As debates rage about how to balance election security with the inalienable right to vote, each side seems to have an underlying political motivation that they try their best not to utter out loud.
It’s become almost a given in political punditry to claim that low voter turnout helps Republicans, and high voter turnout helps Democrats. With that fundamental understanding of how things work, each side proceeds to anticipate the opposition and win the electoral game. But studies indicate it might not even be the case.
Democrats allege that Republicans aren’t actually worried about election security. What they really want, supposedly, is to keep Americans from exercising their right to vote — especially black Americans. This is because, as everyone allegedly understands, if more people voted and access were easier, Democrats would always win.
Republicans don’t always admit it, but many of them seem to believe this as well. It’s important to them that there be some hoops to jump through, not just to secure elections and prevent fraud, but to keep elections from being a complete free-for-all dominated by Democrats. This isn’t a baseless allegation — former President Donald Trump himself has said that more people voting is bad for the Republican Party. (RELATED: Biden Administration Suing Georgia Over New Election Law)
That may explain why both sides are so passionate about this issue. To compare new election regulations in Texas and Georgia to modern-day versions of Jim Crow, as President Joe Biden and Democrats have done now on countless occasions, is baseless. It’s unclear to what degree the people making this accusation actually believe it, but many of them are surely leveraging it as a political attack.
This year, 17 states have enacted 28 new laws to make it harder to vote. Not to mention the nearly 400 bills that Republican members of state legislatures are trying to pass.
This 21st Century Jim Crow assault is real. It is unrelenting — and we will challenge it vigorously.
— President Biden (@POTUS) July 13, 2021
The same could be said for Republican concerns about voter fraud. It is true that there is voter fraud in isolated, small incidents. However, there is no evidence that widespread voter fraud is swinging elections, and no substantiating evidence has ever been shown for the claim that the 2020 election was stolen or rigged.
So it is fair to assume that, to at least some degree, the political and electoral motivations for this election law fight are more important for either side than their stated motivations for supporting or opposing them.
The awkward truth for players on both sides of this game is that the fundamental truth stated above, that Republicans win with low turnout and Democrats win with high turnout, isn’t actually supported by much evidence.
On a surface level, one could just look at past presidential elections and compare turnout levels to who won. In 2016, when Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders claimed that he should be the Democratic nominee rather than Hillary Clinton because he could drive the high turnout needed to beat Trump, he got fact-checked on it. As it turned out, presidents of both parties had historically been able to succeed in both high- and low-turnout environments. Even in relatively recent history, former President Bill Clinton won reelection with historically low turnout in 1996, while former President Barack Obama won with sky-high turnout in 2008.
Other analyses have come to similar conclusions. In February of 2020, FiveThirtyEight examined whether or not increased turnout in the 2020 race would help Republicans or Democrats. They determined that, while usual non-voters tended to skew demographically in a way that should benefit Democrats, they tended to have a higher approval for Trump than other Republicans. This suggested that the effect of turnout changes could be substantially altered by the candidates themselves, and isn’t a fixed phenomenon.
Two political scientists Daron Shaw of the University of Texas and John Petrocik of the University of Missouri, wrote an entire book on this subject called “The Turnout Myth.” (RELATED: ‘Utter Nonsense’ — McConnell Tears Into Biden’s Voting Rights Speech)
“There’s really not much evidence supporting the strategic partisan motivation for Democratic and Republican positioning on these issues,” Shaw recently told Yahoo News. “Peripheral” voters, as they call them, are oftentimes motivated by short-term forces that don’t necessarily benefit one party or the other from election to election, they say. (RELATED: EXCLUSIVE: GOP Reps Call On AG Garland To Drop Georgia Voting Lawsuit)
For all of the hullabaloo made about mail-in voting before, during and after the 2020 election, the same can be said for its effect on the outcome. An analysis by researchers at the University of Virginia found that states and localities that have switched to 100% mail-in voting historically have seen a marginal increase in turnout but no statistically significant change in which party benefits. Ultimately, mail-in voters are usually people who would’ve just voted on election day anyways if the option weren’t available.
The Georgia election law’s restrictions on voting are unlikely to discernibly affect turnout or the resulthttps://t.co/SrDAFexWCN
— Nate Cohn (@Nate_Cohn) April 3, 2021
Even more glaring is the effect, or lack thereof, that voting restrictions have on turnout. New York Times election analyst Nate Cohn published a comprehensive analysis of research earlier this year that found that the voting restrictions typically put forth by Republicans in bills like the ones from Georgia and Texas hardly even change how many people end up voting, much less the outcomes of elections.
In other words, both sides may believe that the future of their electoral fate is at stake in this fight, but there is very little data out there to suggest that’s the case. When Democrats argue that Republican measures are going to disenfranchise millions of people, it’s based on no substantial evidence or historical precedent. When Republicans claim that mail-in voting and increased turnout will lead to endless blue waves, there isn’t much support for that, either. Perhaps the debate really should be about security versus access, after all.