Violence in the US: Lessons from the 1965 Voting Rights Act
Recent events epitomise how tumultuous US history is. Since the Civil War, the country has been plagued by several outbursts of political unrest (notably in the 1920s and in the 1960s). History surely explains why this violence keeps erupting at regular intervals (Acharya et al. 2016), but evidence on the remedies to such violence remains scarce. However, history might however provide some hints on that dimension as well. Back in the 1960s, both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King saw voting as the solution to putting a halt to violence. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act banning discrimination in voting passed. How did it affect violence?
1965: Voting as the solution to violence?
The 1965 Voting Rights Act was a landmark piece of legislation in the US. It forbade discrimination in voting and notably put an end to the use of Jim Crow Laws to disenfranchise black voters. In the long run, it has increased redistribution (Husted and Kenny 1997, Cascio and Washington 2013), black office-holding at the local level (Bernini et al. 2018), turnout (Fresh 20218, Ang 2019) and political competition (Besley et al. 2010). In the long run, it has also tilted the political equilibrium at the federal level (Kuziemko and Washington 2018).
Research has documented well the long-run effect of the Voting Rights Act on US politics and economics, but one may also wonder what its shorter-term impact was. The Voting Rights Act was passed during a period of high political unrest when different groups were trying to influence policymaking using protests and violence (Wasow forthcoming). How did the Act and its ban of discrimination in voting affect political unrest?
In a recent working paper (Lacroix 2020), I look at the impact of the 1965 Voting Rights Act with a focus on political violence, defined as violence perpetrated by groups with a political motive (for example, terror attacks, bombings, political assassination or riots). To study political violence, I take advantage of a specific feature of the Voting Rights Act, namely, its coverage formula. This formula generated both geographic and temporal local discontinuities in enfranchisement, as some counties faced stricter provisions of the Act. I use these discontinuities and geo-localised data on political violence (McAdam et al. 2003) to assess the causal effect of enfranchisement on political violence. I compare neighbouring counties with similar characteristics and dynamics of violence before the Act but that faced different provisions of the Act because of this coverage formula, and present evidence that the Voting Rights Act decreased political violence within five years.
Figure 1 Voting Rights Act coverage and analysis at the border between counties covered by the Act and others
Notes: Left panel: Instances of violence in the pre-VRA period (August 1960 to August 1965). Right panel: Instances of violence in the post-VRA period (August 1965 – August 1970). Areas considered in the analysis are in light red (control group) and dark red (group covered by the VRA). Black dots represent events identified as instances of political violence.
How do voting rights affect violence?
While my research suggests that the Voting Rights Act decreased political violence, it also presents additional information on the mechanisms explaining this effect. First, the Voting Rights Act decreased violence by both pro-segregationist (e.g. Ku Klux Klan) and anti-segregationist groups (e.g. civil rights activists). Second, it mostly reduced violence from small groups (e.g. targeted assassinations, lynchings or bombings). Third, the Voting Rights Act mostly decreased pre-electoral violence.
Previous research mostly considered that enfranchisement might decrease political violence by changing policies or electoral results, thereby reducing grievance (Reynal-Querol 2002, Collier and Hoeffler 2004). The results of my study point to an alternative transmission channel. Even without changing policies, enfranchisement might decrease violence as different special interest groups increasingly turn to elections to push their agenda and thereby divest from electoral violence. Among the counties covered by the Voting Rights Act, the decrease in violence was actually higher in those experiencing the highest increase in turnout. Such a heterogeneity does not appear when investigating how the decrease in violence varies with redistribution or changes in electoral results.
Conclusion: Voting and violence in the US today
Without drawing any unwarranted parallels, my research presents an example in US history in which voting curbed violence. Considering this link carefully may help researchers and policymakers to better understand the current situation. In 2013, the Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder nullified key elements of the Voting Rights Act. Since then, several US states have set up devices limiting access to voting. Last December, the US House of Representatives passed a bill to restore some of the provisions of the original Voting Rights Act. This piece of legislation now sits in the Senate Committee on the Judiciary. Would restoring the Voting Rights Act be a solution to political unrest? These results suggest that it would partly depend on how much people believe and invest in electoral and registration campaigns, on how much they believe that voicing their concerns via the ballot is the way to be heard.
Acharya, A, M Blackwell and M Sen (2016), “The political legacy of American slavery”, The Journal of Politics 78(3): 621-641.
Ang, D (2019), “Do 40-year-old facts still matter? Long-run effects of federal oversight under the Voting Rights Act”, American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 11(3): 1-53.
Bernini, A, G Facchini and C Testa (2018), “Race, representation and local governments in the US south: the effect of the Voting Rights Act”, CEPR Discussion Paper.
Besley, T and T Persson (2011), “The logic of political violence”, Quarterly Journal of Economics 126(3): 1411-1445.
Besley, T, T Persson and D M Sturm (2010), “Political competition, policy and growth: theory and evidence from the US”, Review of Economic Studies 77(4): 1329-1352.
Cascio, E U and E Washington (2013), “Valuing the vote: The redistribution of voting rights and state funds following the voting rights act of 1965”, Quarterly Journal of Economics 129(1): 379-433.
Fresh, A (2018), “The Effect of the Voting Rights Act on Enfranchisement: Evidence from North Carolina”, Journal of Politics 80(2): 713-718.
Husted, T A and L W Kenny (1997), “The effect of the expansion of the voting franchise on the size of government”, Journal of Political Economy 105(1): 54-82.
Kuziemko, I and E Washington (2018), “Why did the democrats lose the South? Bringing new data to an old debate”, American Economic Review 108(10): 2830-67.
Lacroix, J (2020), “Ballots instead of Bullets? The effect of the Voting Rights Act on political violence,” Working Papers CEB WP 20-007, Universite Libre de Bruxelles.
McAdam, D, J McCarthy, S Olzak, and S Soule (2003), “Dynamics of collective action dataset”, Stanford University.
Reynal-Querol, M (2002), “Ethnicity, political systems, and civil wars”, Journal of Conflict Resolution 46(1): 29-54.
Wasow, O (forthcoming), “Agenda seeding: How 1960s black protests moved elites, public opinion and voting”, American Political Science Review.
1 See “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech by Malcolm X on 3 April 3 1964 or Martin Luther King’s speech before the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington on 17 May 1957.