Race, Poverty, and the Redistribution of Voting Rights

Michener, Jamila
Poverty & public policy

The relative political disengagement of people living in poverty poses an enduring challenge to the integrity of American democracy. In 1993, Congress attempted to address this by passing section 7 of the National Voter Registration Act. This law requires that all public assistance agencies serve as voter registration sites. Though advocates had high hopes for section 7, it has proven difficult to implement. Since very early on, state compliance has varied widely, maintaining an overall trajectory of decline. This article explains the reasons for such patterns. By examining changes in compliance between 1995 and 2012, I demonstrate that race is a pivotal determinant of when states incorporate low‐income policy beneficiaries into the electorate. I find that state compliance decreases significantly when (i) non‐Whites are less active in electoral politics relative to their White counterparts; (ii) African Americans comprise a greater share of the state population; and (iii) welfare bureaucracies employ more Latinos. These findings raise concerns about the political equality of disadvantaged citizens and underscore the need to scrutinize the outcomes of expansionary voting policies. Even more broadly, this research shows how the entanglement of race and poverty in a federalist polity frustrates efforts to advance participatory equality.