Following the 2020 election and Donald Trump’s false claim of voter fraud, Republican state legislatures in at least 19 states have made it more difficult to vote. They have, for example, restricted voting by mail, tightened voter identification requirements, and criminalized passing out water to voters in line.[1] The academic literature on this topic has consistently shown that these kinds of processes have a disproportionate negative impact on voter turnout of racial minorities.[2] At the same time, states with histories of suppressing minorities’ votes have seen a sudden rise in polling place closures. Although this seems to  indicate a similar negative impact, it is still largely unknown whether these closures specifically target black people and whether they have a disproportionate effect on their voter turnout. [3]

 

The US has a long history of suppressing minorities’ – especially black people’s – right to vote. Even though the Voting Rights Act of 1965 formally secured racial minorities’ right to vote, during the decades following this act, political actors around the country made sure that the political preferences of certain groups were not as well represented as others. Such efforts include requiring voters to have photo ID, not allowing felons or other people who have been convicted of a crime to vote, and drawing biased voting district lines – a process also known as gerrymandering. While these processes might sound inconspicuous, it has been systematically proven that they all disproportionally and negatively affect racial minorities.[4] Therefore, they play a significant role in the underrepresentation of minority groups in the American political system. Experts have referred to these processes as ‘voter suppression’.[5]

 

Civil rights organizations have reported a large increase in the closing of polling places, especially in areas with large racial minority populations.

 

It is not only the actions of self-interested politicians that contribute to these processes but also the decisions of supposedly neutral courts. In its 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, the US Supreme Court struck down one of the most important sections of the Voting Rights Act. This section prohibited states with a history of discriminatory voting from changing their electoral system, that is redistricting, relocating or closing polling places, without agreement from a federal body like the Department of Justice. Following the strike of this section by the Supreme Court, these states could freely make changes to the electoral system. This opened the floodgates to new restrictive voting practices. Civil rights organizations have reported a large increase in the closing of polling places as a result, especially in areas with large racial minority populations. Since polling place closures are a fairly recent process, there is a distinct lack of academic studies that have looked at polling place closures. Because of this, and the clear indications that it might be another process of voter suppression, it is imperative to study the factors that lead to polling place closures and the consequences of such closures.

 

Causes and Consequences of Polling Place Closures

The main reason for boards of election to close polling places is cost cutting. Boards of election are consistently underfunded and have difficulty keeping up with technological advancements. To help alleviate some of these issues and cut costs, boards of election often choose to close or consolidate polling places.[6] This, however, is not the full story. Voting precincts that serve mostly racial minorities are systematically underfunded.[7] Additionally, when facing the need to cut costs, lawmakers are more likely to target communities of color.[8] This indicates that the closure of polling places might be a biased and discriminatory process. It should be noted that party politics play an important role in this discussion as well. The Republican party is responsible for passing virtually all recent laws that experts have considered voter suppression.[9] This can be explained by the fact that especially black people heavily favor the Democratic party.[10] The Republican party, therefore, might stand to gain from restricting the right to vote for these groups.

 

When polling places are hard or impossible to reach and people’s ability to vote by mail has been restricted, it might simply become impossible for people to vote.

 

There are two main ways in which polling place closures can make voting more difficult and, therefore, lead to decreased voter turnout. First, the closing of polling places is likely to make them less accessible and make finding a new one more difficult. Polling place closures have been shown to increase voters’ distance to their polling place and complicate the process of locating their new polling place.[11] Second, these closures will likely increase the number of people voting at the remaining polling places, which, in turn, will lead to longer wait times. Previous studies have found that almost 5 percent of people waiting in line will leave before they can cast their vote due to long lines. People who experienced longer lines in previous elections are also less likely to vote in subsequent elections.[12]

 

