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Polls: 50 years after Voting Rights Act’s passage, barriers still exist

National surveys look at voters’ views on access, elections, campaign finance

Civil Rights Leader Charles Cobb photo credit: Meghan Moore

Civil rights activist Charles Cobb speaks to UMass Lowell students and faculty during one of several programs held on campus this spring to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act. Photo: Meghan Moore

08/06/2015


Contacts: Christine Gillette, 978-934-2209 or Christine_Gillette@uml.edu and Nancy Cicco, 978-934-4944 or Nancy_Cicco@uml.edu 

UMass Lowell representatives are available for interviews about today’s poll.

LOWELL, Mass. – Five decades after the landmark Voting Rights Act, which marks its 50th anniversary next week, many Americans express deep concerns about the process of voting in elections, according to two national polls released today by the UMass Lowell Center for Public Opinion. 

The Voting Rights Act was signed into law on Aug. 10, 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson amid the national outcry that followed some of the most tumultuous times of the civil rights movement, including violence and protests such as the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., by 25,000 people, including Martin Luther King Jr. 

But despite the historic legislation intended to right historical inequities in voting access, some Americans still believe there are impediments to participation. They are divided along party and racial lines in their opinions on access and whether that is a greater issue than voter fraud. The center’s research also found that Americans hold a variety of sometimes incongruent attitudes toward campaign finance, including a strong belief that money creates a great deal of inequity and a large resistance to allowing the government to try to address the issue through legal sanctions or publicly funded campaigns. 

Regarding voter access versus fraud, a narrow margin of all respondents, 51 percent, saw access to voting as a bigger issue than fraud, but the numbers shifted when looking at party affiliation to 78 percent of Democrats who felt access is the greater problem and 22 percent of Republicans. Seventy-six percent of Republicans surveyed said voter fraud is a bigger issue, while only 22 percent of Democrats felt that was the case. Fifty-seven percent of independents surveyed said fraud was a greater issue. 

“As we look at the state of public attitudes on voting 50 years after the Voting Rights Act was passed into law, it is concerning that a right as fundamental to democracy as voting is so heavily politicized,” said Prof. Joshua Dyck, co-director of UMass Lowell’s Center for Public Opinion. “The parties have clearly staked out grounds with Democrats expressing concern about the free and available use of the franchise and Republicans expressing concern about voter fraud; this concern is now readily apparent in our surveys of elections.” 

White respondents were more likely to view fraud as a problem (57 percent) than access (43 percent), a 45-point difference from African-Americans surveyed. Eighty-eight percent said voter access is a bigger problem, compared to only 12 percent who called fraud the larger issue. Fifty-seven percent of Latino respondents and 60 percent of those who identified themselves as being of other races also said access was a bigger problem. 

Sixty-five percent of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 saw voter access as a bigger issue than voter fraud, while the same percentage of those older than 65 felt fraud was the bigger issue. 

“Since the Voting Rights Act was signed into law in 1965, much progress has been made in ensuring the right to vote. However, recent court decisions and efforts at the state level to change laws require vigilance by citizens to continue the work of those who fought so hard 50 years ago,” said Frank Talty, co-director of the Center for Public Opinion and assistant dean of academic programs in UMass Lowell’s College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. “The UMass Lowell community heard from some of the icons of the civil rights movement this past semester, including Judy Richardson and Charles Cobb. The lesson of their message was that Americans have a constant obligation to protect and defend the right to vote, and never take it for granted.” 

The survey also found an emerging gap in attitudes on trust in the electorate. A majority (43 percent) think people can be trusted to make intelligent/informed decisions when voting as opposed to 39 percent who said they believe “people cannot be trusted.” Among those, 60 percent of the African-American respondents felt this was the case, compared to only 39 percent of white respondents. Forty-seven percent of Latinos said they believe voters can be trusted. 

