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Reshaping the Rules for Voting: How Two Different Eras Compare


David  StebenneOctober 14 (David Stebenne)

Fifty years ago, an eight – year period of innovation in voting rules began with ratification of the 24th Amendment to the Constitution. Formally adopted on January 23, 1964, it put an end to the practice (in several of the Southern and Border States) of requiring payment in order to vote in federal elections. Two years later, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling known as Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections interpreted the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause so as to apply the ban to state elections as well. In 1965, Congress passed and President Lyndon Johnson signed into law a Civil Rights Act known less formally as the Voting Rights Act. It established federal registrars in Southern states where local registrars had long denied the right to vote to black residents. That measure was followed by Congress’s passage and the states’ ratification of the 26th Amendment to the Constitution. This amendment prohibited denying the right to vote to citizens who had reached age eighteen. Part of a trend to establish that age as the mark of adulthood, rather than the older standard of twenty-one years, the 26th Amendment was formally adopted on June 30, 1971. And, of course, during that same eight – year time period, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down landmark reapportionment rulings that required state legislative bodies to reapportion themselves (and U.S. House districts) promptly after each federal census, and to do so in accordance with the principle of one person, one vote. By the end of 1972, that reapportionment process was complete, and had produced some far reaching changes for voters at the ballot box. For example, in Maryland, where I mostly grew up, representation of the rural and conservative Eastern Shore counties greatly diminished in the Maryland General Assembly (and in Maryland’s U.S. House delegation), while that of the Baltimore metropolitan area greatly increased.

From the vantage point of more than four decades later, what all of those changes meant for the American electorate has become clear. The impact of the poll tax ban and introduction of federal registrars into the South substantially increased the number of black women voters. (The rise in felony disfranchisement among black men nationally over the past forty years meant that gains among black men voting in the South were offset by losses among black men voting elsewhere.) Voters between the ages of eighteen and twenty seldom turned out in large numbers, and so giving them the right to vote didn’t change much in terms of who voted with any regularity. Thus, the one major gain in terms of participation came among black women. At the same time, the propensity of people in the middle three fifths of the income distribution living outside the South to vote fell substantially over those forty years, among whites especially, a shift that was most pronounced from 1972 to 1996. (The decline of labor unions was the single most important reason for that.)

Those changes in who voted regularly had significant implications for national politics. Black women tend to be among the most strongly liberal voters in the country, in the contemporary sense of that word. Most self – described moderates are middle class white people. Substantially more voting by black women has tended to push the more liberal of the two major parties leftward, while substantially less participation by middle class whites has tended to push both major parties away from the moderate middle.

With this history in mind, consider the new eight – year period of reshaping voting rules that began around 2006 and has continued through the present. The major changes have been in the direction of making voting somewhat harder to do, thanks to new requirements to provide identification, restrict early voting, eliminating same – day registration, and barring votes cast in the wrong precinct from being counted at all, to give only four examples. North Carolina has recently been a leader in that regard, but those same kinds of changes have played out in many other states as well. Those changes in voting rules appear likely to reduce voter participation by the one group that gained a lot from the changes of the earlier era, i.e., black women, and the poorer of them especially. (Felony disfranchisement continues to keep voting by black men low irrespective of these changes in voting laws.) At the same time, interest in voting among middle class whites has increased substantially over what it was in the 1970’s, ‘80’s, and ‘90’s. They appear much better able to navigate the current system of voting requirements because middle class whites are significantly more likely to have the forms of identification, flexible schedules, literacy skills and familiarity with local governance needed to do so.

What this suggests is that whatever the intent of recent changes in voting rules, one of its most important consequences will be to strengthen the political power of the center, by discouraging voting somewhat among black women (and the majority among them with low incomes especially), who tend to be strongly liberal, while voting by middle class whites, who tend to be moderate, increases. Strengthening the center, in and of itself, is not so troubling in a country that seems excessively polarized. What is troubling is a way of revitalizing the center that follows, however unintentionally, from reducing access to voting by eligible citizens.   [Read Comment]

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Edward B. Foley
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Information and Analysis

Major Election Law Reports Since 2004

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Below is an archive containing major election law reports issued by various agencies, institutes, watchdog groups and other groups since the 2004 presidential election. Check this page for further updates.

June 2009

Myrna Perez , Brennan Center for Justice/ When Voters Move

April 2009

Final Report 2008 & 2009 Ohio Election Summit and Conference

Election Enhancements for Ohio: A Report to the Governor and the Generaly Assembly

June 2008

March 4, 2008 Primary Election: Report from the Secretary of State (Ohio)

February 2008

A Ballot-Less Nightmare in the District

Congressional Research Service/Election Reform and Local Election Officials:  Results of Two National Surveys

December 2007

Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations/Trust but Verify:  Progress Report on Election Study

Ohio Secretary of State/EVEREST Voting System Review

U.S. Election Assistance Commission/2006 Election Day Survey

November 2007

electionline.org/ The Help America Vote Act at 5

Justin Levitt, Brennan Center for Justice/ The Truth About Voter Fraud

September 2007

University of Pennsylvania Fels Institute of Government/MyVote1 National Election Report:  Voice of the Electorate 2006

December 2006

U.S. Election Assistance Commission/ Election Crimes:  An Initial Review and Recommendations for Future Study    (Appendix)

October 2006

Brennan Center for Justice/ Investigator's Guide to "Voter Fraud"

National Committee for Voting Integrity/ Securing the Vote Project 2006

Electionline.org/ 2006 Election Preview:  What's Changed, What Hasn't and Why

The Century Foundation/ Voting in 2006:  Have We Solved the Problems of 2004?

Election Data Services/ Almost 55 Million, or One-Third of the Nation's Voters, Will Face New Voting Equipment in 2006 Election

August 2006

Election Science Institute/ DRE Analysis for May 2006 Primary in Cuyahoga County, Ohio

July 2006

Cuyahoga County, Ohio, Election Review Panel/ Final Report on May 2006 Primary

June 2006

The Brennan Center for Justice/ Machinery of Democracy:  Voting System Security, Accessibility, Usability and Cost

September 2005

US Government Accountability Office/ Federal Efforts to Improve Security and Reliability of Electronic Voting Systems Are Under Way, but Key Activities Need to Be Completed

July 2005

IBM Center for the Business of Government/ The Next Big Election Challenge:  Developing Electronic Data Transaction Standards for Election Administration

The Century Foundation/ Balancing Access and Integrity

February 2005

Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project/ Residual Vote in the 2004 Election