Research links the composition of the electorate with differential policy outcomes; yet, in the U.S., political participation is deeply inequitable, by race, ethnicity, SES, age, and disability status. While public rhetoric commonly attributes nonparticipation to individual factors, U.S. history is rife with systemic barriers that limit equitable access to political rights, especially for racially marginalized groups.
This community-engaged research study sought to systematically identify barriers to equitable civic participation in one of the U.S.’ largest counties, where registered voter turnout exceeded 50% in only two recent Presidential elections. Hispanic citizens in the county vote at much lower rates than their population share, and 1/5 of eligible citizens are not registered. White residents are vastly over-represented in elective office, with few competitive elections. Across the state in which this county is located, individuals with a bachelor’s degree vote at over twice the rate of those without a high school diploma.
A new coalition of over 40 organizations in this county was recently formed to expand civic engagement through both grassroots organizing and systems change. The coalition partnered with an interdisciplinary team of university scholars to conduct a review of barriers to civic involvement through examination of both written policy and policy implementation at the federal, state, and local levels.
Prior to beginning the analysis of policy barriers, one-on-one exploratory conversations were held with a diverse set of 19 community leaders to ensure the study was grounded in the experiences of the county’s marginalized communities. As a result, 7 areas of civic engagement were identified for in-depth study: 1) public expression and participation; 2) voter registration; 3) casting a ballot; 4) election administration; 5) running for office; 6) volunteering and charitable donations; and 7) youth civic engagement.
The research team identified and reviewed all federal, state, and local statutes and other policy statements governing each of these areas. Extensive reviews were conducted of research reports, policy analyses, and state-level comparisons authored by leading policy and legal organizations and of local and state civic engagement-related newspaper articles. To examine policy implementation, descriptive and bivariate analyses were conducted with data from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s Election Administration and Voting Surveys, as well as state and local election data collected by the Center for Local Elections in American Politics.
Results yielded a range of systemic barriers to civic engagement in the county, including lack of internet-based registration; failure of statutorily-designated voter registration agencies to provide required voter registration activities; lack of compliance with a state high school voter registration law; limited application of language minority laws to voter registration; polling location challenges; and disproportionate rejection of voter registration forms and provisional ballots.
Conclusions and Implications
This community-engaged research provides a roadmap for policy change efforts to reduce systemic barriers to civic engagement. Coalition members already have used findings to advocate for changes such as: eliminating location-based restrictions to casting a ballot; integrating equity considerations when changing polling locations; and placing polling locations on two college campuses with large racially marginalized populations.