“Targeted demobilization of minority voters”—the most disgraceful practice in American politics today

Perspectives on Politics is a leading journal published by the American Political Science Association. December’s issue includes a sobering article by Keith G. Bentele and Erin E. O’Brien titled, “Jim Crow 2.0? Why States Consider and Adopt Restrictive Voter Access Policies.” The abstract tells the basic story:

Recent years have seen a dramatic increase in state legislation likely to reduce access for some voters, including photo identification and proof of citizenship requirements, registration restrictions, absentee ballot voting restrictions, and reductions in early voting. Political operatives often ascribe malicious motives when their opponents either endorse or oppose such legislation. In an effort to bring empirical clarity and epistemological standards to what has been a deeply-charged, partisan, and frequently anecdotal debate, we use multiple specialized regression approaches to examine factors associated with both the proposal and adoption of restrictive voter access legislation from 2006–2011. Our results indicate that proposal and passage are highly partisan, strategic, and racialized affairs. These findings are consistent with a scenario in which the targeted demobilization of minority voters and African Americans is a central driver of recent legislative developments…. [emphasis added]

Bentele and O’Brien’s statistical analysis of 2006-2011 data makes plain what was already pretty obvious. Republican governors and legislatures have sought to hinder minority turnout for partisan purposes. States were especially likely to pass restrictive voting laws if Republicans were politically dominant, but where the state observed rising minority turnout or where the state was becoming more competitive in the national presidential race. Variables that capture the strategic value to Republicans of minority voter suppression are more powerful predictors of restrictive voting legislation than is actual incidence of voter fraud.

This is the most disgraceful and toxic practice in American political life. It’s out there. It’s blatant. I keep waiting for decent conservatives to speak out against this stuff. Now that would be a Sister Souldjah moment worth watching. So far, no takers.

Memories of these efforts will darken the Republican Party’s reputation for many years. It certainly should.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

53 thoughts on ““Targeted demobilization of minority voters”—the most disgraceful practice in American politics today”

  1. Memories of these efforts will darken the Republican Party’s reputation for many years. It certainly should.

    But does it win elections?

    …decent conservatives…

    You mean ‘losers’?

    Goodbye “E Pluribus Unum” — collectivist rubbish it’s in a dead language to boot.
    Hello “Just Win, Baby!” — and while we’re at it, let’s put Al Davis on the dime instead of that commie FDR.

    1. Not that it makes the practice any less abhorrent, but I recall reading a number of stories after the 2012 election about how voter suppression efforts backfired in a number of jurisdictions by energizing the targeted populations and increasing their turnout. That being said, most of the voter ID laws were held up by the courts in 2012 IIRC, and so their suppression effects were likely blunted while their novelty likely maximized the backfire effect.

      In other words, there is likely a backfire effect from these policies which significantly degrades their utility in winning elections, but this effect may not be enduring.

      1. What it does demonstrate is the hyperbole involved in declaring such mild inconveniences the equivalent of Jim Crow.

        1. Much of what is going on goes well past the level of mild inconvenience. But you know that and are pretending otherwise.

        2. It was a “mild” inconvenience for me when I had to get a state id – a half day off work to get a social security card and another half day to get the state id. This was “mild” for me because I had a nice boss, some power as a worker and i was not living paycheck to paycheck. The situation is quite different for many others.

          I know that drivers have to get a driving license and that this is generally regarded as an awful experience. I think this may be an attempt by drivers to make life just as awful for pedestrians.

          1. When a measure claimed to be “voter suppression” gets enacted, and more of the supposedly “suppressed” voters show up than before, it does rather call into question whether it was properly being described as “voter suppression”, I should think.

          2. Ah, yes, Brett, because they way things work out is always exactly the way that their authors intended. And clearly, if more people showed up, it must mean that no one experienced any hardship doing so.

  2. I find racially targeted policies of any sort, under a government mandated to guarantee equal treatment under the law, abhorrent. But the only racially targeted policies in America today are racially targeted to benefit minorities. Select minorities, mind you. Everybody else, including other minorities, are by default ‘targeted’ for harmful effects. (Something we’re supposed to politely ignore, I know.)

