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How the States Shaped the Nation: American Electoral Institutions and Voter Turnout, 1920-2000

How the States Shaped the Nation: American Electoral Institutions and Voter Turnout, 1920-2000

by Melanie Jean Springer

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The United States routinely has one of the lowest voter turnout rates of any developed democracy in the world. That rate is also among the most internally diverse, since the federal structure allows state-level variations in voting institutions that have had—and continue to have—sizable local effects. But are expansive institutional efforts like mail-in


The United States routinely has one of the lowest voter turnout rates of any developed democracy in the world. That rate is also among the most internally diverse, since the federal structure allows state-level variations in voting institutions that have had—and continue to have—sizable local effects. But are expansive institutional efforts like mail-in registration, longer poll hours, and “no-excuse” absentee voting uniformly effective in improving voter turnout across states?

With How the States Shaped the Nation, Melanie Jean Springer places contemporary reforms in historical context and systematically explores how state electoral institutions have been instrumental in shaping voting behavior throughout the twentieth century. Although reformers often assume that more convenient voting procedures will produce equivalent effects wherever they are implemented, Springer reveals that this is not the case. In fact, convenience-voting methods have had almost no effect in the southern states where turnout rates are lowest. In contrast, the adverse effects associated with restrictive institutions like poll taxes and literacy tests have been persistent and dramatic. Ultimately, Springer argues, no single institutional fix will uniformly resolve problems of low or unequal participation. If we want to reliably increase national voter turnout rates, we must explore how states’ voting histories differ and better understand the role of political and geographical context in shaping institutional effects.

Editorial Reviews

Richard F. Bensel

“Previous studies have assumed that high barriers to voting discourage turnout. Melanie Jean Springer’s careful analysis confirms this. However, she also shows that the suffrage history and political culture of the individual states shape turnout as well. One important implication of her research is that the impact of qualifications upon turnout attenuates as restrictions are lowered—so much so that some states have already reached a point at which participation probably cannot be raised through a further relaxation in restrictions. If she is right, only changes in American political culture will produce significant increases in future participation.”
Rick Valelly

“Twentieth-century institutional influences on voter turnout have been exceptionally diverse. Springer decomposes these influences in a way no one else has thus far. Her book is easily the most user-friendly, accessible, precise, and comprehensive treatment to be found. How the States Shaped the Nation is certain to provoke discussion, and it will also become something of a standard work on voter turnout in the United States.”
Suzanna Linn

“A careful and comprehensive look at the relationship between specific state-level institutions and voter turnout, How the States Shaped the Nation illuminates the importance of institutional change in shaping political behavior and will be invaluable in ongoing discussions of election reform.”
“A careful, comprehensive, and creative analysis. . . . Springer exhaustively explores turnout at the state level in presidential and nonpresidential years from 1920 through 2000. . . . Recommended.”
Political Science Quarterly
“Springer’s work provides a thorough assessment of voting laws and makes the compelling case that voter turnout needs to be understood within the institutional context in which it occurs. Her analyses (and appendices) are comprehensive and add extensively to what we know about turnout in the United States. This is an extremely useful book that I would recommend to scholars of voting behavior, proponents of electoral reform, and general readers alike. . . . Her work has important implications for electoral reform efforts designed to stimulate voter turnout.”

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University of Chicago Press
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Chicago Studies in American Politics Series
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5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

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How the States Shaped the Nation

American Electoral Institutions and Voter Turnout, 1920â?"2000



Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-11418-7



The presidential election held on November 7, 2000, was historic on many counts. One of its lasting legacies was bringing the rules governing American voting to the forefront of political debate and public conversation. This was not the first time the American public had confronted the political ramifications of the country's variable electoral systems; yet in the aftermath of this now infamous election, Americans were reminded that the federal system allows the individual states to set the electoral rules by which all voters must abide. By design, this system fosters variability while allowing, and perhaps even creating, instances of inequality. The heightened awareness of state power over electoral procedures following the Bush versus Gore election initiated widespread criticism and spurred countless calls for national electoral reform. In the years since, balloting procedures and voting machinery have been closely scrutinized, the availability and convenience of polling places and other voting opportunities have been addressed, and restrictions such as voter identification requirements have been added. In each instance the individual states have been the major political players, shaping the who, when, and where of voting as they see fit.

This system of decentralized rule making by the states is an enduring feature of American politics. Indeed, debates over states' rights and voting laws have colored political conversations since the days of the founding fathers. Yet these laws often are merely the backdrop to electoral politics, influencing the process but not raising eyebrows. The critical aftermath of the 2000 presidential election is one of few exceptions in a very long history. Generally, national tallies are compiled and public figures are elected without much criticism of the process. Yet even when things run smoothly, the states are indisputably important players. Empowered by the federal arrangement, the American states have been able, with few limitations, to actively expand and constrict the electorate through institutional design, and in doing so they have greatly influenced political participation across the nation. This book explores the underpinnings and consequences of electoral federalism over time. I evaluate the numerous state electoral institutions, both restrictive and expansive, that have helped shape American elections and voting behavior throughout the twentieth century—long before the events in Florida put the rules we vote by under a national spotlight.

