The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Republicans are barking up the wrong voter suppression tree

(Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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Before the 2020 election, as President Donald Trump made regular false claims about how mail voting is rife with fraud that would enable Democrats to steal the election from him, careful analysts pointed out that there was no evidence that mail voting had ever given Democrats an electoral advantage.

As political scientist Lee Drutman put it last May, “Numerous studies have arrived at the same conclusion: Voting by mail doesn’t provide any clear partisan advantage.”

But it wasn’t unreasonable to assume that the 2020 election would be different. Now you had multiple states expanding the use of mail ballots amid a pandemic. And the issue became more partisan than ever before, as the man with the world’s largest megaphone told his supporters not to vote by mail — encouraging his opponents to do just that.

Now, restricting mail voting is the primary focus of GOP voter suppression efforts.

As the Brennan Center for Justice recently reported, Republicans at the state level have introduced a wave of voter suppression measures, including cutting back early voting and making it harder to register. But vote-by-mail has been their primary focus:

Nearly half of restrictive bills introduced this year seek to limit mail voting. Legislators are taking aim at mail voting at every stage, with proposals to circumscribe who can vote by mail, make it harder to obtain mail ballots, and impose hurdles to complete and cast mail ballots.

But what if they’re barking up the wrong voter suppression tree?

A new analysis by Emory political scientist Alan Abramowitz suggests they are. While more people voted by mail than ever last November, and more Democrats did than ever, Abramowitz argues that neither party benefited from mail ballots.

He comes to that conclusion by comparing states both to each other and to their results in 2016. Here’s what he found:

  • Turnout was up dramatically across the board.
  • States that eased their absentee voting rules saw significant increases in mail voting; in other words, people took advantage of voting by mail where they could.
  • Where rates of mail voting were high, turnout went up more than states where mail voting was lower.
  • But the rate of mail voting had no effect on President Biden’s performance.

In other words, if a state opened up its absentee voting rules, the result would be that turnout would go up, but it wouldn’t end up helping Biden, because turnout went up for both Democrats and Republicans. Biden did better than Hillary Clinton had pretty much everywhere, but that improvement wasn’t a function of whether a state liberalized its absentee voting rules.

After all that time when Trump was telling his supporters not to vote by mail, and Democrats were trying so hard to get theirs to do so, how could it not have mattered? The likely answer is that people on both sides merely switched their methods of voting in response to Trump’s aggressive anti-mail-voting campaign.

Many Democrats who would ordinarily have gone to the polls voted by mail instead, and many Republicans who would have voted by mail went to the polls. And millions who didn’t vote in 2016 turned out to vote this time — but not because of the means by which they were able to do so. It was because everything that happened in the Trump presidency (plus the pandemic, plus the economic crisis) produced high turnout across the board.

For years, Republicans saw mail voting as something that could work to their advantage, particularly among the older voters who make up such a key part of their base. One wonders if after making such an abrupt 180, they’re aware that their new loathing for mail voting isn’t doing them any good. In Georgia, for instance, Republicans are moving to revoke the state’s no-excuse absentee system and make it incredibly difficult for the people still allowed to vote by mail to do so. But as Ari Berman notes:

Georgia Republicans wrote every aspect of the state’s already stringent voting laws and for many years promoted mail voting, specifically exempting mail ballots from voter ID requirements because they didn’t want their own voters, who are older and more rural, to be disenfranchised. They abruptly had a change of heart in November, when more Democrats than Republicans voted by mail for the first time.

But they’re misunderstanding what happened in 2020. It wasn’t the system they designed that backfired on them. It was Trump. Biden didn’t win Georgia or the presidency because it was too easy to vote by mail and that meant too many Democrats were able to do it.

There’s another important dynamic in voting controversies: When Republicans pass voter suppression measures, it often produces a reaction, as Democrats redouble their grass-roots organizing efforts in an attempt to overcome the restrictions Republicans put in place. The frequently heard argument that “if voting wasn’t important, Republicans wouldn’t be trying so hard to keep you from doing it” is never more compelling than when the news is full of GOP voter suppression efforts.

That’s true whether people wind up voting by mail or going to the polls. But the results from 2020 show that while the current round of voter suppression will be bad for anyone who needs or likes the convenience of voting by mail, it won’t give Republicans the advantage they hope.

“Restricting access to absentee voting won’t help Republican candidates,” Abramowitz told me in an email, “but it will make voting less convenient, more costly and possibly less safe for everyone, including millions of Republican voters.”

Read more:

Paul Waldman: Republican voter suppression kicks into high gear

The Post’s View: Republicans’ war on democracy is ramping up

The Post’s View: Republicans want more voter suppression. Here’s how to make elections more fair — not less.

Jennifer Rubin: Can some sort of voting reform pass?

Greg Sargent: A former CPAC organizer’s broadside shows conservatism’s ongoing descent