Poll participants were also asked whether felons – both in prison and not in prison – should be allowed to vote. About 1 in 40 American citizens (5.3 million) are unable to vote because they are currently incarcerated on a felony conviction or their home state does not allow those with past felony convictions to vote. Thirty-eight states and the District of Columbia allow felons who complete their sentences to immediately become eligible to vote, while other states have a waiting period or require them to apply to have their voting rights reinstated. 

Overall, 39 percent of respondents opposed allowing felons to vote while still in prison and only 18 percent were against allowing felons to vote after they are released. Respondents with a college degree were much more likely than those with less education to support restoring voting rights to felons. Fifty percent of liberals supported reinstating voting rights in every circumstance compared to 21 percent of conservatives. 

“A majority of Americans believe that depending on the crime, convicted felons, whether in prison or released, should be allowed to vote. This majority crosses boundaries of ethnicity, education level, income, partisanship and political ideology. This presses the issue that perhaps convicted felons are unfairly underrepresented in elections,” said Erika Raymond, a political science and English major from Ipswich who participated in the development of the survey and analysis of the results. 

During the fall 2014 campaign season, the Center for Public Opinion fielded a survey that asked a variety of questions on campaign finance. The results showed that, in general, Americans are concerned about donors, money and elections, but are also receptive to messaging that portrays campaign donations as free speech. But when posed as tradeoffs, clear majorities are in favor of imposing campaign donation limits to reduce corruption and are not in favor of publicly funded campaigns, according to Dyck’s analysis of the results. 

When asked whether they felt “contributing money to political candidates is a form of free speech that must be protected” or “contributing money to political candidates can be a form of corruption that should be limited in order to maintain fair elections,” respondents were more than twice as likely (67 percent to 33 percent) to agree that contributions can be a form of corruption. Republicans were split evenly on this question while 69 percent of independents and 78 percent of Democrats saw money more as a form of potential corruption than free speech. 

A majority (69 percent) of respondents stated they believe the amount of money that individuals can donate to campaigns should be limited, while only 31 percent felt that limits should not be imposed. Fifty-two percent said they believe limits on donations work to prevent corruption. 

When it came to how to proceed with campaign finance reforms, respondents were less likely to agree. A majority (55 percent) said the current individual donation limit is appropriate, 19 percent thought it should be more and 26 percent thought it should be less. Fifty-six percent opposed a publicly funded federal campaign finance system while 44 percent were in favor. Nearly three-quarters of Republicans (73 percent) and 43 percent of Democrats were opposed to the idea. 

The poll also found: 

  • Only 13 percent of respondents said they have followed the debate over campaign finance very closely, with 31 percent saying they followed it somewhat closely, 35 percent not too closely and 22 percent not at all closely;
  • 50 percent of male respondents said they were following the debate closely, while only 37 percent of women respondents reported the same level of attention;
  • 87 percent of Americans surveyed said political campaigns have too much power;
  • 91 percent of respondents said wealthy Americans have more of a chance to influence elections than other citizens;
  • A majority of respondents (53 percent) said that no one should be able to tell Americans how much they can donate to campaigns;
  • 71 percent of all survey participants felt that campaign donations are a protected right, with Republicans (85 percent) feeling particularly strongly, followed by 67 percent of independents and 63 percent of Democrats;
  • Three-quarters of respondents in the 18-29 and 40-49 age groups were the most likely to report viewing donating money as a protected right and that no one should be able to limit political donations. 

The polls of 1,000 American adults were conducted by YouGov on behalf of the Center for Public Opinion in conjunction with students in the course “Survey Research,” who participated in the design and analysis. Representative samples were achieved through a non-probability-based method that uses propensity score matching to match poll respondents to a frame created from the 2010 American Community Survey. The credibility interval for both surveys is plus or minus 3.7 percent. The voting and participation survey was conducted from April 3 to April 21 and the campaign finance survey was conducted from Oct. 1 to Nov. 3, 2014. 

More information on the poll methodology and full polling data are available at www.uml.edu/polls.

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