What Are State Electoral Institutions?

Throughout this book, state electoral institutions are defined as the laws and procedures governing registration and voting in the American states. They set the parameters for participation in American elections and effectively mediate the relationship between political actors and political outcomes. They are the rules of the game, and for the most part each state has maintained control over its own institutional profile throughout the twentieth century. Owing to American federalism, there has been great variation in the rules as institutionalized by law, both between states and within states over time. This institutional variation, coupled with and complicated by an assortment of state political histories, leads to a range in participation trends. In short, I posit that institutional effects are conditional on a state's political history, and institutions and political context together have led to varying voter turnout rates in the states and regions throughout the century.

The state electoral institutions I examine here pertain to voting qualifications, voter registration, and voting procedures. These laws are characterized as being either restrictive (rules that aim to limit the vote by restricting participation or making it more costly) or expansive (rules that aim to expand the vote by making participation more convenient or less costly). My expectations about particular state electoral institutions relate to the burden they impose on, or alleviate for, voters in the states where they are implemented—and their effects on state turnout rates are theorized about and assessed accordingly. For example, the most-restrictive electoral institutions that American states enacted during the twentieth century pertained to voting qualifications (e.g., long residency requirements and poll taxes). These limiting institutions are expected, both theoretically and empirically, to decrease voting rates wherever they were implemented. Conversely, later in the century many states enacted expansive reforms to make registration and voting more accessible and convenient. Modern voter registration reforms, especially, sought to reduce the costs associated with registering so as to increase voting.

I contend that examining the boundaries created by both restrictive and expansive state electoral institutions is critical to understanding twentieth-century voting and elections. By institutionally easing state electoral processes and fostering a heightened participatory climate through expansive electoral laws, electoral institutions may have changed the status quo. And the restrictive laws implemented over time may have created and perpetuated depressed voting patterns in many American states. The states and regions have differed dramatically in their voting rates throughout the twentieth century, yet there is also a complicated interaction at work between electoral institutions and states' historical legacies that persists even after the institutions have changed. This suggests that while appreciating how state-level electoral institutions evolve over time, we must also try to understand how institutions and social context interact to influence voter turnout. That is, restrictive or expansive laws alone do not explain variation in state voting rates: many high turnout states share some institutional mechanisms, but there is no clear pattern of electoral laws common to all high turnout states in a region. Instead, I posit that the impact of institutions depends on the social context within the state—for example, that the effect of electoral institutions interacts with the racial homogeneity of the state. This dynamic relationship is consequential. Practically speaking, this book demonstrates that if the goal of electoral reform is to increase national participation, we must pay attention to how states' voting histories differ with their institutional profiles. One institutional fix will not uniformly solve problems of low or unequal participation. As long as policy makers ignore this variation, they will be disappointed with the results of electoral reform. Understanding this important relationship—between state electoral institutions, political context, and voter turnout rates from 1920 to 2000—is the focus of this book.

A Historical Vantage Point: Eighty Years Deep

This study begins in 1920—an electoral cut point marking the end of the Progressive Era. Starting in 1920 lets me concentrate on the institutional changes following, but separate from, the electoral reforms initiated during the Populist and Progressive movements in the mid- to late nineteenth century (e.g., women's suffrage, the Australian ballot, the direct election of US senators, ballot initiatives, and referenda). In addition to these institutional changes, voter turnout was quite a bit higher during the nineteenth century than during the twentieth (Bensel 2004; Burnham 1982; Kleppner 1982; Teixeira 1992). As such, the twentieth century emerges as distinct in terms of both voting rules and participation rates, and understanding the changes that occurred during this period is pivotal to understanding the modern American electorate.

The presidential election in 1920 was also the first federal election held after female enfranchisement became national. It thus reflects a moment when the American polity became comparatively inclusive (Kleppner 1982; Rusk and Stucker 1978). It was also a time after the national party system developed, when national elections became more systematic and competitive. Of course there are important exceptions; for example, the restriction of black and minority suffrage within and outside the South and the Democrats' single-party dominance of politics in the southern states during the early twentieth century. I view these specific limitations on participation and electoral competition as by-products of state control over elections and address them directly.

The years since 1920 have been characterized by the evolution, and ultimate removal, of discriminatory voting procedures, especially in the southern states. Restrictive qualifications were generally relaxed during the early years of the century, with a growing emphasis on permanent registration requirements and a modest expansion of the electorate by liberalizing substantive qualifications such as age and duration of residency. The latter half of the century was also marked by growing federal protection of voting rights and increasing federal influence on the administration of elections overall. After the civil rights movement, midcentury electoral reform was directed almost entirely at making participation easier and more convenient, first through registration reform and later through changes in timing and in access to voting opportunities. The book concludes with the remarkably apropos 2000 presidential election, which not only marked the end of the twentieth century but also was punctuated, if not defined, by the power of American federalism to shape national outcomes.

