Univ. Chicago Press Journals (Newswise) — Upon the enactment of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, not only were Black voters in the American South given suffrage. There was also an increased presence of Black legislators in local government, a recent paper in the April 2023 edition of the Journal of Political Economy reveals.
Titled “Race, Representation, and Local Governments in the US South: The Effect of the Voting Rights Act,” the authors Andrea Bernini, Giovanni Facchini, and Cecilia Testa examine the act’s impact on the election of Black officials to county commissions and other positions in the years immediately following its passage.
The elimination of literacy tests and other impediments to Black voter registration was a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, which also mandated that specific “covered” areas with a record of discrimination adhere to specific measures.
After its enactment, Black voter registration and turnout saw a swift upswing. Nonetheless, while advocates of civil rights, such as Martin Luther King Jr., aspired that the legislation would generate a greater number of Black officials in elected office, the actual effectiveness of this outcome remained uncertain. As expressed by Bernini, Facchini, and Testa: “Did the VRA fulfill its pledge?”
The authors of the study concluded that “While before 1965 Black office holding in all states of the former Confederacy was unconnected to their racial composition, in the immediate aftermath of the VRA, Black representation rose further in counties with higher percentages of African Americans, and the gradient of the relationship was distinctly steeper for covered counties.”
Although Bernini, Facchini, and Testa acknowledge that informal accounts might imply that African Americans were only elected to lower-ranking positions, their analysis reveals that coverage led to a significant rise in Black representation on county commissions. The authors identify commissions as “the most crucial local government bodies in the US South” since they administer local finances, and the authors discovered that capital spending escalated more swiftly within counties electing Black commissioners.
Despite the advancements made in commissions, the authors did not observe comparable progress in municipal governing bodies and school boards. The authors explain that these offices were subject to various existing electoral regulations. Black officials were elected more often in single-member district elections than in at-large elections, where all representatives are elected by the majority of a jurisdiction. Nevertheless, “in less than two decades, the VRA brought about a substantial transformation in the racial composition of local governments in the US South,” the authors state, highlighting that other potential outcomes, beyond the increase in local spending, necessitate further investigation.
To conduct the inquiry, the writers appraised the influence of the Voting Rights Act’s on racial representation in local government bodies in the American South from 1962 to 1980, obtaining National Roster of Black Elected Officials data on African American individuals holding positions on county governments, school district boards, and municipal governing bodies during that era in the 11 states that comprised the former Confederacy.
The authors took two approaches to the information. First, they assessed how the contrast between the previous proportion of Black individuals and the number of Black officials altered over time within counties under coverage. Additionally, they analyzed if covered counties with greater preexisting Black populations encountered a larger surge in Black office holding after the enactment of the VRA, as compared to non-covered counties.