The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republicans want to make it much harder to vote. That strategy could backfire.

It has become an article of faith that high turnout benefits Democrats. That may not be the case.

Hundreds of voters lined up early in Cranberry, Pa. at the Cranberry Highlands Golf Course on Nov. 3. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

In statehouses across the country, Republicans have introduced, filed or passed more than 250 bills that are trying to make it harder to vote. These have taken a variety of forms, including eliminating opportunities for voter registration, enacting stricter voter ID laws, and limiting both early in-person voting and voting by mail.

One explanation for this push: Substantial numbers of Republicans say there was widespread fraud during the 2020 election. According to mid-January data from the Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape survey — a project I help manage — just 37 percent of Republicans were confident that the 2020 election was conducted fairly and accurately. These beliefs persist despite Republican state officials such as Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger flatly denying fraud claims. Even President Donald Trump’s director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency went so far as to call the 2020 election “the most secure in U.S. history.” Still, state-level Republicans may be pursuing these legislative efforts because they share these beliefs and also want to respond to pressure from substantial portions of their political base.

The second, and probably more important, explanation is that Republicans say restrictions on voting, particularly by mail, will benefit them in future elections. But this may not be the case.

It is nearly an article of faith among Republicans that making voting harder will help them at the ballot box. Trump’s characteristically brusque summary of this belief was that “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again” if voting opportunities were expanded. In January, a Republican election official said that Georgia needed tougher laws to reduce turnout, “so we at least have a shot at winning.” Asked to justify two Arizona voter restrictions before the Supreme Court this month, the lawyer for the state’s Republican Party responded, simply, that easing them “puts us at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats.”

The unfortunate dynamic of the 2020 election — in no small part because of Trump’s own statements castigating mail voting throughout the campaign and encouraging his supporters to vote in person — was that Joe Biden’s supporters were far more likely than Trump supporters to report that they voted by mail. This unprecedented partisan gap in vote method appears to have persuaded Republicans that vote-by-mail boosted Democratic participation and cost them the election. In the tsunami of bills proposed since the election, nothing has been as consistent a target as vote-by-mail. Out of the 253 restrictive bills tracked by the Brennan Center, 125 include provisions restricting vote-by-mail.

And yet, recent research has shown that vote-by-mail does not offer any substantive advantage to either political party. One notable study analyzed voting patterns from 1996 through 2018 in California, Utah and Washington, three states that implemented universal vote-by-mail in many or all of their counties. The authors found that universal vote-by-mail did not significantly change either party’s vote share. A similar study of these three states’ vote-by-mail rollout came to the same conclusion.

What about the 2020 election, a cycle where there was a substantial increase in the number of Americans who voted by mail? At present, analysts say that the substantial increase in early voting and vote-by-mail primarily represented a swap: Voters who would have voted in person on Election Day decided to cast their ballot using these alternative methods.

Consider this interesting study of voting patterns among voters in Texas and Indiana. In both states, voters 65 and older could vote by mail with fewer restrictions than those 64 and younger. This age cutoff created a natural experiment, in which otherwise similar populations had different levels of access to vote-by-mail. If greater access to vote-by-mail substantially benefited Democrats, we would see the effect here. In reality, the effect was so small as to be statistically indistinguishable from zero.

Zooming out from vote-by-mail, even the idea that a larger electorate naturally favors Democrats should be viewed with skepticism. The 2020 presidential race had the highest turnout in more than a century. And yet it was also an election in which Trump lost the electoral vote because of only 42,918 votes spread across three states, Republicans in the House actually picked up 14 seats, and state-level Republicans picked up trifecta governments in two additional states. Is this really what a natural Democratic advantage looks like?

In addition, it is easy enough to imagine a future where the Republican Party would generally benefit from higher turnout and easier access to the ballot. Over the last several presidential elections, there has been a steadily growing education divide between the parties. College-educated voters have shifted toward the Democratic Party while non-college voters have shifted toward the Republican Party. Should these trends continue, these lower-turnout non-college voters are some of the very groups that could benefit from election laws that make voting easier. The nonpartisan group VoteRiders, for example, has suggested that Georgia’s proposed photocopied ID requirement could burden rural and older voters, who lean Republican, just as it might burden groups who typically lean Democratic. The reality is that election laws are complicated and incentivize voter behavior in complex ways that are context-dependent. This makes it very difficult to predict precisely who would benefit from a given overhaul — if anyone at all.

While the eventual fate of these Republican bills is uncertain, the evidence is fairly clear: There is no substantive justification for many of these efforts, and even the basic partisan logic behind them is tenuous.

Read more:

H.R. 1 can’t pass the Senate. But here are some voting reforms that could.

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