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Why We Are (And Should Be) Talking About Voting Rights Right Now

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarah (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): Georgia’s new voting law has captured headlines for all the ways in which it makes voting harder. It’s also not the only state considering these kinds of laws; there are nearly 20 states in which voting restrictions have already passed at least one step of the legislative process. More than 300 voting restriction bills, according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight, have been introduced in state legislatures this year following months of fraudulent claims from former President Trump and his supporters that the 2020 presidential election was rigged. (Sixty percent of Republican voters still say the election “was stolen” from Trump.)

‘There’s a reason why … (GOP has) tried to make it harder for people to vote’: Silver

But understanding the effects of laws like Georgia’s is complicated. There’s not really solid evidence one way or the other that this law will hurt Democrats or help Republicans. It’s also a point that elides a more fundamental one: If one party increasingly supports anti-democratic measures, does anything else outweigh that?

An illustration for pollapalooza with a “Notice: Photo ID required” lawn sign against graph paper background

Related: Americans Oppose Many Voting Restrictions — But Not Voter ID Laws Read more. »

Public opinion on voting laws isn’t clear-cut either — provisions like a ban on giving voters food and water (something the Georgia law did) are unpopular, but voter ID laws are broadly popular. So let’s address the politics, public opinion and research on voting laws to better understand the contours of this debate, tackling this chat in two parts:

  1. First, how much does it matter that Republicans’ election security push is precipitated on a lie? That is, as there has been no evidence the 2020 election actually experienced wide-scale fraud, does that undermine Republicans’ argument?
  2. And second, how much do Americans care about voting rights as an issue?

OK, first up — The argument from Republicans supporting these new laws. What do they want in the push for more “election security”? And how much does it matter, at this point, that there wasn’t actually wide-scale voter fraud in 2020?

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): IMO, the “Big Lie” is the key to understanding Republicans’ motivations. Everyone can agree that elections should be secure. But …

… the specific methods of voting being targeted by Republicans (almost half of the voting restrictions that have been introduced regulate absentee voting), the states in which they are targeting them (disproportionately swing states), and the timing of that targeting (after Republicans lost the 2020 election) all suggest that they are only passing these restrictions because they think they will help the GOP win future elections.

alex (Alex Samuels, politics reporter): But to your second question, Sarah, this is the narrative conservative lawmakers and many of their voters have bought into, right? That the 2020 election was supposedly stolen from Trump?

There was never — and still is no — evidence of massive voter fraud that Trump and his allies stated as fact. But because it was repeated so many times and with such certainty, large parts of the GOP electorate came to believe it. 

As long as the “Big Lie” continues to be pervasive, we’re going to keep seeing these efforts to get these restrictions passed, as Nathaniel notes.

nrakich: Alex, it’s an interesting question whether these Republican legislators actually believe that rampant voter fraud cost Trump the election or they are just going along with it because it’s politically convenient. But I’m also not sure it matters. Either way, they are making policy based on a conspiracy theory.  

sarah: Right, setting aside the question as to what extent Republican politicians buy the “Big Lie,” it is pervasive among Republican voters: In a March 30-31 Reuters poll, 6 in 10 Republicans said they still believed the election “was stolen” from Trump “due to widespread voter fraud.”

nrakich: And rank-and-file Republicans are correspondingly willing to make voting harder in order to get their desired outcome. According to the Pew Research Center, only 28 percent of Republicans now say “everything possible should be done to make it easy for every citizen to vote,” down from 48 percent in 2018.

alex: Republican politicians also seem to acknowledge that it’s likely they won’t win future elections without some sort of changes to the voting system. Sen. Lindsey Graham told Fox News that “mail-in balloting is a nightmare for us,” even though it wasn’t controversial before this past year. I think these changes are more about preserving power than about “voter fraud.”

And to Nathaniel’s earlier point, few Republicans lawmakers are doing anything to stop these bills from passing. Even the ones who don’t necessarily think there was fraud.

julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): The argument about election security boils down to an argument that people voted who shouldn’t have, right? That there were questionable votes. 

