Bad strategy? How the Republican attack on voting rights could backfire

<span>Photograph: Bing Guan/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Bing Guan/Reuters

As the coronavirus wreaked havoc around the world, lawmakers in the US were faced with a monumental task: carrying out a presidential election in the middle of a once-in-century pandemic.

Concerned about the possibility of virus spread at polling places, Democrats pushed the federal government to approve more funding for states to expand absentee and early-voting options.

But Donald Trump was against the idea for a single reason: he thought it would make it harder for Republicans to win. Trump said in a Fox News interview in March of last year that, if early and absentee voting options were expanded as Democrats wanted, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” Other Republicans have echoed Trump’s argument in recent months, as the party has pushed hundreds of bills to restrict voting access in dozens of states.

But voting experts now say the restrictions being approved in Republican-led states may not help the party’s chances in future elections, and in some cases, the laws may even prevent their own supporters from going to the polls. Put simply, in seeking to suppress the vote, Republicans may be shooting themselves in the foot.

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Republican legislators across the country have taken aggressive action to restrict access to the ballot box this year, as Trump has continued to spread the “big lie” that there was widespread fraud in the presidential election. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, at least 389 bills with restrictive voting provisions have been introduced in 48 states this year, and 22 of those bills have already been enacted.

The Republican bills take particular aim at mail-in voting, after Joe Biden’s supporters used the voting method at disproportionately high rates in the 2020 election. However, it is unclear whether restricting mail-in voting will aid Republicans in future elections.

A recent study conducted by a team at the Public Policy Institute of California found that, while making mail-in voting easier did increase overall turnout, it did not necessarily result in better electoral outcomes for Democrats. In fact, many models indicated that easy access to mail-in voting resulted in slightly better outcomes for Republican candidates.

Voters line up at Riverside high school for Wisconsin’s primary election in Milwaukee last year.
Voters line up at Riverside high school for Wisconsin’s primary election in Milwaukee last year. Photograph: Morry Gash/AP

This may be in part because older voters, who lean Republican, are more likely to vote by mail. According to census data, nearly 54% of Americans aged 65 or older cast their ballots by mail last year.

“This can impact people regardless of their political affiliation,” said Kathleen Unger, founder of the group VoteRiders, which helps people navigate voter ID laws. “There are many people, including obviously Republicans, especially seniors and older voters, who are accustomed to voting by mail. Making it more difficult to vote by mail creates a very real barrier for all these people.”

The new voting restrictions may also deter lower-turnout constituencies who have been drifting more toward the Republican party in recent years. Studies have indicated that more highly educated Americans are more likely to report having participated in elections, and those voters have recently been moving toward the Democratic party. One analysis from the progressive firm Catalist found that white voters without college degrees made up 58% of Trump’s 2020 voters.

“There’s been an increasing educational divide between the two parties. And it is the case that less-educated voters are less likely to vote, and it is harder for them to vote in a wide variety of ways,” said Robert Griffin, research director of the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group. “Throwing up additional barriers to voting is not always the best idea if your coalition is increasingly reliant on lower-propensity voters.”

Republican legislators are clearly counting on the idea that these voting restrictions will affect Democratic voters more than their own supporters. Indeed, voting rights groups say many of the provisions in the new laws specifically target Black voters, 90% of whom supported Biden in November.

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For example, one provision in Georgia’s controversial voting law requires anyone requesting an absentee ballot to have a state-issued driver’s license or ID on file. If the voter does not have a Georgia-issued ID, they must send a photocopy of an alternative proof of identification to the state to obtain an absentee ballot.

Existing voting records indicate this requirement would have an outsized influence on Black voters, who are less likely to have a state-issued ID. However, Unger noted the provision could also negatively impact older voters who may not have a valid driver’s license because they no longer drive. And in a state like Georgia, which Biden won by about 12,000 votes out of nearly 5m ballots cast, every lost voter matters.

Christina Harvey, managing director of the grassroots voting rights group Stand Up America, argued that Republicans were “surgically targeting these laws to have the biggest impact on Black and brown voters”, but she acknowledged they would have an impact on all voters.

“The point is everyone should have equal access to the ballot no matter what they look like, where they live or how they prefer to vote,” Harvey said. “Policies that are targeted at disenfranchising Black and brown voters or even Democratic voters may impact those people disproportionately, but they also eat away at everyone’s freedom to vote.”