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Georgia’s Election Law, and Why Turnout Isn’t Easy to Turn Off

There’s nothing unusual about exaggeration in politics. But when it comes to the debate over voting rights, something more than exaggeration is going on. There’s a real — and bipartisan — misunderstanding about whether making it easier or harder to vote, especially by mail, has a significant effect on turnout or electoral outcomes. The evidence suggests it does not. The fight over the new Georgia election law is only the latest example. That law, passed last week, has been condemned by Democrats as voter suppression, or even as tantamount to Jim Crow. Sign up for The Morning newsletter from the New York Times Democrats are understandably concerned about a provision that empowers the Republican-controlled state Legislature to play a larger role in election administration. That provision has uncertain but potentially substantial effects, depending on what the Legislature might do in the future. And it’s possible the law is intended to do exactly what progressives fear: reshape the electorate to the advantage of Republicans, soon after an electoral defeat, by making it harder to vote. And yet the law’s voting provisions are unlikely to significantly affect turnout or Democratic chances. It could plausibly even increase turnout. In the final account, it will probably be hard to say whether it had any effect on turnout at all. The Georgia law The Georgia can be boiled down to a few points: — The law makes absentee voting harder. People must have a qualifying form of identification to vote by mail. The law also makes it harder to request and return an absentee ballot, restricting the period when people can apply for one and limiting the number of drop boxes where voters can return such a ballot in person. — On balance, it might make in-person voting easier, especially in the general election (though it contains provisions that cut in both directions). The law expands the number of required days of early voting, including on the weekend days that progressives covet (two Saturdays are now required instead of one). There’s also a provision that requires large precincts with long lines to add machines, add staff or split the precinct. Depending on how this is rolled out, it could be a big win for voters in Georgia’s urban areas, who have dealt with some of the longest lines in the country. Cutting in the other direction is the gratuitous and probably ineffectual limitation on handing out food and water to people standing in line to vote. Of more concrete but still limited importance is a rule that makes it harder for people to cast a provisional ballot if they show up at the wrong precinct. (It’s worth noting that many states don’t count these ballots at all, and there were only around 10,000 total provisional ballots in Georgia in the last election, including those cast in the right precinct). — It shortens the runoff period. Runoffs would be held four weeks after an initial election, instead of the nine weeks that had been in place for federal elections in the last few years. A main consequence would be to shorten early runoff voting to one week, instead of three, plausibly affecting turnout in exactly the kind of close, low-turnout race where it could easily be decisive. — It empowers the state Legislature to play a larger role in election administration. It removes the secretary of state as chair of the state board of elections and allows the Legislature to appoint a majority of the board’s members, including the chair. And it empowers the state board to take over county boards of elections, if the circumstances merit it. These might prove to be very important. But for the purposes of this article, we are not considering them “voter suppression” provisions. They do not inherently make it harder for people to vote by restricting whether or how they can vote. If we leave aside the administrative provisions and the question of intent, the core question on voter suppression is to what extent does reducing voting options — like early voting in the runoffs or mail voting in general — reduce turnout and Democratic chances? The limited import of convenience voting For decades, reformers have assumed that the way to increase turnout is to make voting easier. Yet surprisingly, expanding voting options to make it more convenient hasn’t seemed to have a huge effect on turnout or electoral outcomes. That’s the finding of decades of political science research on advance, early and absentee voting. One prominent study even found that early voting decreases turnout, though that’s a bit of an outlier. There’s essentially no evidence that the vast expansion of no-excuse absentee mail voting, in which anyone can apply for a mail absentee ballot, had any discernible effect on turnout in 2020. That shouldn’t be a huge surprise: Even universal vote by mail, in which every registered voter is automatically sent a mail ballot (as opposed to every voter having an opportunity to apply for one), increases turnout by only about 2% with no discernible partisan advantage. Believe it or not, turnout increased just as much in the states that didn’t have no-excuse absentee voting as it did in the states that added it for the first time. Similarly, Joe Biden improved over Hillary Clinton’s performance by 3 percentage points in the states that added it, compared with 2.9 points in the states that did not. A more rigorous study by political scientists at Stanford found that no-excuse mail voting might have increased turnout by a whopping 0.02% in the 2020 election. The study used a novel approach: The researchers compared the turnout among 65-year-olds in Texas, who were eligible to vote by mail without an excuse, with 64-year-olds in Texas, who weren’t. The turnout among 64-year-olds was indistinguishable from that of 65-year-olds, even though the latter group voted by mail in large numbers. Like Georgia, Texas did not require an identification to vote by mail, but has a strict ID requirement for