A post-racial electorate? Not quite

Ohio University researcher's study makes media splash

Corinne Colbert
October 10, 2013


 The Internet and media are abuzz about a new study — co-authored by an Ohio University researcher — that suggests that the Voting Rights Act has played a key role in increasing minority representation on city councils nationwide.

The study, titled "Are We There Yet? The Voting Rights Act and Black Representation on City Councils, 1981–2006," has been featured on Al Jazeera America, The Atlantic, and The Talking Points Memo, among other media outlets over the past week. It will be published this fall in The Journal of Politics.

The study shows that both the number of black city council members overall and the number of cities with any level of black council representation has increased over time. But the increases in the numbers of black-held council seats and cities with at least one black council member were significantly higher in jurisdictions subject to Section 5 review. The gains in locations not subject to such review not only were smaller—they actually decreased after 2001. "Only in covered jurisdictions do we see consistent gains both in total number of black elected councilors and in total number of places with black representation," the authors wrote.

The attention their work is currently receiving stems from the U.S. Supreme Court's controversial decision last June that struck down Section 4 of the VRA, a key provision of the landmark civil rights law that designates which parts of the country must have changes to their voting laws cleared by the federal government or in federal court.Since then, several states have moved to change their voting laws; in September, the justice department filed suits against such initiatives in North Carolina and Texas.

"We see certain states springing to action with the defanging of the Voting Rights Act," said Anirudh V. S. Ruhil, co-author of the study and associate professor and associate director of research and graduate programs in the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs.

Even if the paper's release weren't so timely, though, it probably would still get attention; it builds upon a large body of work by knitting information on an extremely large number of cities to study changes in representation over a long period of time to document the influence of the VRA.

Designing the study "wasn't easy," Ruhil said. He and his co-researchers – Paru R. Shah from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee and Melissa J. Marschall from Rice University — combined data from surveys conducted every five years by the International City/County Management Association with socioeconomic and demographic data from the U.S. Census and VRA coverage data from the Department of Justice.

"We had to meld these different data sets together to get the best information source we could for analysis, and then conduct the analysis as carefully as we could," Ruhil said. "We're talking about history, decades of political behavior, population migrations, economic development or lack thereof — and then saying, 'What would have happened if Place were not covered by Section 4?'"

To ensure the study's accuracy and relevance, the three researchers conducted a sort of ongoing informal peer review, presenting the study at conferences and collecting feedback on the study's design and questions from their fellow scholars.

"We spent a couple of years trying to get it right," Ruhil said.

Although the study focuses on municipal government, its results have implications at the state and federal levels, Ruhil said. "Local government is the cradle of democracy," he said. "It's where people cut their teeth when they embark upon a political career." As a result, the number of minority candidates for state and federal offices, as well as voters' attitudes toward them, has its roots in local elections.

As far as the VRA is concerned, "the ball is in Congress's court," Ruhil said. His hope for the study's media splash is that it will inspire a new generation of younger urban studies scholars to take up the question of the act's impact on elections and policy. Even if they prove him wrong.

"I'm hoping that some people out there think, 'Hang on a minute, we can do a much better job of looking at the influence of the Voting Rights Act' because we see something they don't," he said.

Meanwhile, he and his colleagues are compiling a novel database of local elections and Ruhil is toying with launching a qualitative study of minority representation in government, asking current and former mayors and councilors about their experiences and thoughts on why their administrations failed or succeeded, and how they chose to make policies and why they chose those initiatives.

"There are some interesting and great stories out there that we need to tease out from thick descriptions," Ruhil said. "Large-scale quantitative studies of the policy impacts of minority representation show little of any substance, but I am not sure that is the whole story."