Texas held its first primary election since the implementation of its controversial voting reform last year. An early warning signaled that the law’s rigorous ID requirements were causing the rejection of tens of thousands of absentee ballots, or 30 percent in the state’s most populous counties. However, the outcomes were less clear-cut in the end. A total of 18,000 ballots that were sent in by mail were invalidated, which is about half the predicted incidence of invalidation. However, 2.9 million Texans were able to cast valid ballots in the primary, marking a double-digit increase over 2018.
The GOP immediately jumped on this. They contend that the results of the 2020 election in Texas and the other 18 states (under Republican and Democratic control, but predominantly Republican) that approved new restrictive voting rules will show that voter participation increases when citizens feel that elections are fair. Some Republicans argue that voters have lost faith in the legitimacy of our elections and that these regulations are necessary to restore that faith. While these individuals don’t believe there was widespread voter fraud, they do believe that Democratic state and local officials changed voting rules during the pandemic, not for the stated reasons of protecting people from Covid-19, but rather to give Democrats a partisan advantage in the election.
On the other side of the debate, progressives insist that easing access to the ballot box is the key to boosting voter turnout in states like Texas, where turnout increased despite rather than because of the state’s new tight voting legislation. (They highlight how only Republican turnout in the state improved significantly.) Democrats and the left view this wave of new legislation, which includes 34 laws in 19 states, as undemocratic voter suppression and election subversion, with the goal of preventing people of color from casting ballots and bringing back the country’s racist voting rules from its shady past. Vice President Joe Biden referred to these attempts in January as “Jim Crow 2.0” and pushed for federal voting rights legislation to prevent states from violating civil rights.
How awful (or beneficial) are these regulations, exactly? There appears to have been more attention paid to the political reaction to these laws than to the contents themselves. Republicans’ claims of widespread voter fraud have no basis in reality. However, the Democrats’ argument that present voting limitations amount to the type of voter suppression that existed before the Civil Rights struggle is likewise far from reality. More importantly, the data suggest that restricted (or liberal) voting restrictions have a smaller impact on the outcome than the two main parties would have you believe.
Let’s analyze in greater detail the effects of a few of these statutes. An in-depth analysis of these new voting regulations can be found in a report produced by the Brennan Center for Justice, a progressive public policy organization. Georgia “limit[ed] early voting days or hours,” according to the report. The flaw in such a categorization will become apparent upon reviewing the laws of several states. The new Georgia legislation requires 17 days of early voting, with at least two Saturdays included, and during “normal business hours,” which are defined as at least 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. However, the Brennan Center didn’t mention Massachusetts, which allows only 11 days of early voting and only during “normal business hours.” New York’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, just this year signed a bill into law that expands voting hours and reduces the number of days early voting is allowed from 14 to 9, with the goal of making voting more convenient for New Yorkers. The federal voting rights legislation sponsored by the president requires only 14 days of early voting, but on those days, polls would have to be open for 10 hours total.
Part of the issue is that it is difficult to examine individual election regulations without considering the larger picture. Voters in Georgia are automatically registered, unlike those in Minnesota, and they don’t need an excuse to vote by mail, unlike those in New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, or Delaware. However, unlike those other states, Georgia additionally asks absentee voters to include the number from their state-issued identification.
How does the process of voting absentee in Georgia compare to that of New York? A person who works a standard 9-to-5 schedule will appreciate New York’s expanded early voting hours. In contrast, contractors or parents who have to ferry children to and from after-school sports would like Georgia’s extended early voting period.
Also Read: Voting Rights Advocates
Georgia, Texas, Iowa, and Kansas are the four states that “eliminated or limited mailing postal ballot applications to voters who did not request them,” as reported by the Brennan Center. Closer inspection reveals that Georgia mandated disclosures informing voters that the application wasn’t sent from the government and banned such groups from sending applications to people who had already requested one, Texas forbid state employees from sending unsolicited applications but allowed candidates or political parties to do so, and Iowa said the election commissioner couldn’t send unsolicited applications unless authorized by the legislature due to a public health emergency. As a result, none of them succeeded in completely eliminating unsolicited application submissions, and the key restriction at issue appears to be that third parties identify themselves as the sending source.
The Brennan Center also singled out Florida for its prohibition on mailing ballots to voters who do not want them. However, just seven states presently mail ballots to every registered voter. This is because these states conduct all of their elections via mail (Colorado, California, Hawaii, Nevada, Utah, Oregon, and Washington). So Florida agrees with the majority of states (under Democratic and Republican control) that don’t.
Additionally, eight states are highlighted by the Brennan Center as having “restricted help in returning a voter’s mail ballot.” The practice is known as “ballot harvesting,” and at the moment, only 14 states allow an individual to gather an unlimited number of absentee ballots. Limits like these can be found in states including Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Michigan. (In fact, these kinds of regulations are what allowed North Carolina to convict a Republican congressional campaign operative who attempted election fraud in 2018.) Former Democratic president and voting rights supporter Jimmy Carter led the Carter Baker Commission in 2005, which made suggestions such as limiting ballot collection to immediate family members and election officials.