The Empirical Evidence

An empirical investigation into the causes and consequences of polling place closures in over 2500 counties in the US in three presidential elections (2008, 2012, and 2016) yields two important findings. First, there might very well be some bias in the closing of polling places. Counties in Republican states with larger proportions of black people experienced more polling place closures from 2008 to 2012.[13] As shown in Figure 1, the number of polling places per 1000 people did not change depending on the proportion of black people in states that were not under Republican control (shown by black line). Counties in Republican states (shown by red line), on the other hand, experienced significantly more closures when they had a larger proportion of black people. Comparing 2016 to 2012, the same effect was not present. One possible reason for this difference could be the popularity of Barack Obama among black voters. Because Obama was so popular with these voters, Republicans might have had more of an incentive to specifically target black voters because their turnout was expected to play a large role in the final outcome. Hilary Clinton, on the other hand, was not as popular with black voters, meaning that Republicans might have shifted their focus elsewhere.

 

 

Figure 1: Effect of Republican State Government and Proportion Black Population on Polling Place Closures[14]

 

The second finding is that polling place closures have no distinguishable effect on overall voter turnout.[15] This can be explained by, on the one hand, a negative effect of these closures on physical turnout but, on the other hand, a positive effect on absentee turnout. The term ‘absentee turnout’ refers to people who did not physically cast their vote at a polling place but instead voted another way, for example by mail. The negative effect on physical turnout matches the expectation but the positive effect on absentee turnout is quite puzzling. It can mean one of two things. First, polling places could have been closed because election officials invested in absentee ballots leading to a reduction in number of polling places but increase in absentee turnout. Second, in response to the closure of their closest polling place, people could have decided to vote by mail instead.

 

In combination with the Republicans’ possible targeting of black communities, the restriction on mail-in voting is likely to reduce the turnout of black people.

 

This latter possibility becomes especially interesting when put into the broader context of the recent push for legislation introduced by Republicans across the US making it more difficult to vote.[16] In the period surrounding the 2020 elections, Trump repeatedly claimed that voting by mail was unsafe and highly susceptible to fraud. It was one of the main claims contributing to his ‘Big Lie’ that the elections were stolen.[17] Republicans across the country have used this claim to pass legislation that restricts absentee/mail-in voting. Combined with polling place closures, this can have a severe impact on voter turnout. When polling places are hard or impossible to reach and people’s ability to vote by mail has been restricted, it might simply become impossible for people to vote. In combination with the Republicans’ possible targeting of black communities, this restriction on mail-in voting is likely to reduce the turnout of black people.

 

Conclusion

All of that leads to the conclusion that polling place closures, especially in combination with other forms of voter suppression, can significantly contribute to political inequality in the US. Take, for example, the state of Georgia, which Joe Biden won in the 2020 elections as the first Democrat since Bill Clinton in 1992. One major reason behind this win was the increased turnout among young and non-white voters.[18] This shows that increased turnout among these groups can have a significant effect on election outcomes, making it hugely important that their vote is promoted rather than suppressed. However, their vote is in danger since the Georgian state legislature, which is dominated by the Republican party, also recently put into place one of the most restrictive voting laws in the country. On top of that, the state has seen more polling place closures than almost any state since the Shelby v. Holder Supreme Court decision in 2013.[19] This combination of restrictive voting laws and polling place closures might mean that, in the future, non-white voters in Georgia will not be able to have the same impact as they had in 2020.

 

While it is currently too early to tell the full consequences of polling place closures, it is clear that there are many reasons to be concerned. It is thus vital that the media and academics give these processes the recognition they require. For example, research can be done on how states decide which polling places to close from election to election and how that practice has changed since 2013. This could shed light on the entire process and help clear up the uncertain effect of polling place closures on voter turnout.

 

Editor: Sem van Boxtel

 

Referenties

[1] Brennan Center for Justice. “Voting Laws Roundup: December 2021,” Brennan Center for Justice, December 21, 2021, https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/voting-laws-roundup-december-2021

[2] See e.g. Zoltan Hajnal, Nazita Lajevardi, and Lindsay Nielson. “Voter Identification Laws and the Suppression of Minority Votes,” The Journal of Politics 79, no. 2 (2017): 363-379; Lisa M. Manheim and Elizabeth G. Porter. “The Elephant in the Room: Intentional Voter Suppression,” The Supreme Court Review 2018, no. 1 (2019): 213-255.

