Policy Summary 

The passage of voting rights legislation encompasses the adoption of a range of policies at the federal, state, and local levels. These policies are collectively aimed at expanding access to the polls, eliminating barriers to voting, adequately funding elections, establishing fair rules regarding drawing district boundaries, providing funding for publicly financed elections, and a range of other provisions. In general, this policy would build upon the 1965 Voting Rights Act and add provisions for modern-day voting rights problems. 

Case for Equity

True democracy is one in which there is competition over ideas and wherein citizens voice their support for visions for our nation. It is a system based on respect, tolerance, and protection for all voices. In contrast, democracy is not a contest of power, or a winner take all system of governance. Moreover, the biggest gains in our nation’s collective prosperity have occurred during or as a result of expanding suffrage to the disenfranchised.  Given that voting is the most fundamental of all our rights – a right that safeguards all other rights – voting rights remains our nation’s most critically important civil rights issue.  

Our nation has a shameful history of denying the right to vote to women and people of color. The nation’s legacy of disenfranchisement is clearly on display in research showing that voter participation by people of color is lowest in communities that have a higher number of historical lynchings (Williams 2017). The American South is where this legacy plays out most undoubtedly and where we can tie that history to modern-day practices. Those modern-day policies have been shown to have a disproportionately negative impact on people of color (Johnson 2020). Policies like voter ID laws hamper voting access by low-income and people of color to a much larger degree than white voters. Correcting this reality is critical if we are to realize our nation’s potential for growth and if we are to live up to the ideals of the nation’s founding. 

Return on Investment

The return on investment for this policy is rated as HIGH.  The policy is likely to have a positive impact on government revenues, family and individual life outcomes (across several indicators), and broad societal outcomes. 

The economic history of the south is clear regarding the impact of voting rights on the southern economy. Starting with Reconstruction and proceeding through the late 1900s there was a strong pattern of growth in GDP, increases in federal-to-state transfers, increased state-to-local investments, and increased private sector investment that can be linked to the enfranchisement of African Americans. The election of African Americans to public office is associated with even further growth in investments for white and black citizens in health, human services, and education (for a summary see: Wright, G; Husted and Kenny, 1997; Cascio and Washington, 2012; Besley et al., 2010).  Research also shows how the 1965 Voting Rights Act is linked to improving wages for workers in the South and decreasing the racial wage gap (see Aneja and Avenancio). 

International research indicates that expanding democracy via voting access improves real wages and national income. Recent research also shows that democracy expansion has a positive impact on government revenue to the tune of a 16% increase in tax revenues as a percentage of GDP (Aidt and Jensen; Acemoglu et al.; Persson and Tabellini). Given the relatively low costs of voting rights expansion policies, localities and states stand to accrue significant financial gains from the expansion of voting rights and ballot access.

Research Base

The research base is rated as being MEDIUM to HIGH. The scope of the research is broad, and its overall quality is high. 

Voting rights expansion policies don’t lend well to controlled experimentation. Nonetheless, there is a wealth of research available utilizing a number of methodologies that plainly show a positive relationship between voting rights expansion and desirable social outcomes. This research relies on econometric modeling and analyses of historical data and has been subjected to scrutiny by top political science researchers and economists from across the globe. Overall, the research literature is methodologically sound. The literature spans over 50 years of scholarship and thus stands the test of time as syntheses of the literature have consistently affirmed the links between voting rights expansion and positive economic outcomes, regardless of the country setting or time period under study.  

State & Local Ease of Implementation

This policy is rated as having a HARD level of implementation difficulty. The primary variable affecting the difficulty rating of this policy is the political feasibility: the positional alignment of political parties combined with political geography in America. The structural elements scoring dimension is rated as moderate given that there is a need for systemic reform. The hierarchical complexity is high given the statutory interdependence between states and localities on election issues.  

Understanding Voter Dynamics and Landscape

With the advent of machine learning and advanced digital tools, it is critical that communities understand local demographics, voting patterns, and the geographic dynamics of their elections. While there are a number of tools available to build out that knowledge base, leaders should look to build partnerships with experts from universities and \ nonprofits who can provide the necessary insights and expertise to inform strategies. The Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project provides models for this type of analysis.

