NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

Valuing the Vote

The same black communities that saw an increase in enfranchisement-driven turnout saw an increase in their share of the state resource pie.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) has been called one of the most effective pieces of civil rights legislation in U.S. history. The VRA removed literacy tests as a barrier to black citizensÂ’ political participation in seven of eleven southern states. By 1967, black voter registration rates in all southern states exceeded 50 percent, compared with less than 8 percent in Mississippi just prior to the legislation's passage. Black voter turnout increased commensurately.

In Valuing the Vote (NBER Working Paper No. 17776), authors Elizabeth Cascio and Ebonya Washington study how VRA-induced enfranchisement affected the distribution of state resources. Because of residential segregation, changes in the share of county residents who were newly enfranchised varied across localities within each state, and the authors exploit this variation to perform their analysis. They test for post-VRA shifts in the relative distribution of state transfers toward localities with larger black populations in literacy-test versus non-literacy-test southern states. They find that not only did turnout in higher black share localities increase disproportionately in states that removed the literacy test as a result of the VRA, but also that state funding transfers to these localities increased. The same black communities that saw an increase in enfranchisement-driven turnout saw an increase in their share of the state resource pie.

The authors systematically rule out competing explanations for the change in state transfers and show that it is likely that enfranchisement led to an increase in resource receipt. That conclusion is consistent with theories of distributive politics in which politicians target resources to identifiable, targetable, and politically persuadable interest groups in order to earn their political support. The findings suggest that the Voting Rights Act provided substantive, rather than merely symbolic, political gains to southern blacks.

--Lester Picker

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