[3] The Leadership Conference Education Fund, Democracy Diverted: Polling Place Closures and the Right to Vote (Washington D.C.: The Leadership Conference Education Fund, 2019).

[4] See e.g. Hajnal, Lajevardi, and Nielson, “Voter Identification Laws”; Manheim and Porter, “Voter Suppression.”

[5] Kaleigh Rogers, “The Big Lie’s Long Shadow,” FiveThirtyEight, January 12, 2022, https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-big-lie-voting-laws/

[6] John McNulty, Conor M. Dowling, and Margaret H. Ariotti, “Driving Saints to Sin: How Increasing the Difficulty of Voting Dissuades Even the Most Motivated Voters,” Political Analysis 17 (2009): 436.

[7] Christopher Famighetti, Amanda Melilo, and Myrna Pérez, Election Day Long Lines: Resource Allocation (New York, NY: Brennan Center for Justice, 2014); Stephen Pettigrew, “The Racial Gap in Wait Times: Why Minority Precincts Are Underserved by Local Election Officials,” Political Science Quarterly 132, no. 3 (2017): 527-547.

[8] See e.g. Jill Mangaliman, “The Color of Cuts: The Disproportionate Impact of Budget Cuts on Communities of Color in Washington State.” Washington CAN, March 11, 2011, https://issuu.com/wcan/docs/2011_color_of_cuts; David S. Knight and Katherine O. Strunk, “Who Bears the Costs of District Funding Cuts? Reducing Inequality in the Distribution of Teacher Layoffs.” Educational Researcher 45, no. 7 (2016): 395-406

[9] Pettigrew, “Wait Times,” 531.

[10] Bernard Grofman, Lisa Handley, and Richard G. Niemi, Minority Representation and the Quest for Voting Equality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992); Bernard Grofman, ed., Race and Redistricting in the 1990s (New York, NY: Agathon Press, 1998).

[11] Henry E. Brady and John E. McNulty, “Turning Out to Vote: The Costs of Finding and Getting to the Polling Place,” American Political Science Review 105, no. 1 (2011): 115-134; James G. Gimpel and Jason E. Schuknecht, “Political Participation and the Accessibility of the Ballot Box,” Political Geography 22, no. 5 (2003): 471-488.

[12] John C. Fortier, Matthew Weil, Charles Stewart III, Tim Harper, and Stephen Pettigrew, Improving the Voter Experience: Reducing Polling Place Wait Times by Measuring Lines and Managing Polling Place Resources (Washington D.C.: Bipartisan Policy Center, 2018); Stephen Pettigrew, “The Downstream Consequences of Long Waits: How Lines at the Precinct Depress Future Turnout,” Electoral Studies 71 (2021): 1-17.

[13] Luuk van Roozendaal, “Not As Simple As Going To the Polls: The Relationship between Race, Ethnicity, Polling Place Closures, and Voter Turnout in the United States” (MSc Thesis, Leiden University, 2021), 25-28.

[14] Van Roozendaal, “Polling Place Closures,” 28.

[15] Van Roozendaal, “Polling Place Closures,” 22-24.

[16] Rogers, “Big Lie.”; Brennan Center, “Voting Laws.”

[17] Rogers, “Big Lie.”

[18] Erin Migneco, “Georgia’s Significance in the 2020 Election.” Southern Coalition for Social Justice, https://southerncoalition.org/georgias-significance-in-the-2020-election/

[19] Brennan Center. “Voting Laws.”


Luuk van Roozendaal

Luuk van Roozendaal is a postgraduate politics student at the University of Oxford. His primary research focus is voter suppression and political inequality in the United States. He currently also works as research staff at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, researching perceptions towards government use of Artificial Intelligence. Prior to his time in Oxford, he completed an MSc in Political Science at Leiden University and a BSc in Governance, Economics, and Development at Leiden University College.