Voting rights, according to Harvard Kennedy School assistant professor of public policy Maya Sen, are fundamentally a question of numbers: How many people were eligible to vote? What number actually registered? And who, among those who registered, ended up casting a ballot? Though this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), the celebration is somewhat subdued for many: in the 2013 decision Shelby County v. Holder, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key part of the VRA. Using data to argue for what the act had already achieved, Chief Justice John Roberts ’76, J.D. ’79, writing for the majority, invalidated a portion of the law that used a formula based on historical voting patterns to determine which counties and states needed to be monitored more closely. “All of these questions”—of the history, efficacy, and continued necessity of the Voting Rights Act—“turn on data collection and analysis,” Sen explained at a Thursday event hosted by the Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. At the event, part of the center’s Challenges to Democracy series, Sen spoke with two fellow political scientists—professor of government Stephen Ansolabehere, and Indiana University assistant professor Bernard Fraga, Ph.D. ’13—and New York Times data journalist Nate Cohn.
The four number-crunchers talked through the important role that statistics have played throughout the last five decades of voting rights research and policy. To begin, Fraga pointed out how statistics were embedded in the original language of the act. Section 4, the portion that the high court narrowly struck down two years ago, determined which jurisdictions would be placed under extra scrutiny based in part on a simple formula: if less than 50 percent of otherwise eligible voters were registered on November 1, 1964, or if less than 50 percent of eligible voters ended up casting their ballot in that year’s election. As the panelists explained, empirical analysis was also key to Justice Roberts’s argument that the VRA needed a new formula, based less on the way America looked five decades ago, to determine future oversight. Sen shared some of Roberts’s most striking numbers: before the Voting Rights Act, just 6 percent of otherwise eligible African Americans in Mississippi were registered to vote; in 2004, 76 percent were. The VRA, some said, had done its job.