The eighty-year vantage point offered here is unusual. Typically, even in historical accounts, the relationship between electoral institutions and voting behavior has been evaluated over a fairly limited time frame (see, e.g., Franklin and Grier 1997; Kleppner 1987; Lawson 1976, 1985; McGerr 1986, 2003; Rusk 1970, 1974; Rusk and Stucker 1978). And many of the studies on more recent expansive electoral reforms have intentionally limited themselves to the last two decades of the century to "avoid being complicated by the dramatic election law changes of the 1960s" and to "capture the incremental, state-initiated electoral changes taking place in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s" (Fitzgerald 2005, 852). Although these temporally bound studies offer a degree of historical appreciation, they tend to contribute institutional snapshots rather than comparative analyses. They thus are incapable of making important comparisons over time and evaluating the evolution of electoral systems throughout the century. By limiting the time frame studied, previous research on electoral reform has ignored the institutional and political changes that have occurred incrementally throughout the history of the United States, failing to recognize the effects of gradual change.

The scope of this book is broader. Examining the progression of American electoral institutions throughout the twentieth century lets me analyze the cumulative effects that changes in electoral institutions have on voting and provides both a historical and a contemporary analysis of twentieth-century political participation in the United States. With its historical breadth, this book not only demonstrates the direct effects that individual electoral laws have on participation, but also explores the important ways a state's collection of electoral laws—its institutional profile—can shape patterns of participation over time. The existing literature does not span space and time in this way and therefore cannot make these macro-level institutional comparisons.

Chapter Overview

Research on voting and elections in the United States, and voter turnout more specifically, has accounted for a vast amount of the scholarship in political science for decades. There have been at least three distinct trends in research on voting behavior in general and on the relationship between electoral institutions and voter turnout in particular.

First, a great deal of the work has focused on individual-level determinants, typically without discussing how electoral institutions condition voting behavior. Second, most studies that have examined electoral institutions have dealt with a single reform or a handful of reforms. Finally, most of the existing institutional scholarship evaluates the relationship between electoral institutions and voting behavior over a fairly limited time span. This book builds on each aspect of the existing literature.

To begin, chapters 2 through 4 provide the theoretical and empirical basis for understanding the evolution of state electoral institutions and their effects on voter turnout in the American states throughout the twentieth century. These chapters underscore my motivation for the book: that I believe the study of voting and elections should not be confined to individual behavior, and that addressing the institutional variants of state electoral processes—a product of American federalism—is critical to advancing our understanding of voting and electoral reform.

I begin chapter 2 by discussing the importance and exceptionalism of American federalism. Then I situate the contributions of this study within the existing literature on how the costs and determinants of voting relate to twentieth-century voter turnout and within the current literature on state electoral reforms. Ultimately I aim to bolster the link between research on political behavior and research on political institutions. By dealing exclusively with the independent actions of individual voters, a strictly behavioral approach neglects the interactive effects and structural patterns surrounding elections. Instead, I stress the importance of institutional design, and of institutional change over time, in shaping political outcomes while building on previous work about the behavioral norms of political actors. I treat the laws governing elections in the states as the institutional mechanisms that empower citizens or deter them from voting. I focus on the American states, where control over electoral institutions resides, and which are distinct in voter turnout, electoral laws, and political history. This book recognizes the richness of the American federal structure and the dynamic role of electoral institutions in shaping state voting patterns, as is essential to forming conclusions about twentieth-century voter participation.

In chapters 3 and 4 I develop both elements of this picture through an in-depth discussion of state voting rates and state electoral institutions. In chapter 3 I carefully examine voter turnout during presidential and non-presidential election years from 1920 to 2000. I begin by presenting the familiar national trends, then I disaggregate them by region and ultimately by state. This allows us to look at the states' voting rates over time and to classify them as routinely "high" or "low." Regional trends quickly become apparent—especially the perpetually low turnout in southern states, even after the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the consistently high turnout in many midwestern and western states throughout the century. In addition to classifying the states by turnout trends, I assess year-specific state voting patterns and offer a preliminary description of the institutional changes and political events that might have contributed to these trends historically. We can thus see the extensive variation in voting rates at the state level, frequently unnoticed in national-level studies. I also point out the vast difference between turnout rates in the southern states and the nonsouthern states—a distinction that is critical to the empirical analyses and case studies I present in subsequent chapters.

Central to this book is the expectation that the consequences of the rules governing voting in the United States have greatly influenced the political system during the twentieth century. Chapter 4 offers a detailed legislative history of the origins and evolution of an array of prominent electoral institutions—pertaining to voter qualifications, voter registration, and voting procedures—that existed in the American states from 1920 to 2000. For example, most of the rules governing voting qualifications early in the century were very restrictive (or they increased voting costs), such as long residency requirements, property requirements, literacy tests, and poll taxes. Additionally, periodic voter registration and nonvoting purges of registration rolls made registration cumbersome. Conversely, many recent registration and voting reforms are expansive and aim to minimize voting and registration costs, such as mail-in registration, "motor voter" programs, and early voting. This chapter offers a historical chronology of the restrictive and expansive electoral institutions existing in the states over time and of the regional diffusion of specific institutions during particular moments, aided by an original data set I have constructed.


Excerpted from How the States Shaped the Nation by MELANIE JEAN SPRINGER. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
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Meet the Author

Melanie Jean Springer is assistant professor of politics at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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