Passive Voter Suppression: Campaign Mobilization and the Effective Disfranchisement of the Poor
UVA Law Faculty Affiliations
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.