Passive Voter Suppression: Campaign Mobilization and the Effective Disfranchisement of the Poor

72 Pages Posted: 31 Dec 2019

See all articles by Bertrall L. Ross

Bertrall L. Ross

University of California, Berkeley School of Law; University of California, Berkeley - Berkeley Center on Comparative Equality & Anti-Discrimination Law

Douglas M. Spencer

University of Connecticut, School of Law

Date Written: November 20, 2019

Abstract

A recent spate of election laws tightened registration rules, reduced convenient voting opportunities, and required voters to show specific types of identification in order to vote. Because these laws make voting more difficult, critics have analogized them to Jim Crow Era voter suppression laws.

We challenge the analogy that current restrictive voting laws are a reincarnation of Jim Crow Era voter suppression. While there are some notable similarities, the analogy obscures a more apt comparison to a different form of voter suppression — one that operates to effectively disfranchise an entire class of people, just as the old form did for African Americans. This form of suppression excludes the poor.

To account for the effective disfranchisement of the poor, we develop a more robust theory of voting than currently exists in the legal literature. Drawing on rational choice and sociological theories of voting, we show how information, affiliation with formal organizations, and integration into social networks of politically active individuals are far more important to the decision to vote than the tangible costs of voting associated with the new voter suppression.

Using this expanded account of voting, we identify the role of political parties and their mobilization activities in the effective disfranchisement of the poor. Relying on the same proprietary data as the Obama campaign in 2008 and 2012 (and hundreds of campaigns since), along with other public sources of data, we show how campaigns employ a “calculus of contact” to decide whom to mobilize. That calculus leads campaigns to disproportionately neglect the poor when canvassing, calling, and sending political mailers to potential voters — mobilization activities that have a sizeable turnout effect. In our view, the most significant voter suppression tactics of the twenty-first century are therefore not what legislatures are doing, but what campaigns are not doing.

We argue that a first step in combating this passive voter suppression should involve changing the information environment of campaigns: the amount and type of information about potential voters that the state makes available to campaigns. Such a change could force campaigns to adjust their calculus of contact and contact more low-income people during election season. Including the poor as targets of campaign mobilization would be an important first step toward a more egalitarian democracy.

Keywords: Voter suppression, Disfranchisement, Poor, Mobilization, Microtargeting, Campaigns, Voter ID

Suggested Citation

Ross, Bertrall LeNarado and Spencer, Douglas M., Passive Voter Suppression: Campaign Mobilization and the Effective Disfranchisement of the Poor (November 20, 2019). Northwestern University Law Review, Vol. 114, No. 3, 2019. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3501739

Bertrall LeNarado Ross (Contact Author)

University of California, Berkeley School of Law ( email )

215 Boalt Hall
Berkeley, CA 94720-7200
United States
510-643-5788 (Phone)

University of California, Berkeley - Berkeley Center on Comparative Equality & Anti-Discrimination Law

Boalt Hall
Berkeley, CA 94720-7200
United States

Douglas M. Spencer

University of Connecticut, School of Law ( email )

65 Elizabeth Street
Hartford, CT 06105
United States

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