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The U.S. Voting Rights Act of 1965 : a study of the politics of structural changes in voter turnout

  • Author(s): Terry, William Charles;
  • et al.

This dissertation studies the effects of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 from both an historical and a comparative perspective. By an historical perspective, I mean that I consider the context of southern politics and the specific debates that surround the act--e.g., concerning the existence and magnitude of white backlash and countermobilization. By a comparative perspective, I mean that I consider the VRA as a particular instance of a structural increase in turnout--i.e., an increase due to legal changes that increase the incentives, or decrease the disincentives to participate in elections. The comparative perspective suggests that the VRA is useful for culling broader insights, for example, regarding the ongoing scholarly debate about whether or not turnout "matters" (cf., Lijphart 1997). My empirical analysis of the VRA is centered specifically on a ubiquitous puzzle noted in existing studies of southern politics, namely, the reactionary, ostensibly anti-Downsian policy repositioning of southern members of Congress in the late 1960s and 70s (cf., Glazer, Grofman, Owen 1998). Scholars find the post-VRA voting patterns of the South's politicians puzzling precisely because the Downsian theory on which scholarly expectations are based would seem to suggest that policy should have moved left when large numbers of African-Americans entered the effective electorate after 1965. Recognizing the difficulties in employing a strict Downsian model in the 1960s South, I develop a "two front war" theory of electoral competition that better approximates the post-VRA environment, and show that the model is capable of rationalizing the observed policy patterns. To test the theory, I implement a number of substantial conceptual and methodological improvements on existing empirical studies. My regression analysis finds broad support for the thesis--where post- VRA dynamics precipitated a larger threat on the incumbent's right, she responded by moving in a conservative direction. Conversely, when the influx of African-Americans opened up a more dangerous front on the left, she responded by becoming more liberal

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