Voter Suppression: An American Political Tradition

Posted by on October 25, 2012

In her new book, The Politics of Voter Suppression Defending and Expanding Americans’ Right to Vote, Tova Andrea Wang tells readers that voter suppression is one of our nation’s political “traditions,” arguing that the U.S. has “an election system that’s exquisitely designed for low rates of participation.”

And Wang has reason to know – a fellow at Demos and The Century Foundation, she worked as a consultant to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission established by Congress in the aftermath of the “2000 Florida election debacle”. Mandated “by law to study voter fraud and intimidation,” the commission hired bipartisan consultants and charged them with investigating both and writing a draft report. According to this 2007 article by Wang, little evidence of fraud was found, but there was lots of evidence of persistent intimidation – findings that were later turned on their head by the political interplay of Congress and George Bush’s Justice Department.

So, it’s not really a huge surprise to find that a big story in the 2012 election cycle is “voter suppression” – meaning attempts to intimidate and deny the franchise to citizens who are legally eligible to vote – presented under the guise of a defense against virtually nonexistent incidents of voter fraud. Read More »


A Republic At Risk

Posted by on December 12, 2011

Hardly a week goes by when some newspaper or television network doesn’t feature where the U.S. ranks among the nations participating in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). This test, administered to 15-year olds every three years, serves as a benchmark for “how we’re doing” in terms of education outcomes relative to our international competitors.

Because the results get so much attention, millions of Americans are aware that our students’ average scores rank relatively low on all three tests (though, when you account for error margins, U.S. scores are actually roughly average). Such awareness has stirred up remarkable urgency to improve our education system – we are told this is a “Sputnik moment,” and that the very future of our nation’s economy is at risk.

Yet, for all the attention we pay to our rankings on standardized tests, how many Americans are aware that, in terms of voter turnout (voters as a proportion of voting-age population) between 1945 and 2001, the U.S. ranked 138th out of the world’s 169 democracies? To whatever degree electoral participation is an indicator of the health of a republic, ours is a sick one indeed. And it’s about to get even sicker. Read More »


Can We Make Voting Like Tweeting?

Posted by on July 7, 2011

A recent Brookings Institution forum on new social media and the re-invigoration of democracy got me thinking about whether and how Twitter and Facebook could successfully increase political participation, specifically voter turnout. Voter turnout is one of the most important indicators of a healthy democracy and – as many have noted – U.S. voter participation rates are remarkably low.

It does not surprise me that people don’t see the immediate gains of voting. Going to the polls on election day entails individual costs (e.g., time, figuring out polling locations), while the benefits are essentially collective and weakly dependent on the vote of any one individual. Thus, people may find that it’s in their interest not to bother (Downs 1957 is the classic work on this). This rational approach conflicts with a more normative (even moral) understanding of democracy and civic behavior – e.g., we know we should all vote; it’s as much our responsibility as our right.

In a much less academic vein, although many U.S. citizens are free-riders when it comes to voting, it appears that Americans love to give their detailed opinions on all kinds of things. For example, why are Americans, who are so enthusiastic and industrious when it comes to writing lengthy product reviews, indolent when they are asked (once every four years) to voice their political views? How can we make voting as compelling as writing an online review? And can social media help in this endeavor? Read More »


Suppressing Democracy

Posted by on June 28, 2011

At a recent Shanker Institute conference, a guest presenter from the United Kingdom was discussing the historical relationship between public spending and democracy. I don’t remember the exact context, but at some point, he noted, in a perfectly calm, matter-of-fact tone, that one U.S. political party spends a great deal of effort and resources trying to suppress electoral turnout.

It’s always kind of jarring to hear someone from another country make a casual observation about an American practice that’s so objectionable, especially when you’re well aware it’s plainly true. And perhaps never more so than right now.

There are currently several states – most with Republican governors and/or legislatures, including Wisconsin and Ohio – that are either considering or have already passed bills that would require citizens to obtain government-issued identification (or strengthen previous requirements), such as driver’s licenses or passports, in order to register to vote and/or cast a ballot. The public explanation given by these lawmakers and their supporters is that identification requirements will reduce voter fraud. This is so transparently dishonest as to be absurd. Recent incidences of voter fraud are exceedingly rare. Most of these laws are clearly efforts to increase the “costs” of voting for large groups of people who traditionally vote Democratic.

Others have commented on the politics behind these efforts. I’d like to put them in context. Read More »


Public Employee Unions And Voter Turnout

Posted by on May 10, 2011

During the recent debates over public employees’ collective bargaining rights, especially around the Wisconsin protests, I heard a few people argue that Republican governors are intent on destroying public sector unions, at least in part, because union members are more likely to vote – and to vote Democratic.

The latter argument (union members are more likely to vote Democratic) is generally true (also here) – although the union “effect” on candidate/party choice is of course complicated. The former argument (more likely to vote in general) is also valid, but there is some underlying public/private variation that is both interesting and important.

As is almost always the case, isolating the effect of a given factor (in this case, how being a union member affects the likelihood of voting) requires one to compare how this factor “operates” on people who are otherwise similar. For example, in a previous post, I compared public and private sector workers’ earnings. In order to uncover the “effect” of public sector employment on earnings, I used models that controlled for other relevant, measurable factors, such as education and experience. In doing so, I was able to (imperfectly) ensure that I was comparing public and private employees who were similar in terms of skills and qualifications.

The same basic concept applies to voting. Read More »


What Democracy Looks Like When We Actually Show Up

Posted by on April 7, 2011

As you probably already know, yesterday was spring election day in Wisconsin. With a margin just about as slim as it gets (about 200 votes) in the race for State Supreme Court Justice (and a recount looming), it seems that the Democratic candidate, JoAnne Kloppenburg, has beaten her opponent, Republican Justice David Prosser.

No matter how the recount turns out, it was a stunning outcome. Kloppenburg was a virtual unknown, facing a long-time incumbent who had bested her by 30 points in the Feb. 15 primaries. Her victory seemed virtually impossible.

Equally amazing was yesterday’s turnout. Although the final certified ballot count will no doubt be a bit different, roughly 1.48 million Wisconsinites went to the polls to cast their votes. Now, turnout in spring elections is notoriously low, and the one and a half million voters represents only about 36 percent of the voting-eligible population.

But, as always, we should put this figure in context. Read More »


One Person, 2.5 Votes

Posted by on July 14, 2010

We hear a lot of comparisons of the United States with other nations in terms of education, healthcare, economics, and dozens of other outcomes. These comparisons provide a frame of reference for us. They give us a way of “seeing how we’re doing.”

One area that is not often discussed in these comparisons, strangely, is electoral participation. I say this is strange because we usually compare ourselves with other democracies, but rarely in terms of democracy’s central mechanism.

So let’s take a look. Read More »


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