A conservative organization’s database of purported fraud cases includes only one example of criminal charges centered on fraud in the general election last year: a case in which a father signed his daughter’s ballot while she was at college. The utter lack of credible evidence of fraud prompted Republicans broadly and Trump eventually to shift their complaints to center on how absentee ballot access was increased, conflating their claims that changing those rules violated the Constitution with broad, necessarily vague claims that something, somewhere went wrong, costing the incumbent a second term.
For decades, Republicans have used similarly nebulous allegations of fraud to advocate for changing voting rules in ways that tend to disproportionately disadvantage Democratic voters. At times they have been explicit in trying to lock out more Democrats. In the current moment, though, the offered arguments are different, using the same vagueness that Trump is using to rationalize losing to provide their own rationalizations for changes to existing laws. Often, those are framed as being necessary to prevent purported “fraud”; at other times, the changes are instead offered as a way to address “concerns” voters have about election security, concerns Republicans and Trump themselves amplified.
It’s become something of a legislative protection racket: claim that there’s a threat and then offer to address the threat. The result? Changes to laws that add restrictions to the ability to vote, particularly by mail.
Research from a team at Public Policy Institute of California offers a useful bit of context for those changes. It determined that the expansion of mail-in voting in 2020 often didn’t have a significant effect on turnout, with the exception of states that directly mailed ballots to voters. What’s more, the research found that there was no net benefit to Democrats from the changes relative to prior elections — and, in fact, that there may have been a small advantage for Republicans.
In a phone call with The Washington Post, one of the study’s authors — PPIC senior fellow Eric McGhee — explained the results of the research. The team considered not only mailed ballots but also mailed-ballot applications, and the elimination of excuse requirements for seeking a ballot. Only the first change yielded a significant effect.
“What we found was that mailing every voter a ballot actually has a pretty substantial positive effect on total turnout. It definitely boosts turnout,” he said. “That’s the one thing from the study that is robust across a wide range of different slices of the problem.”
Yet even that change doesn’t appear to have benefited Democrats, despite Trump’s insistences. The graph below, from the team’s report, shows that the relative Democratic vote share was down in 2020 across the methods of voting.
“You can’t count on these reforms to produce a partisan result in one way or the other,” McGhee said, summarizing their findings. “It certainly just doesn’t benefit Democrats, and it probably doesn’t benefit either party.”
“Would I go and counsel somebody who was trying to increase turnout to mail every voter a ballot? Absolutely,” he said at another point. “Would I go and counsel the GOP that they should adopt all these reforms so that they can improve their performance? No, because I think it’s too tentative, that finding.”
Republican performance, of course, was the heart of Trump’s complaints (specifically his own) and remains the subtext for many of the changes being advocated. There are unquestionably some Republican officials who think that election security is uncertain, despite the lack of evidence to that effect. Others, though, see this as another opportunity to effect changes that will benefit the party by reducing the number of Democratic-leaning voters.
“I understand why the parties, on both sides, why Democrats may think that they can improve their chances by having more people vote; Republicans think they can improve their chances by not having as many people vote,” McGhee said during our call. “Really, I think the better way to think about these reforms is: Do you want more people to vote or not?”
The answer to that is abundantly clear.