And so reforms based on the “Big Lie” hinge on the 2020 election having those kinds of irregularities. People might not come out and say it was because people of the wrong skin color voted — they might say, well, people should have been ineligible because of changes to early voting rules or whatever. But in the context of both the history of disenfranchisement of African Americans and more recent fears about people living in the country illegally voting, the implication is pretty clear. When the solution is to tighten up the voting rules, you have implied that the problem is the wrong people voting.

nrakich: Yeah, Julia, you see this in how surgically targeted some of these provisions are. For example, legislators in Georgia originally proposed banning early voting on Sundays, which would end the “Souls to the Polls” initiatives that are so popular at Black churches. That provision did not end up passing, but one that did — prohibiting food and water be handed to voters in line — will disproportionately affect urban areas, where there are both more lines and more voters of color.

alex: Myrna Pérez from the Brennan Center told us something similar, Julia. The bills we’re seeing now reflect “a real fear over the browning of America, and folks trying to protect what they have and keep the power for themselves.”

sarah: And as you all are saying, sometimes it’s hard to see that this is what these restrictions intend to do, because some of the more draconian measures don’t end up passing and the exact language of the measures that do pass isn’t quite so explicit (i.e., “This voting measure intends to disenfranchise Black Americans.”).

The new voting restrictions many states are considering

The New York Times’s Jamelle Bouie argued this in his essay on how it’s not an exaggeration to compare the current voting restriction push to the Jim Crow era. That is, a lot of the ramifications and larger purposes behind these bills weren’t immediately clear until all the pieces fell into line. “[T]he thing about Jim Crow is that it wasn’t ‘Jim Crow’ until, one day, it was,” writes Bouie.

At this point, though, do Republicans need the “Big Lie” to push through this agenda? 

That is, it feels like there is a shift at play here with Republicans increasingly distancing themselves from the election being stolen in 2020 and more so focusing on scoring points against how Democrats are now characterizing the laws (i.e., Jim Crow 2.0).

In fact, we’ve already seen some of this reframing in how Republican politicians criticized Major League Baseball’s decision to pull its All-Star Game out of Georgia over the new voting law, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warning CEOs to “stay out of politics.”

What’s Republicans’ long-term strategy? 

nrakich: Many of the new arguments that Republicans are pushing are in bad faith, though. For example, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has claimed that Georgia’s new law actually expands voting rights because it allows for more early voting. But that completely ignores the many more objective restrictions in the law, such as less time to request an absentee ballot and the need for absentee voters to provide voter ID — not to mention arguably the most concerning part of the law, the part that gives the state elections board the ability to remove local election officials.

alex: I agree. Republicans’ motivation, long term, seems to be anti-democratic. Even Trump dismissed proposals to make voting easier last year. So now the post-Trump strategy seems to be focused on how best to win elections, and even though Republicans have maybe not explicitly said they don’t think they can do that without overhauling the current system(s) in place, that seems to be what’s happening.

nrakich: McConnell’s request for corporations to “stay out of politics” is also pretty funny — he sounds like Bernie Sanders! What McConnell means, of course, is that he wants corporations to stop disagreeing with him politically. (Corporations have been intimately involved in politics for hundreds of years.)

sarah: It is a difficult position for a party that is traditionally pro-business to adopt this stance, too.

nrakich: Exactly, Sarah; it’s disingenuous. Republicans have historically wanted corporations to be more involved in politics — e.g., when they’ve defended corporations’ right to give money to political campaigns.

julia_azari: I mean, part of the founding ethos of the Republican Party was about creating a strong national economy based on free (as opposed to slave) labor. Nineteenth-century Republicans saw the purpose of government as being able to help American business grow strong.

So I read McConnell’s statement as “stay out of politics that challenge existing power arrangements.”

alex: Isn’t Republicans’ argument with MLB, though, that it’s overstating what Georgia’s law does?

nrakich: What do you mean, Alex?

alex: Maybe my Texas bias is showing, but Gov. Greg Abbott said yesterday that he wouldn’t throw out the first pitch at the Texas Rangers’ home opener after MLB adopted “what has turned out to be a false narrative about Georgia’s election law reforms.” (That’s straight from his statement.)

sarah: Right, Republicans are now attacking Democrats for overplaying their hand in how they’re describing what the laws actually do. But Nathaniel hit on this earlier — while there might technically be a longer early voting period in Georgia now, there is less time to request an absentee ballot and it’s harder to cast an absentee ballot because a voter must provide voter ID.

julia_azari: The inconsistency of the arguments the GOP has been using to defend their position is wild.

nrakich: Yes, Julia, it’s so bizarre! If you truly believe that “voting shouldn’t be easy” is a defensible position, you should make that argument (e.g., on security grounds). 