Other changes in these states also make it more difficult to cast a ballot. It’s important to note that four states have restricted where voters can drop off absentee ballots in person rather than mailing them. Iowa used to simply keep onto absentee ballot applications that were received more than 120 days before the day officials were allowed to review them. If an application is received more than 70 days before the deadline, it will be returned with a notice specifying the new deadline. Hundreds of absentee ballot applications in Harris County, Texas, were denied because voters were not able to provide the same state identification number they used to register to vote. Of course, those people will still be able to cast their ballots in person, but there’s no denying that this change has made voting less easy and has added little value.
The voting patterns of these 19 states are, on the whole, quite similar to those of the rest of American states. Disappointing as it may be, the lack of drive-through voting or absentee ballot drop boxes located outside of polling places was unheard of prior to the year 2020.
Even more significant reforms, such as tougher voter ID requirements, are sometimes criticized as discriminatory toward Black or low-income voters. It has been demonstrated in multiple academic studies that limiting early voting and drop boxes “had only small influence on turnout and no effect at all on the Democratic margin in the presidential election” in 2020. Also, mandating ID from absentee voters had “very close to zero” effect. Meanwhile, a different study found that “expansions of absentee voting in several states in last year’s election didn’t impact turnout.”
Collectively, these studies demonstrate that changes in voting regulations, either restrictive or liberal, have little to no impact on turnout when compared to the importance people attribute to the election. Obviously, if these rules have no influence on voter turnout, then there is also no appreciable amount of voter fraud.
Perhaps most importantly, the experience of states like red-hot Utah that have introduced universal mail-in balloting shows that both sides overestimate their support among voters. The Republican Party is sure that they have a leg up with the so-called “come hell or high water” voters, who always cast their ballots on Election Day despite any difficulties they may encounter getting to the polls. That’s why they’ll benefit from the rules imposed on them. However, Democrats argue that their voters are more likely to be “fair weather” voters who only vote occasionally or not at all, and that providing them with more voting options (such as more early voting days, ballot applications sent directly to their homes, and drive-through voting lanes) will increase voter turnout.
However, it is evident that larger turnout does not always favor Democrats, and many Republican voters appreciate modern voting advantages such as early voting.
These new voting laws aren’t just about how to vote; there’s more to them than that. Republicans in state legislatures have been accused by many of trying to alter election certification and vote tallying procedures. If such rumors are accurate, it would be devastating to our system of self-government, even more so than the advent of drive-throughs and mailboxes. Many terrible laws have been introduced, but very few have become law. (Although, it should be noted, even proposals to end democracy aren’t acceptable.)
Texas, Florida, and Georgia have all passed laws that make it easier for political activists to monitor elections. Observers of one political party at the polls in certain states can still question the validity of ballots or the eligibility of voters, but they have no other involvement in the counting process.
Arkansas, on the other hand, passed a law that lets a committee of state legislators report local election officials to the bipartisan State Board of Elections, which could then vote to get rid of them. The law gave some of the elected county clerks’ powers to county boards of election commissioners. The majority party on the county committee chooses two members for each board, and the minority party chooses one member. Given how many people are involved in every part of these new rules, it’s not clear yet if this law makes it easier for partisans to throw out votes or change the results of elections.
Georgia’s law took away the secretary of state’s power to chair the State Election Board and gave that power to the legislature. But it also says that the chair must be “nonpartisan” and “cannot have been a candidate for public office or made any political campaign contributions” in the last two years. It also lets the State Election Board suspend county election officials, but only if they can show “a minimum of three clear violations of State Election Board rules” or “demonstrated nonfeasance, malfeasance, or gross negligence in the administration of the elections” in two consecutive elections.
These laws do change who counts the votes, and there is always a chance that partisan actors will take advantage of that. But the way either state allows partisans to change the outcome of an election, even in theory, is not clear and would almost certainly lead to lawsuits that would be heard by the same federal judges who turned down all of former President Donald Trump’s attempts to question the results of the 2020 election.
Biden’s idea for how to change all of these laws is to make voting the same in all 50 states. It would include no-excuse absentee voting, two weeks of early voting, and more access for voters with disabilities. Many of the 19 states he talked about in his speech already have or go above and beyond these things. Which can make this whole argument seem like a lot of fuss over nothing.
There are probably a lot of people in both parties who think that voting laws can decide who wins an election. Look what happened in 2020, though. In the time leading up to the election, states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Georgia changed at least some of their voting rules to make it easier for more people to vote. With these new rules in place, almost every Republican candidate in those states did better than expected. Donald Trump was the only one who didn’t. In the Georgia Senate race, Republican David Perdue got 88,000 more votes than the Democrat, but Trump still lost by 12,000 votes. Turns out, 28,000 Georgia voters sent in a ballot with their choices for senator but didn’t vote at all for president. It seems like Trump was the problem, not the rules.
Democrats will probably find the same thing: talking about voter suppression may be a good way to talk to get more people to the polls, but the reality doesn’t match the talk, and the candidates they run will matter more than the rules.
Also Read: U.S. Voting System