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When voting rights are at risk, what threatens and what protects them?

The TMC 2022 roundups: Voting rights

- December 27, 2022

What protects voting rights — and therefore democracy? Many observers were debating that question during 2022, as states released their redrawn legislative districts and changed pandemic-prompted voting rules. Despite some pundit and activist hand-wringing, the Senate failed to pass the House’s voting rights bill. Here at TMC, political scientists examined the shifting landscape of U.S. voting rights, from “pre-clearance” to “naked ballots.”

Breakthroughs followed by backlash

The 1965 Voting Rights Act gave the federal government tools to enforce Black citizens’ right to vote. Not surprisingly, that breakthrough was followed by a backlash. Political scientists Nicholas Eubank and Adriane Fresh explained their new study showing that the states targeted by the VRA’s toughest enforcement provision started to imprison more Black people than in other states. In other words, the old Jim Crow was followed by the new Jim Crow. What’s more, Alexandra Filindra explained that the mistrust in government that’s plagued the United States since the 1960s — including the willingness to believe former president Donald Trump’s “big lie” that he won the 2020 presidential election — grew from racial bias.

The VRA enforcement tool was Section 5, which required some states and districts to “pre-clear” any voting-related changes with the attorney general or the D.C. District Court. And it worked, Nicole E. Willcoxon’s research on North Carolina counties showed, increasing the number of citizens who voted — or, at least, it did until the Supreme Court ended pre-clearance in its 2013 decision in Shelby v. Holder, enabling the old Jim Crow states to change their voting rules. Since the 2020 election, they’ve been closing and consolidating poll places and reducing the number of ballot drop boxes. As a result, many voters — disproportionately Black and Brown — have had to travel farther to vote, making it harder for them to participate in U.S. democracy, Chelsea N. Jones explained.

“Driving while Black” — or the widely discussed phenomenon that Black Americans and others of color are disproportionately more likely to be ticketed than White people — has had one underappreciated side effect, Jonathan Ben-Menachem’s research found: After such a ticket reminded Black drivers that the government was punitive, they become less likely to vote. And many voters could be disenfranchised by the tricky details of voting by mail — naked ballots, anyone? — as Marc Meredith and his co-authors explained.

Meanwhile, one variation on the “big lie” argued that voting machines could be manipulated. As a result, election scholar Charles Stewart III warned, some Republicans have been arguing in favor of returning to hand-counting paper ballots. But that’s less accurate, he explained.

Pointing the way to solutions

But alongside those moves, some scholars and practitioners have been finding ways to get more citizens to cast ballots. Political scientists Holly Ann Garnett and Toby S. James examined 156 countries and found that automatically registering citizens to vote using existing government databases — rather than requiring individuals to actively make the effort to sign up — tends to be more accurate. They argue that with automatic registration, states can simultaneously reduce voter fraud and expand democracy. Maricruz Ariana Osorio and Melissa R. Michelson looked into the research and explained the best ways to encourage college students to register and vote. And for National Voter Education Week, Mara Suttman-Lea and Lia Merivaki outlined research showing how local election officials can best inform and encourage prospective voters, and maybe even give Americans more confidence that their ballots will be counted accurately.

But will those citizens’ votes count fairly and equally, in districts that accurately represent the voters’ will? To find out, Christopher Warshaw and colleagues compared districts drawn by politicians and those drawn by commissions — and found that the commissions drew the fairer district maps, those most likely to elect Republicans and Democrats in proportion to their share of the vote statewide. (Watch the Supreme Court to see whether they’ll allow such commissions or strike them down.)

Finally, Loren Collingwood and Sean Long analyzed the effects of a California law aimed at ensuring racial, ethnic and other minorities were fairly represented in local government. Sure enough, electing city councilors and others by district, instead of in open citywide raises, resulted in more diverse councils.

TMC may be leaving The Washington Post, but we’re not going away. And you can be sure that our new incarnation will continue reporting on scholars’ research about the right to vote — what helps, what hurts and what’s ahead.