Adopting Model Legislation

The legislative nuances of each state are unique, and the key to successful voting reform is the execution of legislative policy. Our system of voting is built upon a structure of laws governing everything from polling locations to actual ballot design. The history of voting reform reflects an ongoing struggle in the courts, state houses, and with local governing boards. It is imperative that those seeking change build upon the successes of past reforms and equip themselves with the tools necessary to effect change. Fair Vote has a collection of model bills that can be tailored for each state.

Building a Coalition

No one organization can be successful alone. Past successful voting reform efforts have involved multi-level stakeholder partnerships. The federal government has historically played a key role in successful reforms, but reforms also often involve leveraging the influence of local leaders from the public and private sectors.

Securing Funding

One of the often-ignored aspects of voting rights and voting reform is financing. The nation is a patchwork quilt of varying approaches to funding state and local elections. Additionally, increasing voter education and participation is a costly effort.  The ability of communities to be successful will likely hinge upon their ability to secure funding for those efforts from a range of sources. The states are responsible for funding elections, but the level at which they fund those efforts and the equity of that funding can be a critical hurdle to overcome. Community leaders may have to look at strategies like ballot measures to establish dedicated funds for election funding. In 2020, states partnered with the private sector to fund local voting efforts. In addition, a number of philanthropic organizations fund implementation, research, reform, and/or mobilization efforts.

 

Innovations Across America

Virginia | Voting Rights Act:    

Action Space: State Level (Legislative) 

Cost: No allocation  

Mechanism: Enabling Legislation 2021 SB1395 

In 2021, the State of Virginia approved its own version of the Voting Rights Act. The bill aims to eliminate voter suppression and intimidation in the state. Virginia is the first state to enact its own version of the federal Voting Rights Act. One key provision of the law is a requirement that local election officials obtain pre-approval from the attorney general’s office (or public feedback) in order to make any changes in voting regulations. The law also requires that voting materials be provided by local election officials in foreign languages, as needed . Lastly, the bill includes a provision for individuals to take civil action against localities for voter suppression, with civil penalties being awarded to a Voter Education and Outreach Fund.

Kentucky| Expansion of Voter Access Law  

Action Space: State Level (Legislative) 

Cost: No allocation  

Mechanism: Enabling Legislation HB574 

In 2021, the State of Kentucky was one of only two southern states to expand voter access. The state enacted several provisions that improved the ability of citizens to participate in the state’s elections process. The law made it easier to request ballots online, enshrined three days of early voting in the state, expanded the number of voting centers to increase in-person balloting, and now allows voters to correct issues with their absentee ballots rather than having them automatically invalidated.  

Broward Co., FL   

Action Space: Local (Municipal)
Cost: Unknown
Mechanism: Resolution   

Broward County works in conjunction with county officials to hold an annual high school voter registration drive. School boards can support voter registration efforts by regularly requiring the school system to host voter registration assemblies and other opportunities on school grounds where students can pre-register to vote. The opportunity is available to all students who will be eligible to vote by the next election.  The program also has model classroom activities that teachers can use to educate students about the voting process and the history of voting in the U.S..

Wright, G. 2013. Sharing the Prize: The Economics of the Civil Rights Revolution in the American South. Harvard University Press  

Wright, G. The Regional Economic Impact of The Civil Rights Act Of 1964. Boston University law review. 95(3):759-779 

Aneja and Avenancio L. 2020. Voting rights equal economic progress: The Voting Rights Act and U.S. economic inequality. Washington Center for Equitable Growth.  

The Center for Voting and Democracy. Model Legislation   

Acemoglu, D., Naidu, S., Restrepo, P., Robinson, J. 2015. Democracy, Redistribution, and Inequality. Handbook of Income Distribution. Volume 2, 2015, Pages 1885-1966 

Cascio, E., Washington, E. Valuing the Vote: The Redistribution of Voting Rights and State Funds following the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Volume 129, Issue 1, , Pages 379–433,  

Williams, J.  2017. Historical Lynchings and Contemporary Voting Behavior of Blacks 

Husted J., and Kenny L. 1997. The Effect of the Expansion of the Voting Franchise on the Size of Government 

Journal of Political Economy. Vol. 105, No. 1 (Feb) pp. 54-82 

Johnson, J. 2020. The New Voter Suppression. Brennan Center  

Aidt, T. Jensen, P. 2013.  Democratization and the size of government: evidence from the long 19th century 

Public Choice: Vol 157, No. 3/4,  

Persson T., Tabellini G. 2009. Democratic Capital: The Nexus of Political and Economic Change 

American Economic Journal: Macroeconomics: Vol. 1, no. 2 

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