Are All Precincts Created Equal? the Prevalence of Low-Quality Precincts in Low-Income and Minority Communities

Article excerpt

More than forty years after passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a fundamental question remains unanswered: although all citizens have an equal right to the ballot, do all citizens enjoy equal access to the ballot box? That is, are voting precincts in predominantly low-income and non-white neighborhoods less visible, less stable, harder to find, and harder to navigate than voting precincts in high-income and predominantly white neighborhoods? If so, does the lower quality result in lower levels of voting, all other things equal? The authors' analysis indicates that the quality of polling places varies across the diverse neighborhoods of Los Angeles and that the quality of polling places influences voter turnout. Low-income and minority communities tended to have "lower quality" precincts, which tended to depress voter turnout.

Keywords: precinct quality, voter turnout, race, class

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The right to vote is among the most cherished privileges afforded citizens in a democracy. That so many Americans decide to stay away from the polls on Election Day and not cast a ballot confounds political practitioners and political scientists alike. Even in the highly contested 2000 presidential elec- tion, a large number of eligible citizens did not par- ticipate in the democratic process. Since the 1960s, scholars have documented the growing number of nonvoters and wondered why turnout has been on the decline (Teixeira 1987; Wattenberg 2002). While pre- vious studies have cited declining trust in govern- ment, uncompetitive races, too frequent elections, changing demographics, and depleting social capital, few have focused explicitly on the costs associated with voting (Rosenstone and Hansen 1993). When they do, many of these studies focus on how changes in registration laws or early voting procedures might reduce the costs of voting (Brians and Grofman 2001; Highton 1997). However, Election Day costs might also exist in the form of the polling place location, yet only one previous study has examined the voter's physical relationship to the voting precinct as a pos- sible determinant of turnout (Gimpel and Schuknecht 2003; Dyck and Gimpel 2005; Haspel and Knotts 2005). While some studies have assessed disabled voters' access to the polling place1 (Bundy 2003), the costs imposed by the experience at the polls has escaped systematic examination.

In this article, we investigate some of the costs potential voters experience at their polling place and how these costs may be distributed across precincts. We argue that not all polling places are created equal: those that are less accessible, are of lower quality, or have less informed poll workers have lower voter turnout. We expect that these low-quality precincts are not randomly distributed within a political jurisdiction but rather are more prevalent in low-income and minority neighborhoods, further depressing turnout in areas where residents on average have a lower propensity to vote. To explore these propositions, we conducted the first-ever scientific monitoring project to measure polling place characteristics in relation to demographic and turnout data. In this article, we report on the extent to which polling places in Los Angeles vary, the geographic distribution of low-quality voting places, and the relationship between the experience encountered at the polls and voter turnout.

In assessing the relationship between precinct quality and voter turnout, we proceed in four sections. Fu-St, we review the relevant literature on the costs of voting. Second, because ours is the first field study to assess the quality and accessibility of a large number of polling places, we review the design and implementation of the research. Next, we detail how the quality and accessibility of polling places vary across our study area, Los Angeles, California. Finally, we test the relationship between polling place quality, the socioeconomic characteristics of the precinct, and voter turnout. …