New York Times correspondent Nate Cohn, for example, argued that voter suppression bills, such as the one passed by Georgia’s legislature this year, are unlikely to depress turnout in part because they “may backfire by angering and energizing Democratic voters.” Former Barack Obama speechwriter David Litt followed suit, writing in the Atlantic that voter ID laws may have “created an equal and opposite backlash, driving turnout among the groups intended to be suppressed” — and that Democrats should therefore embrace a compromise bill proposed by Sen. Joe Manchin III that includes a national voter ID requirement.
While telling voters about suppression can sometimes motivate them to show up at polling places, this backlash effect is far from guaranteed.
This “backlash” concept emerged from several political science studies, which found that strict voter ID laws have only modest effects on aggregate turnout. A popular explanation for is that the targets of suppression feel so incensed by attempts to quell their votes (or the votes of those in their political coalition) that they cast ballots at even higher rates than before.
In the most famous of these studies, Democratic voters who read an article about voter ID laws’ suppressive effects felt angry, and this boosted their intentions of voting in an upcoming election. In a separate study of real-world political behavior, Hispanic Americans whose voter registrations were officially challenged by the Florida government during an attempted voter purge in 2012 went on to cast ballots at higher rates — suggesting that feeling personally targeted was enough to drive up turnout.
But that does not hold true for all groups affected by voter restrictions. Take the young, for example. Americans younger than 30 are notorious for voting at lower rates than older age groups. Even in the historically-high-turnout 2020 general election, only half of young adults cast a ballot. But turnout is significantly higher among young college-educated people — and they overwhelmingly voted for Joe Biden last November.
Increasingly, Republican-controlled legislatures are closing campus polling places, limiting early voting at colleges and universities, banning the use of student ID cards to meet voter identification requirements and making it harder for young adults to request mail-in ballots. Democratic members of Congress introduced a bill last August to protect young adults’ voting rights, citing “efforts to disenfranchise youth” that “could have lasting effects for decades to come.”
In a randomized controlled experiment this year, I looked at how people reacted when they learned about a spate of new state bills aimed at driving down youth turnout. Using the survey firm Lucid, I recruited a census-balanced sample of nearly 4,900 individuals to take an online survey earlier this year. I randomly assigned participants to read one of three hypothetical news articles: a control article without any information on voter suppression, one about voter suppression that did not name any particular identity group as the target, or a similar voter suppression article that specified young people as the intended targets. I then measured how angry the article made people feel, as well as how likely they were to vote in the 2022 midterm elections.
The results were dismaying. While learning about youth suppression generally did make people angry, it did not make people more likely to want to vote. (Neither did learning about suppression without an explicitly named target.) Most concerning, information about youth suppression did not even boost voting intentions for young adults themselves — the individuals who stood to lose the most.
Intriguingly, one specific set of people did exhibit a backlash effect after learning about youth suppression: young adults who strongly identify with their age group. But this cohort was relatively small. Most people simply didn’t identify strongly with their age group. By contrast, people do tend to hold strong partisan and racial identities — a difference that may explain why efforts to suppress Democrats or voters of color have provoked a stronger backlash effect in the past.
My research highlights a real danger in assuming that voter suppression targeting a group with a weaker collective identity, like young people, will evoke the same backlash as suppression targeting a group with a strongly held collective identity, such as Black Americans. This is particularly concerning when it comes to suppression targeting racial minorities, as Hispanic and Asian Americans have historically scored lower on standard measures of group identity than Black Americans. It is far from clear that restrictive laws targeting these groups will evoke so much anger that their voters flood the polls.
Despite the best hopes of some observers, telling voters they are being suppressed will not always be enough to counteract that suppression. In the case of bills targeting young voters, that messaging appears entirely ineffective. As debate continues over how to successfully combat these restrictions, simply counting on voter backlash may be wishful thinking.