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Half of states OK’d restrictive voting laws

Study covers years before ’12 election

Nearly half the states in the country passed laws restricting the right to vote in the five years leading up to the last presidential election, with most of them in the South, according to a study recently released by two professors from the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Keith Bentele and Erin O'Brien, professors of sociology and political science, respectively, found that race, class, and political partisanship influenced the push for a raft of restrictive laws from 2006 to 2011.

The study, published last month, found that during the five years preceding the 2012 election, nearly every state proposed a voting law that would have, in some way, restricted access to casting ballots or registering to vote. Almost half of states passed such a law, the study said.


From 2006 to 2011, according to the study, restrictive voter access policies were more likely to be proposed in states with larger African-American and immigrant populations, and where voter turnout among minority and low-income voters had increased during presidential elections.

A similar picture emerged for the passage of these proposals, with states where minority turnout had increased since the previous presidential election being more likely to implement restrictive legislation. On top of that, the study found that states where Republicans control the Legislature and the governor's office were more likely to pass such laws.

Efforts to restrict voting surfaced throughout the country, but, according to the study, such proposals appeared to be much more likely to pass in the South and in battleground states such as Ohio and Florida. In Massachusetts, for example, more than 30 such laws were proposed during the five-year period scrutinized but none passed, according to the study.

"In states where Republicans have full control over state government, that's where these things are more likely to pass," Bentele said.


Bentele and O'Brien said they wanted to move beyond political rhetoric and try to empirically decode the reasons behind the restrictive voter policies, which include requiring a photo ID, shortening early voting, restricting voter registration drives, and limiting voting for felons. Democrats often say the laws are an effort to dampen turnout within their base. Republicans often counter, saying the laws are meant to prevent or curb electoral fraud.

"Today's widespread accusatory rhetoric is long on dramatic flair but short on evidence," said the study, titled "Jim Crow 2.0? Why States Consider and Adopt Restrictive Voter Access Policies." It appeared in the December issue of the political science journal Perspectives on Politics.

The two academics, though, said they made no assumptions at the beginning of the study.

Bentele and O'Brien used statistical regression analysis to test theories promoted by both the right and the left, including voter fraud, voter turnout, racial demographics, changes in minority and low-income voter turnout, and partisan control of state Legislatures.

"We think of voting as this steady march forward, but this legislation should be conceptualized as push and pull on voting rights that is very much driven by race and enabled by the fact that states control their election laws," O'Brien said. "Things like the percentage of African-Americans in states, minority turnout, change in minority turnout are driving the proposal and passage here."

Public attitudes are influenced when lawmakers file bills to restrict voting, with people often concluding that the electoral process is threatened so a solution is needed, the professors said.


"By proposing this legislation in the state, it puts in people's heads . . . 'Oh, now voter fraud is a problem. We need voter ID,' " O'Brien said. "Nobody cared about this six years ago. That proposal part actually serves an important function."

And Bentele added: "Think of it as symbolic politics. Once you get down to the political reality of, can you pass this sort of thing, those sort of pass through a filter that's mostly about political control."

Bentele and O'Brien cautioned that their study does not reveal the motive behind the proposal and passage of these laws. "We can't say every single state is doing this because they are racist," O'Brien said. "We can say that what is driving states to do this in our statistical model is not voter fraud. They are responding to minority turnout changes, to changes [in] low-income turnout."

The numbers bear out what states are doing and when they're doing it, Bentele said, adding that the results were consistent and told a story.

"It's irrefutable; this is a story of race and partisanship,'' O'Brien said.

Akilah Johnson can be reached at ajohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.