WASHINGTON (November 7, 2019)—When states create barriers to voting and fair representation, it doesn’t just undermine people's ability to vote. People who live in states with more restrictive electoral rules have worse health outcomes, according to the analysis “Our Unhealthy Democracy,” released today by the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
The analysis shows a relationship between policies that reduce voter access and distort election outcomes and life expectancy. In states where the effort required to vote is highest, life expectancy is lowest, and a similar relationship exists between lower life expectancy and higher partisan bias in legislative districts.
"When people are excluded from the political process, they can’t advocate for their own interests,” said Michael Latner, a senior fellow at UCS, professor of political science at California Polytechnic State University, and the lead author of the report. “They’re blocked out of the decisions that get made in state capitals, decisions about issues like health care, energy and environmental protection that have a direct impact on people’s health and safety.”
After 2010, many state legislatures engaged in extreme gerrymandering, drawing maps designed to produce pre-determined electoral outcomes. States also have enacted restrictive voter ID laws, reduced polling locations, cut early voting hours, purged voter files, and disenfranchised people with prior felony convictions. These trends have been enabled by recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
The push for biased maps enables politicians to select their own constituents, reducing electoral accountability and diminishing the role of public input. When representation is distorted, it typically amplifies the ability of powerful private interests to control the policymaking process.
The impacts of voting restrictions don’t fall evenly across the population. Communities of color, low-income communities and Indigenous communities are often the hardest hit by barriers to voting—which makes electoral outcomes less representative of the people most exposed to environmental hazards and economic distress.
“When politicians distort the electorate through increased barriers to voting and partisan district maps, they’re not just changing the outcome of the next election,” said Latner. “They’re changing the whole political landscape—whose voice gets heard, whose needs and interests are valued, and who gets left out. That has real consequences.”
The rise of restrictive voting laws and legislative gerrymandering has the potential to worsen existing inequities for at-risk communities. Economic distress, health problems and discrimination result in lower voter turnout, giving these communities even less chance to participate and have a role in the policy process.
Fortunately, there’s a path forward, according to the UCS report. While many states are taking advantage of recent Supreme Court decisions that allow legislatures to create new barriers, purge voters off the rolls and draw maps targeted to reduce political competition, reform advocates have been successful in other states. The report notes that these efforts have led to expanded voting rights, including automatic voter registration, extended early voting, and reform of the redistricting process.
“This analysis confirms what civil rights organizations and community advocates have been saying for years—that the right to participate in the electoral process is an essential tool for communities to protect themselves,” said Latner. “We can’t have healthy communities if we don’t have a healthy democracy. We need reforms that give power back to the voters, to make sure everyone can participate and be fairly represented.”