    The policies here designated “racially targeted” are nothing of the sort. They fall with majestic racial impartiality on everyone similarly situated. Any disparate impact is due to disparate distribution of the races among social and economic classes, NOT actual racial targeting.

    As I have pointed out, given the racial demographics of income, a grocery store stubbornly insisting on charging all customers the same price for a pound of hamburger will have racially disparate effects. But that does not make non-discriminatory pricing ‘racial targeting’.

    Given the racial demographics of susceptibility to high blood pressure, salting food will have racially disparate effects. But that doesn’t make putting salt in bacon “racial targeting”.

    And, a preference on the part of blacks to use early voting does not make reducing the days of early voting “racially targeted”. Though, if you think otherwise, I presume that you will prioritize going after those awful racists in Rhode Island, who have carried this ‘racial targeting” to the point where they have no early voting AT ALL.

    1. So failure to provide an adequate number of voting places in predominatley black neighborhoods is not racial targeting, because after all, it impedes anyone who happens to live in that neighborhood.

      Is that right?

      Really, Brett, is there any excuse, no mater how thin, that you won’t support for this stuff? Deliberate steps are being made to restrict voting. The claimed problem these steps are intendced to solve is virtually nonexistent, and they serve no useful purpose. But they do clearly, predictably, and disproportionately restrict black voting, and you see no problem. What a joke.

        1. I respectfully disagree with Keith. Brett’s comment was on topic and reasoned. Byomtov’s response was a similarly on-topic (and to my mind effective) slapdown. Brett B can be a troll, but not I think here.

          1. Yes. Without Brett’s absurd views (it’s a free blogosphere) and the obstinacy with which he maintains them by reiteration rather than response (that’s where the trollishness arises) there would be no discussion on the thread. It’s not as if he has derailed a more valuable conversation. The rest of us just agree wholeheartedly with Harold.

            Trolling IMHO is like discrimination in that effect matters far more than intention.

          2. Fair enough. I see the ceaseless reiteration without learning as more tedious than valuable, but of course no one including me is forced to read the comments.

      1. byomtov: Deliberate steps are being made to restrict voting…

        bellmore: Any disparate impact is due to disparate distribution of the races among social and economic classes, NOT actual racial targeting.

        You see byomtov?
        Bellmore agrees there is discrimination (code words: “disparate impact”), BUT it is focused on poor people.
        And then rather than urging a remedy for that, he instead launches into a careful analysis of salted bacon and black people.
        Which is some deeply tortuous and tortured way, makes sense inside that brain of his.

        My take away?
        Bellmore’s paragraphs are a wonderful glimpse of how Archie Bunker would write if he had an literary IQ of 128.
        That’s not to praise or disparage Mr. Bellmore. Only to point out that the true value of his post is that it demonstrates how a mind can hoax and coax itself silly…

        1. “Bellmore agrees there is discrimination (code words: “disparate impact”), BUT it is focused on poor people.”

          No, actually I don’t. In fact, that’s what I’m explicitly denying. Disparate impact is NOT proof of discrimination. Which is why I pointed out a couple of instances where disparate impact would be absurd to describe as discrimination.

          “Discrimination” means to treat people differently. You discriminate on the basis of race by treating people differently on the basis of race. A policy which treats people equally on the basis of race cannot, literally cannot, be “racially discriminatory”. A police which treats people differently on the basis of race cannot, literally, no matter it’s professed intent, escape being “racially discriminatory”.

          And, as I say, there is only one political party in this country which supports actual racial discrimination. The same one which was supporting it a hundred years ago.

          1. If empirical evidence didn’t matter, I would be a lot more willing to entertain this argument. However, as the post shows, there is almost no detectable voter fraud in the United States, but there is quite a bit of impact of these voter ID policies on who votes, and that impact is massively disparate. You say below that the Republicans are discriminating against Democrats by making it more difficult for them to vote, rather than racial and ethnic groups. A) That is not okay either. We live in a representative democracy, and people who can’t vote aren’t being represented. B) It can be both, it doesn’t have to be just because they are Democrats or just because they are minorities. Republicans can be discriminating against minorities because they are Democrats, and in fact that appears to be what they have done.

