Staying in Power: The Origins of Voter ID Laws and Their Role in Electoral Strategy Today
States oversee and administer elections. While the federal government recently enacted election- related policies to make participation easier for potential voters, with recent policies like voter ID, some states have resisted this and have chosen to implement stringent practices that make it harder to vote. Today, despite evidence that voter impersonation is extremely rare, 34 states have implemented some form of voter ID. Public support for voter ID laws is malleable, suggesting that elites lead public opinion. I argue that voter ID laws are elite-driven devices that legislators use to retain political power when changing demographics disfavor them and pose an existential threat to their electoral viability. This electoral strategy is a means to power when it is unfeasible for these legislators to reach out to racial minority voters successfully for support. I examine the impact of race/ethnicity and electoral competition in legislators’ support for them. The restrictive voting laws prior to the civil rights movement were explicitly racially discriminatory, but in order to overcome legal challenges, legislators write restrictive voting laws today to be race neutral and to produce a racially discriminatory effect. This study takes a holistic approach, examining legislator intent behind voter ID laws, by using historical context around restrictive voting laws to establish the link between the restrictive voting laws of the past and those of today in the literature. First, I examine archived sources to understand how voter ID laws developed from other discriminatory tests and devices. Second, I examine why states pass and implement these laws, including what demographic and electoral conditions make legislators more likely to author, sponsor, and/or support these policies. Many scholars today examine voter ID laws through the lens of voter fraud and partisanship, but I argue that is misguided and ignores 150 years of targeted voter suppression against Black people, Latinos, and immigrants. After Shelby v Holder (2013) struck down a key portion of the Voting Rights Act, restrictive voting laws have become more common and will continue to be implemented widely for the foreseeable future.
- Matt Barreto (Chair)
- Natalie Masuoka
- Lorrie Frasure
- Loren Collingwood
- Chad Dunn
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“Estimating the Effects of Strict Voter ID Laws at the County Level.” (Presented at the American Political Science Association’s 2019 Annual Meeting).
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