This paper investigates the relationship between the franchise and law enforcement practices using evidence from the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965. We find that, following the VRA, black arrest rates fell in counties that were both covered by the legislation and had a large number of newly enfranchised black voters. We uncover no corresponding patterns for white arrest rates. The reduction in black arrest rates is driven by less serious offenses, for which police might have more enforcement discretion. Importantly, our results are driven by arrests carried out by sheriffs - who are always elected. While there are no corresponding changes for municipal police chiefs in aggregate, we do find similar patterns in covered counties with elected rather than appointed chiefs. We also show that our findings cannot be rationalized by alternative explanations, such as differences in collective bargaining, changes in the underlying propensity to commit crimes, responses to changes in policing practices, and changes in the suppression of civil right protests. Taken together, these results document that voting rights, when combined with elected, rather than appointed, chief law enforcement officers, can lead to improved treatment of minority groups by police.
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Giovanni Facchini, Brian Knight and Cecilia Testa
University of Nottingham
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