            There’s also a lot of tu quoque in there, which is sort of irrelevant to the argument at hand.

      2. I would say that assuming that Republicans are attempting to discourage Democrats from voting because of their race, (Or, Maynard, their poverty.) rather than because they’re Democrats, requires a particularly twisted determination to make everything about race, even when other explanations are available. If you wanted to accuse the GOP of trying to discourage Democrats from voting, I would say you had some justice on your side. But you always have to go for the race card, don’t you?

        I also think the only party in this country which (Now, as in the past.) advocates government sanctioned and sometimes mandated racial discrimination, the real thing, is is a piss-poor position to impute racism to others for policies which merely exhibit disparate impact, rather than actually, literally, openly, discriminating on the basis of race. Mote, beam.

        Oh, wait, I forgot, you think your beam looks good. You wear it at a jaunty angle, and are unashamed of it, and so it’s alright with the people you discriminate against.

        1. Yes, it sure is tough being white. Just think of what white people could achieve without those racist Democrats holding us back!

        2. But you always have to go for the race card, don’t you?

          I think it’s the GOP that is playing the race card.

          “Let’s see if we can suppress Democratic voters.”


          “Well, we know blacks overwhelmingly vote Democratic, so anything we can do to suppress the black vote will help tremendously. I have some ideas.

          “But I don’t want to engage in racist practices.”

          “Oh, don’t worry. Some whites will be affected by this as well. Even though we are picking out black voters, our methods are imperfect, so we really aren’t discriminating on the basis of race. It’s really pretty easy. We know blacks concentrate in certain neighborhoods, and that they tend to be poorer than average. So if we just make it hard for poor people and residents of some neighborhoods to vote, we’ll pretty much accomplish it. And we’ll have the bonus of being able to claim it wasn’t purely racial. Some people will actually believe that.”

          “Oh. Well, that’s OK then.”

          1. I think, as a general rule, if you have to make up imaginary dialogue to make your point, you probably have a pretty weak point; Who cares what the Republicans in your head have to say?

          2. “I guess I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban — read African-American — voter-turnout machine.” – Ohio GOPer Doug Priesse, 2012

            There you go, Brett. An actual Republican making the point for us (albeit in backhandedly self-serving terms). The goal is to shape a voting regime that is less conducive to black turnout; nothing more, nothing less. Priesse is even so kind as to explicitly highlight the code usage of “urban” as a euphemism for “black”, confirming what the rest of us have known for a long time.

            And please cut the bullshit about how who the real racists are. Do you know anything about the history of vote suppression at all? Any knowledge of all the traditional tools of Jim Crow to successfully circumvent the plain language of the Fifteenth Amendment? Poll taxes? Literacy tests? Grandfather clauses? All Jim Crow policies, all highly effective – and yet not a one of them explicitly targeted black people. Explicit doesn’t matter – if the implicit project is shutting out African Americans from democratic participation, you are perpetuating the injustices of Jim Crow. That is all there is to it.

          3. There you go, an actual Republican, complaining about racially targeted Democratic efforts, rather than proposing racially targeting anyone.

            “and yet not a one of them explicitly targeted black people.”

            Actually, I am somewhat familiar with these measures, which generally involved facially neutral laws which were enforced in a discriminatory manner. And, if you can demonstrate that blacks are being required to show ID where whites are not, or that, when they show ID identical to a white’s, it is rejected, you will have a valid complaint.

          4. Spare me. If expanding access to voting is “racially targeted” when Democrats do it, why isn’t reducing access “racially targeted” when Republicans do it?

            And no, Jim Crow-era disenfranchisement was not all about discriminatory enforcement! The whole point of those laws was to be discriminatory even with “fair” enforcement. (Otherwise why would the laws be needed at all?) A poll tax disparately impacts groups which are disproportionately poor (i.e. blacks); a literacy test disparately impacts groups which are disproportionately illiterate (blacks again); a grandfather clause disparately impacts groups which were previously disenfranchised (blacks once more). If the poll tax or the literacy test is itself linked to a grandfather clause the impact is synergistic, and many of the Jim Crow laws worked in just such a manner. What’s more, these laws did in fact have discriminatory effects on “poor white trash” as well as blacks; it was an accepted feature of the Jim Crow regimes – keeping the black man down overrode all other considerations.

