The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion It’s time for Democrats to accept it. GOP voting reforms won’t hinder access to the ballot.

A voter inserts a ballot into a drop box in Seattle on Oct. 28, 2020. (Elaine Thompson/AP)
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Democrats have been caterwauling about Republican-backed changes to state voting laws, often characterizing them as an assault on democracy. A new analysis by a respected political scientist shows how specious those claims really are.

The analysis, written by Emory professor Alan I. Abramowitz for Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia, examined key elements of voting laws that GOP state legislatures have targeted, such as early in-person voting, the use of drop boxes for mail ballots and voter ID requirements. His study attempted to see if differences between states with respect to those items, among others, had a measurable effect on turnout or President Biden’s margins in those states.

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If Democratic complaints were grounded in fact, states with stricter voter laws would have either lower levels of turnout, less support for Democratic candidates or both. But Abramowitz’s study found that four of the measures tested — increasing early in-person voting, requiring voter ID at the polls, sending people absentee ballot applications without their prior request and requiring an excuse to be able to vote by mail — had no statistically significant effect on turnout. Two other measures tested — sending everyone a ballot in the mail and the use of drop boxes to collect mail ballots — had some effect on turnout, but no more than a couple of points.

Instead, interest in the election was the real turnout driver. “Turnout surged in 2020 in all types of states,” Abramowitz writes, “regardless of their partisan inclination and regardless of their voting rules.”

Those voting procedures had even less effect on Biden’s vote share. Abramowitz performed the same statistical tests for each measure to see if Biden’s percentage was correlated with differences in voting rules. He found that none had a statistically significant effect. Prior support for Hillary Clinton in 2016 explained about 99 percent of Biden’s level of support. He therefore concludes that strong feelings about the candidates drove both turnout and voting choices in 2020, and “that is very likely to be the case again in the 2022 midterm elections.”

Abramowitz’s study confirms what other studies have shown about the effect of voting methods on turnout. A 2021 Stanford study found that the increase in no-excuse mail balloting in 2020 did not affect turnout or voting decisions, and many studies over the past decade have shown that voter identification requirements do not reduce voter turnout. This overwhelming pile of evidence is one reason progressive political analyst Ruy Teixeira says Democrats are politically misguided when they place such outsize emphasis on passing so-called voting rights laws.

That’s not to say there is nothing to be concerned about. Some analysts worry about state laws that could give rise to partisan interference in the crucial vote certification process, which is exactly what former president Donald Trump tried to do following his defeat. That cannot be allowed to happen, but remember that any such effort would inevitably be challenged in court. It’s difficult to imagine Trump partisans successfully hijacking the election process by such nefarious means in the plain view of the people and an independent judicial branch. It’s also true that the much-hyped voting bills that Democrats so fervently believe would “save democracy” wouldn’t address this problem at all.

Democrats often like to say that they “believe in science.” In this case, the political science is clear: GOP-supported changes in voting rules will not likely have an impact on turnout or election results. Will Democrats change their minds and back the conclusion science dictates? Or will they stay blindly committed to their factually-unsupported articles of faith?