Faculty Forum: Professor Linda Fowler


Faculty members share their insights on current events with Dartmouth Now in a question-and-answer series called Faculty Forum. This week, Professor Linda L. Fowler talks about the issues surrounding voter access to the polls and the affect of extreme partisanship on the U.S. presidency.

Linda L. Fowler is a professor in the Department of Government and holds the Frank J. Reagan ’09 Chair in Policy Studies. She teaches American politics courses and previously served as director of Dartmouth’s Nelson A. Rockefeller Center from 1995-2004. A nationally recognized expert on legislative politics, Fowler is the author of numerous articles on American politics, and has written two books on congressional elections, Candidates, Congress, and the American Democracy and Political Ambition: Who Decides to Run for Congress. Fowler has testified before the House of Representatives on term limits and held positions on Capitol Hill and at the Environmental Protection Agency.

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Voter turnout and voter access to the polls has become a major issue in the 2012 election. Why?

Turnout has become a source of partisan conflict this year for several reasons. First, the parties are evenly split nationally, with both election forecasts and opinion polls showing the outcome to be very close. Second, a small number of states in which the parties are relatively evenly matched will determine the winner. Third, the campaign season started with an unusually low number of undecided voters, who have stuck with their initial decisions.

For all these reasons, shifting the turnout rate by just a small percent in just a few places could be decisive on November 6. Changing things at the margin, either in terms of who goes to polls or who stays home, really could make a difference, especially in battleground states where the race is particularly tight, such as New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Virginia.

How are the shifts in the Republican and Democratic coalitions affecting the presidential race?

Long-term trends within the electorate heighten the stakes involved with turnout. The Republicans haven’t had much luck in expanding their base beyond the South and rural West, or among high earners and white evangelicals, and they are not doing well among new groups of voters, such as young people and Latinos.

Similarly, Democrats have lost some of their base in the old New Deal coalition, particularly blue-collar males. They have made up some of the deficit by reaching out to women and college-educated suburbanites in affluent northeastern and West Coast communities. But this strategy has limits. The Obama campaign, therefore, undertook a very aggressive mobilization campaign in 2008 targeted at minorities and young people. It was not only successful, but highlighted a serious weakness on the GOP side in grassroots organizing.

In New Hampshire, college students, rather than minorities, are the targets of newly enacted restrictions. What’s particularly troubling to me is that the Republicans seem to be conceding young people to the opposition. Having taught for a long time, I remember that during the Reagan years, students were more likely to favor Republicans. As that cohort matured, it became a staunchly GOP generation. I have to wonder, therefore, why Republicans would adopt rules that may make it impossible for them to reach an important constituency later on. There’s a risk that if young people perceive Republican hostility to their participation and vote for Democrats, as they disproportionately do today, they will keep on doing it.

I think Republican strategists in the party want to reach out to young voters on the issue of jobs, but I fear their efforts may be thwarted by what state lawmakers have done with respect to voting rules.

Nationally, I think that voter restrictions could deter rural whites from voting, just as poll taxes and other obstacles depressed turnout among poor Southern whites during the Jim Crow era. Since rural voters are a key element of the GOP coalition, a short-term strategic advantage for Republicans may be offset by long-term decline in a key bloc.

Has there been a lot of evidence of voter fraud?

There doesn’t seem to be evidence of voter fraud nationally, and I am not aware of any systematic studies to uncover irregularities. The most dramatic case we had here in New Hampshire involved the son of a Republican town clerk who voted in both the New Hampshire and Maine elections for the Senate in 2010. Now, a major private contractor hired by the Republic National Committee appears to have committed serious errors in Florida and perhaps in other states, as well.

Moreover, I am uncertain how effective many voter ID laws would be in preventing double voting or uncovering fraud. Local registrars lack the resources to check on people, and the pressures of Election Day work against verifying affidavits and other alternatives to drivers’ licenses. And national computerized databases, such as those maintained by the FBI or Social Security, have proven to be susceptible to error. Florida’s efforts to purge its rolls are a dramatic example of how difficult it is to get “clean” lists without also eliminating a large number of legitimate voters.

Finally, we should remember that ordinary people fill out government forms inconsistently; for example, they leave out their middle initial, shorten their first name, or omit an apartment number. Computers are not good at differentiating simple human error of this type from fraud.

In my view, the Republicans have used rhetoric about maintaining the integrity of the ballot process to justify statutes that will restrict turnout in battleground states. The major shift in control of state legislatures in 2010 gave them the opportunity to make it happen. Since so many of these statutes are now being litigated in the courts, both state and federal, we could end up with an election without a winner on November 6 as judges decide whose ballot counts. The chaos could make Florida’s hanging chads in 2000 look good by comparison.

How is the presidency affected by the extreme partisanship we’ve seen in recent years?

Beginning in the 20th century, the nation began to elevate the presidency, even though the framers of the Constitution, other than Hamilton, feared executive power. Over time, a strong presidency gained greater legitimacy because it was the only office of the federal government elected by the whole nation. War and international crises heightened the president’s stature as the representative of the whole nation abroad.

The dramatic decline in turnout between the mid-1960s and the 2000 election undermined the premise of the presidency as a unifying national presence. And today, if you look at the parties in terms of whom they’re appealing to, you see the old against the young, the men and the women on different sides of the fence, the Northeast and West Coast diverging from the South and parts of the West.  This makes it very difficult for any person running for president to command a broad coalition. The whole idea of the president as a “national leader" loses legitimacy, which ultimately harms the way the nation conducts its politics.

Bonnie Barber