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Ballot Box of Horrors

By Chris Carroll


Illustration by Steffanie Espat

Illustration by Steffanie Espat

What’s your greatest fear? Spiders? Premature burial? Clowns in the woods? Whatever gives you the willies just might be able to change your politics.

While we’d like to think we base our political judgments on cool reason and the benefit of experience, a new study by UMD researchers demonstrates that our deepest fears may set loose unconscious racial biases, morphing opinions and potentially infringing on civil rights.

Antoine Banks, associate professor of government and politics, and doctoral student Heather Hicks focused specifically on why people support voter ID laws—measures that advocates say prevent voter fraud and maintain the integrity of elections, and which frequently require voters to show photo IDs at polling places.

While such laws have broad support from the U.S. public across party lines, studies have shown they disproportionately impact minority and poor individuals, who are more likely to lack photo IDs. Other studies meanwhile indicate that the problem the laws purport to solve—voter impersonation at the ballot box—is exceedingly rare in U.S. elections. Some of the statutes, including those in Texas and North Carolina, have been struck down fully or partially by courts citing intentional efforts to suppress African-American voter turnout.

Banks and Hicks wanted to see how unconscious, or implicit, racial attitudes could affect peoples’ stances on such a touchy political question.

“We were interested in the emotional conditions that might make implicit bias play a larger role in politics, and expected that inducing fear would cause implicit racism to play an important role in whites’ attitude toward the policy,” Banks said.

They tested their hypothesis in an experiment involving over 700 white subjects—(while both whites and blacks hold implicit racial biases, Banks says, the intent of this study was to study white peoples’ decisions about race)—by having people dwell on whatever scares them most by writing about it.

As they detailed in a paper in the journal Political Psychology, the influence of fear was stark.

In a control group, 76 percent of people who shown by a previous test to hold strong unconscious bias against blacks supported voter ID laws. But when members of a group with the same level of bias were asked to dwell on things that frighten them, support rose to 92 percent.

It’s not entirely clear why this is case, Banks says, but it may be that many people as children consider unfamiliar or “foreign” groups frightening—an attitude that develops into unconscious racism later in life.

They also found something counterintuitive, Banks said.

“The biggest effect of implicit bias was actually among Democrats,” he said. “Forty-seven percent of Democrats who exhibited implicit bias supported voter ID in the control condition. In the fearful state, that jumps to 85 percent of Democrats.”

Partisanship was the biggest predictor of opinions, with Republicans—who stand to gain by keeping people from groups that swing Democratic away from the polls—nearly unanimously supporting such laws, Banks said. So did people who admitted to consciously having negative attitudes toward blacks.

Michael Hanmer, another associate professor in the Department of Government and Politics, studies voter registration and the political factors influencing voter ID law adoption. In a forthcoming article with Daniel Biggers Ph.D. ’12 in American Politics Research, they show that voter ID laws tend to follow when Republicans take over from Democrats, although not necessarily in states where firm Republican control exists.

“Most people aren’t going to say, ‘Yeah, we did this to suppress Democratic votes or minority votes,’” he says. “We look at it in the context of competition.”

Banks, by contrast, is analyzing the effect of voters’ deepest emotions and fears, Hanmer said, but both approaches are valuable in understanding how controversial measures become reality.

Could Banks’ research be used for nefarious purposes by campaigns eager to reap the benefits of fear? Unlikely, Banks says—political pros have manipulated people with fear tactics for centuries.

“This may help people who don’t necessarily believe that they’re biased understand that that they can actually display that bias when they’re put into an emotional state of fear,” he says. “It could help them become consciously aware they’re actually doing this.”

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