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Why Voting Restrictions Have Yet to Lower Turnout

New research finds publicity about these laws mobilizes Democrats, counteracting their disenfranchising effect.
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(Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

(Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

As John Oliver discussed on his HBO program Sunday, many states have passed laws in recent years making it more difficult to cast a ballot. Yet there is no sign that actual voter participation has decreased.

University of Michigan political scientists Nicholas Valentino and Fabian Neuner have come up with a psychological explanation for this disconnect.

They argue that news of such laws—which are widely seen as attempts by Republican legislatures to reduce voting of predominantly Democrat poorer voters—infuriates people on the political left, making them more likely to go to the polls.

In two studies, they present evidence that "anger triggered by a discussion of voter ID laws can powerfully motivate targeted groups." Writing in the journal Political Psychology, they show this galvanizing effect essentially counteracts any attempts to damp down participation.

As Valentino and Neuner note, 32 states have passed "voter identification laws of some kind" over the past two decades. While their proponents argue such laws are necessary to combat voter fraud, "the partisan nature of these laws seems well-established," they write. "Competitive states controlled by Republican legislatures are particularly likely to pass these laws, presumably to protect their slim electoral margins."

Thirty-two states have passed "voter identification laws of some kind" over the past two decades.

A racial component is also widely suspected. "Republican states were the non-white electorate is growing rapidly are also much more likely to see these laws proposed and passed," the researchers write. A North Carolina law requires "two forms of identification, which blacks are significantly less likely to hold," and contains "a special dispensation for voters older than 70, who are disproportionately white."

If that infuriates you, and leaves you itching to do something, you're helping to make the researchers' point.

The first of their studies featured 750 white Americans, who were asked how angry it would make them feel, on a scale of one to five, if ID laws prevented some eligible voters from casting a ballot, and if someone who was ineligible to vote attempted to do so. Participants then indicated how likely they were to volunteer for a voter-information program, and to actually vote in the upcoming (2014) election.

Not surprisingly, the prospect of disenfranchising voters was far more likely to anger Democrats, who in turn expressed more interest in participating in the political process. The possibility of voter fraud angered, and potentially mobilized, members of both parties, leading to an overall net gain for Democrats.

The second study featured a 2014 survey of 750 Americans, conducted online via Amazon's Mechanical Turk. Each participant read a fictitious news article about the upcoming election: one that did not mention the voter ID controversy; a second that mentioned it in passing; a third that suggested such laws could disenfranchise some voters; a fourth that claimed it would lower turnout among African Americans; and a fifth that argued such laws are necessary to protect against voter fraud.

All were then asked to give their emotional response to the story, and indicate their intention of participating in the election in a variety of ways (including donating to a candidate, attending campaign events, and voting).

The researchers found anger grew among Democrats, but not Republicans, as the description of voter disenfranchisement grew more specific and intense. They also found this rage was "powerfully mobilizing," particularly for those who read that the voter-suppression effects particularly target blacks.

The idea of voter fraud triggered roughly the same amount of outrage among members of both political parties. So, as in the first study, Democrats were angrier overall—and more inclined to take action.

Presuming this effect was mirrored in the real world, it suggests any votes lost to tougher requirements were negated by an increased incentive on the part of Democrats to cast ballots.

Valentino and Neuner conclude by warning that their results should not provide too much comfort to people concerned about the impact of these new restrictions. Once the laws fade from the news, the backlash effect could easily dissipate, which would allow them "to have their intended effect."

The trick for Democrats, then, will be to keep people thinking and talking about voting restrictions—perhaps through attempts to repeal them, or by finding fresh examples of qualified voters who are kept from casting a vote. Injustice can be motivating—especially when it's aimed at a group you identify with. But there can be no anger without awareness.


Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.