          5. There you go, an actual Republican, complaining about racially targeted Democratic efforts, rather than proposing racially targeting anyone.

            Yes, because ensuring that heavily African-American precincts have many fewer voting machines per person and thus have much longer lines to be able to vote is a completely race neutral action.

        3. I would say that assuming that Republicans are attempting to discourage Democrats from voting because of their race, (Or, Maynard, their poverty.) rather than because they’re Democrats, requires a particularly twisted determination to make everything about race, even when other explanations are available.

          You are once again drawing a distinction without a difference. The Republicans want to target Democratic voters, true, but one of the specific characteristics that they are using to identify likely Democratic voters is their race. You are absolutely wrong to argue that race doesn’t figure into the calculations at all.

    2. Let’s assume you are right, Brett, that these efforts are purely motivated by hatred of the poor, and purely impact poor voters. Let’s take race out of it.
      Do you still defend them?

      1. I do find it somewhat vexing to think their policies would be good if the cut along class or party lines, as well. I just don’t understand why it must only be racial that is abhorrent. They’re all abhorrently bigoted.

    3. The policies here designated “racially targeted” are nothing of the sort. They fall with majestic racial impartiality on everyone similarly situated.

      Just like the poll tax!

  3. “…given the racial demographics of income” a widely observed racially disparate outcome, which is the direct result of racially driven public policy. But gosh. Who coulda’ known? Naturally, the only way to rectify this is to pretend it never happened and promulgate even more such policies.

  4. I find it hard to believe that in this day and age race is still such a huge factor. Mitt Romney’s comments on the 47%, and the “makers vs. takers” rehtoric from many on the right, make it seem plausible that what we are really looking at is a Republican Party that has concluded that poor people shouldn’t have the right to vote, and is doing its best to implement that view.

    However, the authors of this study looked at class as well as race, and their data indicate race is the important factor. In other words, the laws passed by Republicans may have the effect of making it harder for poor people to vote, but if people earning less than the poverty line were the intended target of these laws, you would expect to see a different pattern when you looked at where the laws were proposed and passed. Judging by their actions, Republicans seem to be willing to tolerate “takers” voting as long as the “takers” are white. It’s minority voters that inspire them to institute voter suppression laws.

    1. Ah, but then you just have to turn to the next Bellmore prevarication (which he has made before, on this topic, if memory serves): it’s not that they’re targeting poor black voters specifically, they’re targetting poor Democratic voters specifically. That poor whites are more likely to vote Republican, while poor black and brown people vote Democrat, is just an irrelevant coincidence. They’re just being partisan, not racist! I’m sure you’re persuaded.

      1. You’ve got a point there: When a political party does something that can impact voting, you need to look for hidden motives. Because, as we all know, political parties don’t care who people vote for. So they MUST be motivated by something else! Race, or hatred of the poor, something. But not party affiliation, that’s absurd.

        1. Today, Republican Party affiliation is almost synonymous with contempt for black people and hatred for poor people.

          The real lesson here is that Republicans know their policies are unpopular among the WHOLE electorate, so their only hope lies in reducing the electorate in specific ways. Republicans are wusses. If they were competing in a figure-skating contest, they’d try to win by kneecapping their opponents rather than perfecting their own routines.


        2. hatred of the poor,

          Trivia question:

          What is the political significance of the phrase “47 percent?”

        3. I think Brett does have a point here. The authors write, “Our findings confirm that Democrats are justified in their concern that restrictive voter legislation takes aim along racial lines with strategic partisan intent.” That doesn’t say that the underlying motive was racist rather than partisan.

          The big problem I have here is that, racist or not, the Republican Party seems to have concluded that the way to win power is not to offer better candidates, or better ideas, but instead to try to undermine American democracy.

          1. That doesn’t say that the underlying motive was racist rather than partisan.

            I’m not sure I buy this distinction.