in-person voting. The partisan makeup of the electorate didn’t appear to change, either. The Democratic share of voters appeared to tick up by two-tenths of a percentage point — enough to decide a very close election. But it’s also so small that it could just be statistical noise, with no effect at all. Social science methods just don’t offer the level of precision necessary to nail down whether this, or any, change might move the needle by a tenth of a point. The Georgia law doesn’t come anywhere close to eliminating no-excuse absentee voting, unlike what the political scientists tested in Texas. As a result, one might expect the new law to have an even smaller effect. (You could make a counterintuitive argument that making absentee voting harder is worse for Democrats than eliminating it altogether, and that Democrats might be better off discouraging people from mail voting to avoid unnecessary ballot rejections of people who could have successfully voted in person.) The Georgia runoff elections, while hardly a scientific case study, nonetheless offer another useful example. There were fewer opportunities to vote in advance compared with the general election, because of the shorter election campaign and the holiday season. Based on the drop-off in early voting, many analysts wound up underestimating the final turnout by 20% or more. In the end, turnout exceeded expectations. The number of Election Day voters was higher than it was in the general election, as many people who might have voted early if it weren’t for Christmas or New Year’s Day now turned out on Election Day. Maybe runoff turnout would have been higher with the same early voting opportunities as in the general. But maybe not. And none of this had any discernible negative effect on the Democrats, who of course did better than they did in the general. Why doesn’t convenience matter? How is it possible that something like eliminating no-excuse absentee mail voting, a method beloved by millions of voters, wouldn’t materially affect turnout or election results? One simple answer is that convenience isn’t as important as often assumed. Almost everyone who cares enough to vote will brave the inconveniences of in-person voting to do so, whether that’s because the inconveniences aren’t really so great, or because they care enough to suffer them. This supposes a certain reasonable level of convenience, of course: Six-hour lines would change the calculation for many voters. And indeed, long lines do affect turnout. It also supposes a certain level of interest. Someone might think: There’s no way I’m waiting a half-hour in line to vote for dogcatcher. Similarly, the importance of a convenient voting option probably grows as the significance of a race decreases. The implication, though, is that nearly every person will manage to vote if sufficiently convenient options are available, even if the most preferred option doesn’t exist. That makes the Georgia election law’s effort to curb long lines potentially quite significant. Not only might it mitigate the already limited effect of restricting mail voting, but it might even outweigh it. Also, convenience voting may not be as convenient for lower-turnout voters, who essentially decide overall turnout. Low-turnout voters probably aren’t thinking about how they’ll vote a month ahead of the election, when they’ll need to apply for an absentee ballot. Someone thinking about this is probably a high-turnout voter. Low-turnout voters might not even know until Election Day whom they’ll support. And that makes them less likely to take advantage of advance voting options like no-excuse early voting, which requires them to think about the election early and often: to submit an application, fill out a ballot and return it. As a result, convenience voting methods tend to reinforce the socioeconomic biases favoring high-turnout voters. The methods ensure that every high-interest voter has many opportunities to vote, without doing quite as much to draw less engaged voters to the polls. Another reason is that voting restrictions may backfire by angering and energizing Democratic voters. This law’s restrictions on handing out water in line, for instance, may do more to mobilize Democrats than to stop them from voting. One recent study even theorized that the Supreme Court’s decision to roll back elements of the Voting Rights Act didn’t reduce Black turnout because subsequent efforts to restrict voting were swiftly countered by efforts to mobilize Black voters. That doesn’t mean the Georgia law or other such laws are without consequence. Many make voting more difficult, enough to intimidate or discourage some voters. Many outright disenfranchise voters, even if only in small numbers. Perhaps the disenfranchisement of even a single voter merits outrage and opposition, especially if the law is passed on dubious or even fabricated grounds, and with Jim Crow mass disenfranchisement as a historical backdrop. But setting aside intent, it does mean that many such voting provisions, like that in Georgia, are unlikely to have a huge effect on turnout or Democratic chances. There are consequences to misunderstanding the stakes of changing voting laws. Minor changes in voting access can overshadow larger issues, including the kinds of potentially significant provisions in the Georgia law that empower the state Legislature. The HR 1 bill passed in the U.S. House by Democrats on a near party-line vote, for instance, would do quite a bit to expand voting access but relatively little to protect against partisan interference in election administration. The perception that voting laws have existential stakes for democracy or the political viability of the two parties has made bipartisan compromise extremely difficult. The virtue of bipartisanship is often and understandably dismissed as naive, but voting laws are a rare case where bipartisanship has value of its own. Democracy, after all, depends on the consent of the loser. This article originally appeared in The New York Times. © 2021 The New York Times Company