Study: Restrictive voting laws more prevalent in Republican-controlled states with diverse populations

Restrictive voting laws passed in the wake of the 2020 election were more prevalent in Republican-controlled states with racially diverse populations, according to a new analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice. 

The Brennan Center report released Wednesday indicates restrictive voter rights and voting access legislation, introduced in all but one state since 2020, is not purely a partisan issue, despite deepening party-line battles around elections in the U.S.

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"It may be somewhat of a surprise to folks that this isn’t just a story about party," said Sean Morales-Doyle, director of the Brennan Center's Voting Rights division. "(Voting rights have) become an incredibly polarized, political issue, and I think people are used to thinking about it as a partisan issue. But this study shows it’s not just party that is playing a role here. It’s about race as well."

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Researchers analyzed "restrictive" voting provisions introduced in state legislatures in 2021, political and demographic makeup of legislative districts and the 2020 Cooperative Election Study, an online national study conducted before and after major U.S. elections.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 17: People walk across the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge during the annual D.C. Peace Walk: Change Happens with Good Hope and a Dream on Dr. Martin Luther King Day on January 17, 2022 in Washington, DC. Democrats are trying to pass John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act this week which will counter the various voting suppression laws passed in multiple Republican states in the wake of the 2020 elections. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775761338 ORIG FILE ID: 1237787369

'Racial resentment'

The study examines "racial resentment," a political science term developed in the 1980s to measure the role race plays in public opinion.

The Brennan Center report found at the legislative district level, "representatives from the whitest districts in the most racially diverse states were the most likely to sponsor anti-voter bills.” At the state level, the intersection of race and partisanship was the strongest indicator of restrictive voting bills, as less diverse states were “unlikely” to introduce or pass restrictive legislation regardless of political party.

"We are not seeing these bills introduced and passed everywhere that Republicans have control; rather, they are most prevalent in states where they have control and where there are significant non-white populations," the Brennan Center report states.

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"Similarly, it is not just that Republican-leaning legislative districts are represented by lawmakers who sponsor these bills. The sponsorship of these bills is concentrated in the whitest parts of the most diverse states, and we find evidence that race and racial resentment matter above-and-beyond the influence of partisanship."

Republicans have argued increased voting security legislation, such as voter ID and voting-roll purges, is necessary for ensuring election integrity, though experts say there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the U.S.. Tennessee officials, for instance, point to efforts to make it easier to register to vote, including online, and an expansive early voting period.

New 'anti-voter' laws limit access

A 2021 USA Today analysis found that while some states passed post-2020 laws to expand voting access, 55 million eligible voters faced new "anti-voter" laws limiting access to the ballot last year. Americans overall lost more than 160 days in absentee-voting availability with the changes.

Voting-rights issues have been a particularly hot-button topic in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s repeated, unfounded claims that the 2020 election was rigged.

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States with unified Republican control of the legislature and governor's office might be expected to pass restrictive voting laws at the same rate, Morales-Doyle said, but the research showed "how race and party don't line up perfectly in this country."

The New York-based Brennan Center is a nonpartisan law and policy institute focusing heavily on issues such as democracy and criminal justice. It is named after former U.S. Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr.

The Brennan Center cites differing 2021 legislative activity in the most uncompetitive Republican states, where four of the "whitest" states – Wyoming, North Dakota, Montana and West Virginia – introduced less than half the number of voting rights restrictions seen in the most racially diverse uncompetitive Republican states of Mississippi, South Carolina, Oklahoma and Alaska.

Morales-Doyle said the report is not intended to draw “conclusions about what prompted any individual legislator to introduce a bill,” but rather examine how race and attitudes toward diversity are shaping public policy. Morales-Doyle said the Brennan Center has seen frequent instances of states restricting voter access in places with growth in diverse populations or “where people of color are exercising political strength.”

“It is still true today that restrictions on voting rights often disproportionately impact voters of color,” Morales-Doyle said.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Brennan Center report: Voting restrictions prevalent in GOP states