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Voting reforms have minimal partisan impact on electoral turnout
How you stand on the voting process has become one of the most contentious issues of the day. Claims are made that specific voting reforms will throw the election to one party or the other. Voter ID laws and felon disenfranchisement will ensure that Republicans win, or generous absentee voting rules will bring in hordes of Democratic voters, tipping the election in their favor.
The truth is that the partisan effects of most voting reforms are best miniscule. And while our attitudes towards election administration, and even voter confidence in elections are more polarized in the past, the extent of the polarization is overstated.
First, all of the most talked about voting reforms are unlikely to significantly shift elections in a republican or democratic direction. A new paper by Justin Grimmer and Eitan Hirsch looks at this very issue. It turns out that most reforms don’t have dramatic turnout effects. And even if reforms affect one party more than the other, the tilt is often not dramatic. Combine these two phenomena, and you end up with very small partisan shifts for all of the most commonly discussed voting reforms.
Take voter ID for example. Studies have generally found a turnout effects are very small or statistically insignificant. And while the partisan effect of these laws may be somewhat more negative for Democrats, the combination of these two effects is that perhaps there is a very, very small negative effect on Democratic turnout.
Another example are reforms that improve the ability to get registered. Of all of the commonly proposed reforms they have the largest turnout increases, perhaps as much as five or 6% increase in voter turnout. But it’s not clear that there is much of any partisan effect of this reform. Democrats and Republicans are more or less proportionally represented in the increased turnout. The end result is that this reform is neutral and does not substantially benefit Democrats or Republicans.
Of course, there are many reasons to support particular election reforms other than worries about partisan effects. There are legitimate debates about whether photo IDs or other IDs should be shown, whether the collection of mail ballots should be regulated, whether we should have more voting by mail or drop boxes, or whether we should have paper ballots that can be hand counted if needed. But the arguments for these reforms are primarily directed to improved election administration, not preventing differential turnout.
Second, polling shows that there are divides in the American public on access versus integrity, and an increased polarization in some areas, especially during the 2020 election. But in other ways, voters are not as polarized as party activists.
Polling generally shows the Democrats emphasize reforms that increase access to the vote, while Republicans emphasize reforms related to the integrity of the voting process. And on a few specific issues we are polarized. In 2020 especially, we saw a big difference in attitudes towards voting by mail, with Democrats favoring it, and Republicans opposing it in favor of in person voting. But while the differences here are real, they also reflected deeper differences between the parties on the question of how safe it is to go out in public during a pandemic.
And on some issues, the average democrat or republican is less polarized than activist party members. Democratic poll respondents indicate that they strongly favor voter access, but a small majority of Democrats also favors voter ID. Similarly, Republicans favor voter integrity, but they also support early voting. In both these cases, the average voter, unlike party activists, saw the reforms as practical reforms, rather than looking at them solely through the access versus integrity lens.
Third, many commentators have noted the stark divide between the parties on their competence in elections, with Democrats feeling strongly competent, and Republicans not confident.
And while bedrock faith in the fairness of elections is important for a well functioning democracy, these numbers themselves tell a misleading story. Political scientists have long noted that after an election, the losing party expresses a lack of confidence in the election results. Much like attitudes toward the economy, the attitudes of a party and power that then loses an election switches opinions and becomes much more negative. If the next election goes the other way, both parties switch their attitudes in reaction to the election result.
After the 2020 election, the typical pattern prevailed, but the differences between the parties were much greater than usual. But it turns out that while Republicans were slightly more negative about the election results than a typical losing party, it was Democrats who moved much more dramatically than usual, to say that they had extremely high confidence in the election results.
Of course, we should work to shore up support for our democratic institutions. But the narrow measure of voter confidence in elections does not show a great permanent divide between the parties. Our voting wars are intense, the polarization is real, and both parties believe the stakes are high. But the picture of two parties with very different views on democracy is thankfully overstated.
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