But instead many Republicans are insisting that they are the party expanding voting rights, which suggests that they agree with the premise that restricting voting is the wrong side of the debate to be on.  

julia_azari: I think this reveals a key asymmetry (or at least a potential one). Democrats can overplay their hand by stoking outrage in their supporters and end up being lambasted for being wrong or exaggerating. Republicans, on the other hand, don’t seem to suffer repercussions for changing up the logic of their arguments; instead, they seem to have found a strategy in attacking “cancel culture” whenever under scrutiny.

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related: Why The Republican Party Isn’t Rebranding After 2020 Read more. »

sarah: What’s also so hard to disentangle in laws like Georgia’s is there are really two things happening at once. First, there are actual changes to the voting process, but then there are also changes that affect how elections are administered, and in the case of Georgia, make it easier for politicians to interfere

Nathaniel mentioned it earlier, but take the part of Georgia’s law that now allows the Republican-appointed state elections board to remove local election officials and essentially remove the secretary of state’s role in ensuring the election was conducted fairly.

We know that in the 2020 presidential election, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger refused to kowtow to Trump’s demand that he find “11,780 votes,” but now that guardrail is gone.

A lot of what we’re talking about here is moot, though, if Democrats are able to push through their sweeping voting reform bill, H.R.1.

julia_azari: I’m on team “nothing else matters” once we’ve passed a certain anti-democratic threshold. And the provisions on election administration in Georgia’s law are worthy of a lot of attention — even if it’s not clear what they’ll mean in practice. 

The period between the 2020 election and the inauguration featured a lot of attempts to mess with the Electoral College votes. There was real drama over certification in Michigan, for instance. You’re seeing a move — even if it’s slight — toward the direction that people shouldn’t actually get to choose their slate of electors or that state legislatures can have a stronger hand in that process. This is like early 19th century stuff.

sarah: Is voting rights something Americans care about, though?

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alex: Considering this is something some people fought for the right to do for decades, I’d say yes. Others might have a different answer, though, because not everyone votes.

nrakich: Historically, voting rights hasn’t been an issue that has motivated many voters; it barely cracks the list of the most important problems facing the country, per Gallup polling. It’s hard to get people worked up about wonky provisions like whether people should be able to register to vote on Election Day or sometime before, or whether there should be one week of early voting versus two. 

But I think framing these wonky issues as questions of rights and the health of our democracy has the potential to be very motivating. Especially if some voters (i.e., people of color) feel that their rights are being abridged.

alex: And I think that’s what Democrats have been doing so far: framing what’s happening in Georgia and other states as a “Jim Crow 2.0.”

That’s also probably easier to understand — and more motivating — than explaining the nitty-gritty measures in each individual bill.

nrakich: Look at what happened in North Dakota in 2018. The state passed a law that required voter IDs with residential addresses on them — something many Native Americans who live on reservations didn’t have. But the law appears to have backfired; Native Americans were highly motivated to exercise their right to vote in spite of the law, and Native American turnout skyrocketed.

julia_azari: Yeah, this is a pretty well-documented phenomenon. I want to make sure we clarify, though, that we are using this as an illustration of how important voting rights are to people, and not in the sense of “these laws are OK because there’s always countermobilization!” The latter caused so much angst on Twitter over the weekend in response to The New York Times’s Nate Cohn’s analysis of Georgia’s law.

alex: I’m torn on the countermobilization argument, because I’ve seen the same logic used to talk about Black voters (i.e., efforts to make it harder to vote will motivate more people and backfire against Republicans). But people shouldn’t have to surmount unconstitutional hurdles to vote!

