The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Increasing turnout isn’t ‘rigging’ elections. It may be unrigging them.

A voter places her ballot in an official drop box in Milwaukee on Nov. 3, 2020. (Sara Stathas/The Washington Post)
9 min

On Friday, Wisconsin’s Supreme Court banned the use of ballot drop boxes in the state’s elections.

At issue was whether the Wisconsin Election Commission had the power to allow the use of drop boxes in 2020 as a response to the coronavirus pandemic. The court determined that it did not. But should anyone have been under any misapprehension that the decision was not deeply rooted in partisan politics, the majority opinion will clear that up.

“[T]housands of votes have been cast via this unlawful method, thereby directly harming the Wisconsin voters,” it states as the author argues that the voters who filed the lawsuit had standing to do so. “The illegality of these drop boxes weakens the people’s faith that the election produced an outcome reflective of their will.”

In other words, that ballots were cast by drop box and because those drop boxes have now been determined to be illegal … people’s faith in the election is weakened? This is an argument that could have been lifted directly from a Newsmax segment about the need for “election audits.”

Predictably, Donald Trump and his allies quickly celebrated the ruling. This, they argued, was validation of a central tenet of their complaints about the 2020 election: It had been “rigged” against the sitting president! The ruling was touted as undercutting the idea that the election had been fair and prompted calls for the results in the state to be decertified.

It is certainly true that the ruling marked a reversion to the status quo. But the idea that the status quo of voting in the United States marks some sort of ideal that must be preserved is flawed. If anything, the expansion of access to voting seen in Wisconsin was one of a number of efforts to unrig elections, to expand access to voting and increase participation.

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Remarkably, even that seemingly uncontroversial idea — that more people who are eligible to vote should do so — has been cast as somehow tainting election systems. The Republican-led state Senate in Wisconsin tapped conservative lawyer (and former member of the elected state Supreme Court) Michael Gableman to conduct a review of the state’s 2020 election. That probe was summarized in a report that was released in March, casting efforts to increase access to voting as inherently suspect.

At its heart, the report focused on funding provided to several Wisconsin municipalities to increase turnout. The grants came from a group called the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL) which had received a substantial chunk of money from Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg. So the funding was cast pejoratively as “Zuckerbucks” and the efforts to get more to people to vote as inherently partisan.

That, again, is at the heart of much of the “rigging” argument — which, I’ll quickly note, emerged largely as a way for Republicans to nod along with Trump’s claims about the election without having to agree with his nonsensical “fraud” allegations. If you actively try to get more people to vote, you’re acting in a partisan way … since groups that tend to vote less frequently are often more heavily Democratic.

But see how this works in the other direction, too? The system as it is facilitates turnout among groups that are less likely to vote Democratic. Isn’t it fair to argue then that it’s already rigged on behalf of Republicans?

Consider one factor in turnout: residency. The Census Bureau tracks turnout data on a number of demographic lines, including where people live. One thing that’s consistently the case is that people who live in rental properties are less likely to vote than are people who live in residences occupied by the owner. (This is a lamentably clunky descriptor, but it’s more accurate.) Relatedly, people who have lived in the same place for a longer period of time are more likely to vote — in both midterm elections like 2018 and in presidential races.

Why is that? In part, it’s because voting is tied to your residence. Who you vote for depends on where you live, so if you move, you often need to re-register to vote. Renters move more often than homeowners for obvious reasons, meaning they need to register to vote more often. They’re also less likely to have lived in the same place for an extended period.

Other data from the bureau shows a link between how often people move and the challenge of updating registration. In both 2018 and 2020, those who have lived in their residences for a relatively short period were more likely to say they didn’t vote because of issues with their voter registrations. Moving more decreases turnout.

There are other factors, too. In many places, voting sites don’t change much, so people who’ve lived in the same place for decades know exactly where to go to vote. This also overlaps with age: Older Americans are more likely to own homes. They’re also more likely to have time to vote. In the Census Bureau’s research, 18 percent of nonvoters under 25 said they were too busy to cast a ballot in 2020. Only 2.1 percent of nonvoters 65 and older cited the same challenge.

Municipalities and counties often reward more frequent voters, even if unintentionally. Voting sites are placed in retirement homes and senior centers since residents vote more often and have limited mobility.

So let’s look specifically at Wisconsin. In 2016, there was a relationship between the population density in a county and the number of polling places. That’s understandable: Urban areas have more people in a small vicinity allowing fewer polling places to serve a larger group.

But then it also means there may be longer wait times in those places. Research suggests urban voters do wait longer to cast a ballot — undoubtedly spurring some to simply give up.

That’s also true because some of this overlaps with income. Renters have less economic stability than homeowners and may work lower-paying jobs with less-flexible schedules. That plays into the “too busy to vote” question as well.

Looking again at Wisconsin, we see that places with more renter-occupied housing are also ones with lower per-resident polling locations. The trend is a bit hard to pick out here, so I can summarize: The quarter of counties with the lowest densities of renters had 1.5 polling places per 1,000 residents. The quarter with the highest had 0.8 polling places.

That includes Milwaukee County, the large dot at far right. It’s one of the five counties identified in Gableman’s report as having received money from CTCL; those counties are indicated with dotted circles. Three voted for Trump in 2020 anyway. But all are low on this chart, meaning that all had relatively few polling places per resident.

They stand out more on this graph, which compares the density of renters with the percentage of White residents. The five CTCL counties were less densely White and more densely made up of renters.

Those factors, too, overlap. Hispanic and Black people are less likely to own homes and often have lower incomes. They also have longer wait times to vote, according to Brennan Center analysis, even once you control for other factors. It makes sense, then, that those counties would be a target for efforts to increase turnout.

The effect was small, incidentally. The five counties that received CTCL funding saw the number of polling places per 1,000 residents rise from 0.47 to 0.49 from 2016 to 2020. In the rest of the counties, the ratio stayed flat at 0.79. Even in Gableman’s report, he alleges a smaller increase in turnout thanks to CTCL’s investment than President Biden’s margin of victory (though the increase alleged is itself dubious).

It’s worth walking through the path to this point. Trump claims that the election was stolen from him. His allies, unwilling to be on the hook for his obviously false fraud claims, generate this alternative explanation for how Trump was wronged, centered on efforts to make it easier to vote (that were often a response to the pandemic). This gets intertwined with a sense that an expansion of voter access is necessarily beneficial to Democrats since younger people and non-White people vote less heavily in the first place. But instead of seeing the system as rigged to their benefit in the first place, they cast efforts to decrease their own advantage as an effort to rig results for the left.

This impulse to decry expanded voting in cities is not one confined to 2020 or pandemic responses. In recent weeks, far-right activists have focused on Biden’s call to expand voting access as a nefarious plot to undercut democracy. Increasing turnout has by now simply been accepted as nefarious, and any interruption of that effort, like the decision in Wisconsin, a just victory.

Justice Ann Walsh Bradley wrote the dissent in that state’s drop box case.

“The majority/lead opinion’s sky-is-falling rhetoric not only defies the facts,” she wrote, “but also is downright dangerous to our democracy. … [C]oncerns about drop boxes alone don’t fuel the fires questioning election integrity. Rather, the kindling is primarily provided by voter suppression efforts and the constant drumbeat of unsubstantiated rhetoric in opinions like this one, not actual voter fraud.”

But her side lost the argument.