Academic journal article The New England Journal of Political Science

Voting Politics in the American States

Academic journal article The New England Journal of Political Science

Voting Politics in the American States

Article excerpt

The right to vote, said the U.S. Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore (2000), encompasses not just the formal "allocation of the franchise," but also "the manner of its exercise." More than a decade after that ruling, Americans are even more exercised about our electoral behavior, and our manners are not very good. Politicians and partisans legislate and litigate, disagreeing bitterly about drawing electoral districts, voter registration rules, when and how we vote, and, most of all, whether we should be required to prove our identity with photo identification at the polls. Brawls over ballots have been a recurrent feature of American political life, going back at least to the Jacksonian reformers and their assault on the property test, and it's emphatically clear that we are neck-deep in another episode.

A booming literature tackles these ongoing "voting wars" (Hasen 2012). Simply keeping up is not easy-organizations such as the National Conference of State Legislatures and Electionline.org provide indispensable guides to legislation proposed, passed, and challenged in court, while numerous advocacy groups have compiled reports analyzing competing claims and filed amicus briefs criticizing or supporting new restrictions on registration and voting.

This collection of five essays uses the case-study method to fill important gaps in this literature. Each explores recent election-law changes in a particular state in detail-focusing mostly on politically liberal states, where the passage of laws making voting harder comes as something of a surprise. Indeed, partisanship is a critical theme of the collection. Together, these essays leave no doubt that this has been a partisan movement, with Republicans driving almost all state laws tightening voting rules. (An ID law passed in heavily-Democratic Rhode Island, meanwhile, due to a fascinating set of idiosyncratic conditions.) For Republicans, purely partisan motives (making it harder for our opponents' supporters to vote will help us win elections) align perfectly with principled views (fraud truly harms the civic body, and asking voters to do a little more work is just an ounce of prevention). Democrats, of course, see things the other way, believing it should be as easy as possible for any eligible person to vote-a view that coincides nicely with their perceived electoral interests as well, given that higher levels of turnout has historically tended to help Democratic candidates.

A second major theme is political culture, which political scientists have long employed to help understand variation in state laws. We see here, though, that while political culture is real, it is also complex and malleable, and scholars must treat it with great care. That is particularly true with the "moralistic" political culture found in the northeast and upper Midwest. As these essays demonstrate, that culture may offer fertile ground for egalitarian policy-making, but its esteem for participation can also be turned to exclusionary uses. And while certainly reformers work to harness the language and values a political culture contains, it remains unclear how much explanatory power this static variable can have when policies change.

Both of these themes figure in Bilal Dabir Sekou's analysis of Connecticut-a state where recent electoral reform has gone in the other direction, towards making voting easier. In 2012, Connecticut lawmakers enacted a measure allowing Election Day Registration (EDR), a change Democrats in the state legislature had been putting forward for years. Professor Sekou concludes that several factors led to Connecticut's enactment of EDR. The state's underlying political culture values and promotes political participation, and Democrats were able to harness that ideology and emphasize voting-rights rhetoric when they took undivided control of state government for the first time in decades. Reformers executed an "inside and outside" strategy, with a broad coalition of advocacy groups supporting the efforts of leading politicians to put an EDR law in place. …

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