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Rule by Violence, Rule by Law: Lynching, Jim Crow, and the Continuing Evolution of Voter Suppression in the U.S.

  • Brad Epperly, Christopher Witko, Ryan Strickler and Paul White


Although restricting formal voting rights—voter suppression—is not uncommon in democracies, its incidence and form vary widely. Intuitively, when competing elites believe that the benefits of reducing voting by opponents outweigh the costs of voter suppression, it is more likely to occur. Internal political and state capacity and external actors, however, influence the form that voter suppression takes. When elites competing for office lack the ability to enact laws restricting voting due to limited internal capacity, or external actors are able to limit the ability of governments to use laws to suppress voting, suppression is likely to be ad hoc, decentralized, and potentially violent. As political and state capacity increase and external constraints decrease, voter suppression will shift from decentralized and potentially violent to centralized and mostly non-violent. We illustrate our arguments by analyzing the transition from decentralized, violent voter suppression through the use of lynchings (and associated violence) to the centralized, less violent suppression of black voting in the post-Reconstruction South. We also place the most recent wave of U.S. state voter suppression laws into broader context using our theoretical framework.



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A list of permanent links to Supplemental Materials provided by the authors precedes the References section.

*Data replication sets are available in Harvard Dataverse at:

They would like to thank Larry Cushnie, Rachel Kleinfeld, Margaret Levi, the five reviewers at Perspectives on Politics, and participants of the Citadel Symposium on Southern Politics and American Political Development Speaker Series, University of Washington, for helpful comments on the manuscript.



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