            If you want to keep black people from voting, it’s because you don’t like the way they are likely to vote. You don’t want them to be able to express their political preferences at the polls. If you do things to disenfranchise blacks – to rob them of their rightful political power – you are engaging in a racist practice. It doesn’t matter whether you also think blacks are inferior in some way. The fact is you are mistreating them, and this will have consequences because legitimate concerns will not be heard.

  5. I don’t understand why Brett seems to think that “it’s not racist, it’s partisan” makes it all better.

    1. It doesn’t make it hugely better, but I do get annoyed by the Democratic tendency to try to make out all evils to be a particular evil.

      Sure, you’ve got reasons for doing it, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying, especially when this evil is one the Democratic party is particularly guilty of. As I say, and will point out every time you level accusations of racism at the right, there is only one political party in America advocating racial discrimination, and it’s the Democratic party.

      1. It is awfully nice of you to think that, after several centuries of ensuring that privilege flows to white people, the proper response is to freeze all of that privilege into place by never tolerating any explicit attempts to undo it.

        1. +1.

          Brett also inferentially claims that any access to voting policy that is in line with “equal treatment under the law” would be just hunky dory with him. Of course, this is a lie. If we instituted a steeply progressive poll tax based on the marginal utility of the last dollar of the tax, he would scream like a stuck pig…bacon or no bacon.

          1. “If we instituted a steeply progressive poll tax” it would be nothing like equal treatment under the law.

          2. Brett, would you think that a requirement to own real property qualifies as equal treatment under the law?

          3. In rejecting progressive taxation as unequal, Brett seems to be getting his definition of equality from Anatole France, without noting the irony.

          4. The real irony of Anatole France’s famous quote, is that it is the poor themselves who benefit most from the impartial enforcement of neutral laws, because it is not the poor who will benefit from selective enforcement, but instead the wealthy. As I believe we saw only too clearly during the banking crisis.

          5. That rather depends on the lw in question, doesn’t it, as well as what is meant by “impartial enforcement.”

  6. The measure of voter fraud used in the paper’s analyses is ‘formal allegations of voter fraud brought in the 2004 election cycle.’

    At least as I understand it, voter fraud is very difficult to detect after the fact, and that’s the evidence that would be needed to bring formal allegations.

    Absence can be used to prove too much, as in the old joke about highly effective elephant repellent, but isn’t there an element of talking past each other? The paper says ‘no correlation with formally alleged fraud’, and those arguing for ID laws say ‘can’t bring charges of fraud without precautions in place.’

    1. So you are saying that the United States needs to conduct an intensive investigation into Republican voter fraud in Ohio? Should that be just for the 2012 election where very close and intensive monitoring by the Obama campaign and unaffiliated liberal groups kept it in check, or should we include the 2004 election as well? We all know that political correctness precludes even talking about the 2004 results and the various software “problems” that kept cropping up in Ohio 2000-2008, but if you insist…


      1. Cranky seems a fair self-descriptor.

        What I said was ‘are we sure formal allegations of voter fraud are the right proxy for voter fraud in the analysis?’

        There’s a colorable argument that after-the-fact investigations do more harm than good, going back much further than 2004, but it’s not one I favor. Letting these things fester erodes trust, as your own comment witnesses.

        The legitimate question raised by the original post is whether vote-fraud, as something all must be against (compare ‘the children’, something all must be for), is being used as cover for something else, something wrong, and that’s a question whose answer relies in part on knowing how easy it is to commit such fraud today.

        Setting aside for the moment that question of whether vote-fraud is being used as cover for something else, sure: software audits for Ohio, and the other 49 states too. Photo ID requirements. Finger-inking. Et cetera. Worthwhile to prevent fraud, worthwhile to prevent the perception of the possibility of fraud: either erodes legitimacy.

        1. What we need is a vote fraud audit. Take random elections, for starters, and contact the people shown to have voted, and ask them if they voted. That would be a pretty good way of detecting the sort of vote fraud voter ID is nominally targeting, as well as some forms of absentee ballot fraud.

          But every time I’ve heard of somebody trying this, it’s gotten shut down as “voter harassment”.

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