Voter Purges After Shelby

Published date01 November 2020
Date01 November 2020
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2020, Vol. 48(6) 687 –692
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X20916426
The 1965, Voting Rights Act (hereafter “VRA”) greatly
reduced the potential for racially motivated voter disenfran-
chisement. Section 4b of the law devised a formula desig-
nating jurisdictions as “covered” if they had both used a
“test or device” in their 1964 registration process and had
registration rates below 50% that year, which in tandem sug-
gested that they had created schemes to keep minority voters
from casting a ballot.1 Upon the VRA’s enactment, elections
were conducted as usual in noncovered jurisdictions.
However, covered jurisdictions comprising the totality of
nine states and parts of six others were subject to Section 5
of the law, which required them to obtain federal approval
before they could implement any change to their election
Few dispute the VRA’s effectiveness in reducing covered
jurisdictions’ ability to disenfranchise minority voters. Yet,
covered jurisdictions long chafed over the coverage formula,
which they saw as both unforgiving and unfair (Rhodes,
2017, p. 49). The Supreme Court was initially deferential to
Congress’ power to regulate elections in the VRA, but broke
from this stance in its landmark decision in Shelby County v.
Holder (570 U.S. 529 [2013]). In Shelby, the Court struck
down the coverage formula, which had not been updated in
decades. This action effectively freed all jurisdictions previ-
ously subject to the formula from preclearance.
While the majority in Shelby held that “Nearly 50 years
later, things have changed dramatically,” as Justice Ruth
Bader Ginsburg noted in her dissent, it was possible that the
likelihood of racial disenfranchisement only seemed remote
because the VRA had been so effective. Indeed, the VRA
blocked 86 proposed election law changes between 1998 and
2013 alone, and state and local officials withdrew hundreds
more following Justice Department inquiry about or opposi-
tion to them (Weiser & Bannon, 2018). It therefore seems
reasonable to expect that formerly precleared jurisdictions
might have been especially likely to change their election
rules once preclearance ended.
Indeed, on the very day that the Shelby ruling was
announced, the Texas Legislature implemented a strict voter
ID law that the VRA had previously blocked. Other states
quickly followed suit; Alabama and Mississippi imple-
mented their own previously blocked strict voter ID laws,
and several other states passed similar laws in subsequent
months. Many of these were challenged in federal courts,
and several were struck down because they disproportion-
ately burdened minorities; in negating North Carolina’s strict
ID law—passed 2 months after Shelby—the 4th Circuit
Court of Appeals held that the law “target(ed) African
Americans with almost surgical precision.”3
Given the developments in formerly covered jurisdic-
tions after Shelby in voter ID laws—which typically receive
more media attention than other election policies—we
believe it is imperative to determine whether preclearance
916426APRXXX10.1177/1532673X20916426American Politics ResearchFeder and Miller
1Barnard College, Columbia University, New York, NY, USA
Corresponding Author:
Michael G. Miller, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science,
Barnard College, Columbia University, 3009 Broadway, New York, NY
10027, USA.
Voter Purges After Shelby
Part of Special Symposium on Election Sciences
Catalina Feder1 and Michael G. Miller1
In Shelby County v. Holder (570 U.S. 529 (2013)), the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the “coverage formula” in Section 4b
of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) that determined which jurisdictions had to presubmit changes in their election policies for
federal approval. This ruling allowed covered counties full control over their election laws for the first time in 40 years. We
engage the question of whether counties that had previously been “covered” purged voters at a higher rate than noncovered
counties after the coverage formula was struck down. We find increases in purge rate of between 1.5 and 4.5 points in
formerly covered jurisdictions post-Shelby, compared with counties that had not been subject to preclearance. Most of the
increase came immediately, as the effect in 2014 is substantively and significantly higher than that in 2016. These findings
suggest that while counties may have aggressively purged voters in 2014—the first election after the coverage formula’s
demise—they may have tempered this behavior thereafter.
elections, Voting Rights Act, voter purges, Shelby County v. Holder

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