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How new voting restrictions in Georgia could have affected the 2020 election

Voters stand in line at a polling location in Decatur, Ga., on Oct. 12 for the start of three weeks of early voting before Election Day on Nov. 3. (Ravi Nessman/AP)

There are probably Republicans in state legislatures around the country who sincerely believe, despite the lack of credible evidence, that our system of administering elections allows for and includes rampant fraud. Given the extent to which Republican voters hold that belief, one has to assume that some Republicans who are paid to know better simply don’t.

But there is also clearly a surfeit of Republicans who support new efforts to constrain access to voting regardless of whether they think fraud exists. More than 250 laws are or have been under consideration in state legislatures this year aimed at introducing new voting restrictions, despite there having been only one actual criminal conviction for voter fraud in last year’s election, according to a database run by the conservative Heritage Foundation. Perhaps those laws are driven by concern that Democrats have been cheating, so legislators want to limit the ability to do so. Or perhaps they’re just driven by the less complicated concern that Democrats are simply voting. Either way, the effect is the same, as is the rationalization.

What can be hard to pick out of this battery of new laws is how, exactly, the results of elections in the sponsoring states might change. We can look at a change like the one proposed in Arizona, where the deadline for receipt of mail ballots would be moved up, and see, as reporter Garrett Archer did, that this would have excluded the votes of 43,614 more Republican ballots than Democratic ones in a state President Biden won by 10,457 votes. But we don’t know precisely what would have happened if the deadline had been moved. Would those voters have acted more quickly? Would they have not voted? It’s hard to say.

We can get a better sense of the effects of one of these laws by looking at a proposal that recently passed the Georgia House. It includes provisions constricting the time frame for voting and access to casting a ballot.

In 2020, Biden won Georgia by 11,779 votes. Donald Trump won Election Day voters by 220,000, while Biden beat Trump by nearly 400,000 votes among those who cast ballots by mail. Trump also won in-person early voting by nearly 170,000 votes. Two changes included in the law passed by the Georgia House address those latter processes for voting: a new limit on who can request a mail ballot and a reduced schedule for voting early in person.

Mail balloting

If this proposal is signed into law, Georgia would scale back the pool of voters eligible to vote by mail to limit it to those over 65, people who would be away from their home precinct on Election Day and those with disabilities.

According to data from L2, a political data firm, the estimated composition of the Georgia electorate overall is 44 percent Democrats and 27 percent Republican. Among those over 65, the divide is flipped: 47 percent are estimated to be Republican and 39 percent Democrats. In other words, constraining the pool of absentee voters to be primarily those over 65 means allowing far more Republican voters to use that tool than Democrats.

In 2020, about 42 percent of ballots cast by mail in Georgia were cast by those aged 66 and older, according to data compiled by the United States Elections Project. In other words, it’s safe to assume that at least half of those voting using that method last year would be barred from doing so moving forward.

How did they vote? In Georgia, exit polls show that voters younger than 50 preferred Biden to Trump. Among voters 25 and under, for example, Biden won by a 13-point margin. If that was uniformly the case for those who cast their ballots by mail, Biden won mail-in voters younger than 25 by 12,200 votes — more than his margin of victory. Of course, Trump also loses votes using this same calculus. About half of voters under 65 who voted by mail were also at least 45. But since Biden’s margins were larger among younger voters than Trump’s were among those nearing retirement age (Trump won those aged 50 to 64 by 6 points), Biden stood to lose more votes.

Again, we can’t say that these votes would simply have vanished into the ether had the proposed law been in place last year. It’s quite likely that most of those voters would simply have voted at some other point in some other way. But one reason that older voters tend to vote more regularly is that it’s easier for them to vote on Election Day, given that they aren’t working or are familiar with how and where to vote. Limiting access to mail balloting for younger voters probably means a reduction in the number of young people who vote.

In-person voting

Another proposed change would be to limit the duration of early voting on the weekend.

The intent here is hardly subtle. There is a tradition in Georgia, as in other Southern states, that Black churches will encourage their members to vote after services on a Sunday an election. Since Black Americans tend to vote more heavily Democratic — in Georgia, exit polls suggest that they preferred Biden by 77 points — limiting the ability to vote on a Sunday means disproportionately making it harder for Democratic voters to cast ballots.

Using data provided to The Washington Post by Michael McDonald of the U.S. Elections Project, we calculated the density of in-person Black voters during last year’s early-voting period. Over the duration of the period, Black Georgians constituted about 26.4 percent of the votes cast early in-person. On the four weekend days, though, Black voters made up 36 percent, 37 percent, 32 percent and, on Oct. 25, 44 percent of the in-person votes cast.

Since fewer people vote on weekends in general, this added up to about 86,000 votes in total. But the effect would disproportionately be to make it harder for heavily Democratic voters to cast ballots.

It takes an awfully generous dose of credulity to think that this restriction is an unintended side effect of the proposed law. Georgia went from having supported Trump and having two Republican senators on Nov. 2 to backing Biden and having two Democratic senators two months later. In each case, the margins by which the Democrats won was narrow: under 12,000 votes for Biden and under 150,000 for the two Senate seats.

Lock out 100,000 Democratic votes, and Georgia switches from slightly blue back to slightly red. Maybe it’s the case that those Democrats won because Georgians wanted them to, as all the evidence would suggest. But why not take advantage of the murmurs that they won because of a secret and undetectable conspiracy to steal a victory?