I’m not saying you’re making that argument, Nathaniel, I’m just saying I’ve seen a few people argue that voter suppression isn’t real because a turnout gap didn’t/doesn’t materialize as expected.

nrakich: Agreed 100 percent, with both you and Julia. Even if a law doesn’t deter a single person from voting, it might still be restrictive if it imposes additional hardships on existing voters.

For example, even if people are willing to wait hours in line to make sure their vote gets cast, that inconvenience can have non-voting-related consequences, such as having to pay extra for child care or losing out on wages at your hourly job.

sarah: For sure, the most important thing is that people have the right to vote without it being a burden. But I also want to return to this question of electoral impact, because the research is really mixed on it. 

Some studies have suggested that absentee voting didn’t help Democrats’ margin in 2020, or as Cohn’s analysis of Georgia’s law suggests — it’s really hard to know whether this will impact turnout negatively in elections moving forward. But something we found in the research for our 2020 forecast was that if we account for changes in how easy it is to vote in each state based on a cost of voting index researchers have put together, states with higher barriers to voting tend to produce better results for Republican candidates while states with fewer barriers tend to lean more toward Democrats.

nrakich: I think a lot of nuance is called for when attempting to answer this question of electoral impacts. Discussions like these often lump different types of voting restrictions (or expansions) together, but not every voting reform is created equal. 

For instance, I am persuaded by the studies that show that changes to absentee voting laws are unlikely to change the outcome of an election. But political scientists have found that things like banning/instituting same-day voter registration actually can have significant effects! This thread from political scientist Charlotte Hill was very instructive in that regard:

sarah: It also seems as if making voting easier is becoming an increasingly polarized issue, with far more Republicans now unwilling to say that “everything possible” should be done to make voting easier.

julia_azari: Yeah, on the question of polarization, this debate isn’t necessarily always going to be directly related to which laws help which parties, but rather how voters understand those laws in relation to their own partisan motivations — what they dislike about the other party, how their own identity motivates their partisanship. 

This thread from political psychologist Christopher Federico linking support for restrictions to racial attitudes is also useful.

sarah: Where do you all think the fight over voting rights heads next?

alex: Whether Democrats can actually agree on something and get H.R. 1 passed is a big open question. But there’s also how many of these restrictive bills actually pass and where that leaves Republicans two years down the line. 

If Republicans only pass a few dozen of these bills, do they continue pushing for them in future legislative sessions? (I would bet the answer is yes, but I’m curious to see how this progresses over time.)

julia_azari: A couple of questions I have been thinking about: One is the degree to which Trumpism within the Republican Party is about winning elections without winning majorities of the multiethnic electorate, and another is where standard political hardball ends and being anti-democratic begins. 

And at the risk of sounding stupid because I know these things are so intertwined at this point, I also wonder how to think about what’s about partisanship versus what’s about race. A really cynical take would suggest that elite Republicans are taking advantage of the salience of these demographic issues in order to produce institutional changes to consolidate power.

nrakich: I just think voting rights is an extremely nuanced issue that requires people to acknowledge a ton of realities all at once.

  1. Some voting restrictions probably don’t affect turnout or who wins.
  2. But others might.
  3. But backlash/countereffects can scramble that calculus too.
  4. But electoral impacts are only one small part of why these laws matter.
  5. They matter in how they affect the convenience of voting too.
  6. Regardless of impact, intent is important (e.g., it matters that Republicans are pushing voting restrictions shortly after losing a major election and crying “voter fraud” about it).
  7. It matters normatively that it has become the position of one of the two main political parties that it should be harder to vote.
  8. Regardless of impact, context is important (e.g., this is not the first time that a state like Georgia has tried to make it hard for certain people to vote).
  9. It’s important to acknowledge the racial impacts/motivations of these laws.
  10. “Voting restrictions” (or “voting expansions”) is an extremely broad term that encompasses a ton of more specific proposals, which should probably be judged on their own merits because they each have different impacts and are just or unjust to varying degrees.

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Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.

Alex Samuels was a politics reporter at FiveThirtyEight.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Julia Azari is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University. Her research interests include the American presidency, political parties and political rhetoric. She is the author of “Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate.”