(Salon) – Voting matters. Though many Americans believe that voting is either useless or merely a civic duty, in reality it carries huge consequences for the decisions of politicians. There is overwhelming evidence that politicians are more responsive to the preferences of voters than non-voters, and that voting affects government policy. These facts have key implications for policies that disenfranchise individuals who would otherwise vote. Indeed, America’s racialized voting practices continue to disenfranchise the poor and communities of color, robbing them of billions in public funding.
In a pioneering 2013 study, Elizabeth Cascio and Ebonya Washington examined how the elimination of literacy tests, after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, affected the distribution of public spending. They find that removing literacy tests increased per capita state transfers by 0.57 percent for each percentage point increase in the Black population share. This equates to a 16.4 percent relative increase over the 20 year period they studied for the average county, a large difference. They find that a key change was educational spending: removing literacy tests lead to more spending directed at Black students, a better pupil-to-teacher ratio and higher Black school enrollment. This study is supported by other research suggesting that women’s suffrage lead to increased spending on healthcare, which prevented 20,000 child deaths each year. A 2003 study by Paul Martin finds that members of Congress push more funding towards districts with higher voter turnout. The effect he finds is not small. He provides as an example Grant County, which had a population of 30,000 received $18,030,000 in federal grants in 1994. Each percentage point increase in turnout would have boosted spending by $21,420.
Today, literacy tests and poll taxes are banned (though voter ID laws are often essentially poll taxes), but states can still disenfranchise felons. Because of race and class disparities in the criminal justice system, the impact of disenfranchisement hits communities of color and low-income communities the hardest.