like this, we compared the turnout of voters stopped in the two-year period before each election to voters stopped in the two-year period afterward. The timing of a traffic stop with respect to each election is effectively random. For example, we compare the 2014 voting records (i.e., did someone vote or not in 2014) of one person stopped in 2013 with another who wasn’t stopped until 2015. Being stopped in 2015 couldn’t affect whether someone had voted in the 2014 election, but it would indicate that they’re similar to the voter stopped two years earlier. We also matched stopped voters to controls using characteristics like race, gender, party affiliation, past turnout and prior traffic stops to improve our comparisons.

We found that traffic stops reduced voter turnout by, on average, 1.8 percentage points, compared to the controls. The reduction was slightly higher in 2014 and 2018 — midterm elections rather than presidential years.

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Black voters were less discouraged by police stops

Scholars have found that serving jail time discourages Black Americans from voting more than it discourages others. But we found something different: Black voters stopped for alleged traffic violations were less discouraged from voting in the next election. On average, Black voters were only 1 percentage point less likely to vote, compared to 1.8 percentage points for non-Black voters. What could explain this?

To dig deeper, we looked at when in those two years voters had been stopped. If they had been stopped in the six months before the election, stops discouraged Black Americans from voting more than it discouraged non-Black Americans. But that effect weakened the longer the time between when a Black citizen was stopped and when the election was held. That averaged out to a comparatively smaller effect over the whole two-year period.

We think there are two complementary explanations for this. First, if policing and incarceration discourage voting by teaching voters to be wary of government, Black Americans may have less to learn from a stop. For example, Black Americans are more likely to have had a family member in jail than other Americans. This experience might make traffic stops less likely to discourage Black Americans from voting.

However, Black Americans probably know that a traffic stop is more likely to turn deadly for them than for White people. Anxiety or stress over encountering potential police violence could explain why they were especially discouraged from voting in the short term, while overcoming that as months pass.

One thing worth noting is that Black voters are stopped at nearly twice the rate of their share of the county population. While on average by individual, traffic stops might be less likely to discourage Black turnout, those affect more Black than non-Black individuals — and so the proportional effect of stops on Black turnout would be higher overall.

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How could this affect upcoming elections?

We found that traffic stops had the biggest effects on midterm elections. If Hillsborough County voters are similar to voters elsewhere, we could expect traffic stops to have the same negative effect this year. If a city has ramped up ticketing before this November’s election, our research suggests that turnout would be lower compared to previous midterms.

Black Americans disproportionately endure police ticketing, felony disenfranchisement, and other voting rights restrictions. If cities stop using police to collect fines and fees that are, in effect, regressive taxes, Black communities nationwide might show up to the voting booth in greater numbers.

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Jonathan Ben-Menachem (@jbenmenachem) is a PhD student in the department of sociology at Columbia University.

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