Tamas is an associate professor of political science at Valdosta State University.
There has been understandable
outrage and widespread criticism of the new voting laws in Georgia – and of similar efforts in other states. These laws would likely make voting more difficult, including by reducing options for voting and making it harder to use an absentee ballot. My research indicates, however, that such measures may not change election results much, if at all.
Most U.S. voting districts at both the congressional and state legislative levels are safely controlled by one party or the other. Laws that slightly reduce the number of potential voters are unlikely to shift power in Congress and state legislatures significantly.
In addition, my analysis has found that Republican-led partisan gerrymandering efforts actually work against voter suppression measures, by packing Democratic voters into relatively few districts that the party wins easily. That means Democrats have fewer competitive seats to potentially lose, even when some of their supporters are kept from the polls.
History of voter suppression
Voting access laws have changed considerably since the end of the Jim Crow era in the mid-20th century. The American public then was far more willing to accept overt voter suppression requirements, like poll taxes and literacy tests, which were widely used in Southern states to keep Black people from voting.
But the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s undermined public support for those laws. As a result, current state governments that want to reduce voter access to the polls have to find less obvious methods to do so.
When they devise methods to limit voting now, state governments have to claim that such measures will protect voting integrity or save taxpayer money. This ends up limiting the aggressiveness of voter suppression measures that states can enact, which in turn reduces their potential effectiveness.
Georgia's new laws don't really affect who is eligible to vote, but they do make voting more difficult for poorer populations and those living in urban areas. Making access harder may not, however, be enough to stop people from voting. There is significant political science research showing that changes to voting options and absentee ballot use don't meaningfully affect voter turnout.
For instance, permitting most citizens to vote by absentee ballot does not give either party an electoral advantage. Such findings suggest that restricting voting by mail won't help one party over the other, either.
Election margins in Georgia
In situations where many districts are closely divided, a small amount of voter suppression can change the balance of power. But if most districts are clearly dominated by one party or the other, then flipping its control would require much more effort to reduce voter turnout.
At this point in American history, most election outcomes are predictable. Partially as a result of gerrymandering, most districts are reliably won by a large percentage of the vote. In 2020, for example, Georgia Democrats won close elections in just one out of 56 state Senate races and seven out of 180 state House races.
This is where my research has identified the opposing impacts of gerrymandering and voter suppression. In Georgia, both congressional and state legislative elections are impacted by gerrymandering.
In 2020, nearly two-thirds of the Democratic seats in the Georgia General Assembly and U.S. House of Representatives were won in races where Republicans didn't even field a candidate. Just 1 percent of the Democratic wins were by close margins of less than 2 percentage points.
By the 2022 midterm elections, state governments will redraw all legislative district lines. These new districts will almost certainly be equally or more gerrymandered than they are today. Redistricting is therefore not likely to significantly reduce existing vote margins.
Unlike legislative elections, statewide races in Georgia have become far closer in recent years. In the 2018 gubernatorial election, for instance, Republican Brian Kemp beat Democrat Stacey Abrams by just over 1 percent of the vote. During the 2021 U.S. Senate runoffs, Democrat Jon Ossoff beat Republican David Perdue by just over 1 percent of the vote and Democrat Raphael Warnock beat Republican Kelly Loeffler by 2 percent.
However, limiting absentee voting and increasing wait times at the polls may not be enough to shave off even a few percentage points of Democratic voters across all of Georgia.
What's at stake
The real problem Georgia Republicans are facing is not that more Georgia Democrats are voting. Rather, the state's long-term demographic shift means more Georgians will vote Democratic.
As large groups of people move into the state from elsewhere, many of them are far more liberal than the current Georgia population. And just like in other states, younger people in Georgia tend to be more liberal and prone to vote Democratic than their parents' and grandparents' generation.
Gerrymandering districts may slow the electoral effects of these demographic changes. But creating long lines and increasing voter identification requirements will not reduce voting by enough to make a real difference. If anything, the new, restrictive laws appear to be more about rallying the Republican base than changing electoral outcomes.
That said, it would be unwise to ignore even these low levels of voter suppression. If people are comfortable with these rules, that could pave the way for higher levels of suppression, which could have larger effects, up to and including unassailable single-party political control that serves to undermine U.S. democracy.
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This is the 11th installment of an ongoing Q&A series.
As Democrats take power in Washington, if only tenuously, many democracy reform groups see a potential path toward making the American political system work better. In this installment, Bob LaRocca, executive director of the Voter Protection Corps, answers our questions about 2020 accomplishments and plans for the year ahead. His organization uses data-driven solutions to battle voter suppression and disenfranchisement. LaRocca's responses have been edited for clarity and length.
First, let's briefly recap 2020. What was your biggest triumph last year?
American voters, election officials and election workers achieved a remarkable feat in 2020: holding a presidential election during a once-in-a-century pandemic and still achieving the highest turnout in history. Some states, like New Hampshire and South Carolina, adopted significant voting expansions on a temporary basis to address the challenges Covid-19 presented. Others like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Virginia implemented major permanent advances in voting rights for the first time. The Voter Protection Corps was proud to work with city, state and local officials to help ensure that every legitimate voter was able to register, vote and have their vote counted. The Voter Protection Corps released a national action plan to protect in-person voting, recruited poll workers across the county, and ensured students in New Hampshire had the resources they needed to vote. We also partnered with Carnegie Mellon University to create a data tool to identify counties at risk for voting challenges and the possibility of voter disenfranchisement due to vast poll worker recruitment shortfalls.
And your biggest setback?
Even though we made progress in 2020, we faced constant threats to safely casting a ballot, a commander-in-chief who spread disinformation and encouraged voter suppression at every turn, and an attack on our Capitol by white supremacists trying to overturn the election. And while we did everything in our power to ensure every legitimate voter was able to register, vote and have their vote counted, there is no doubt that these suppressive measures affected the behavior of many voters. Our electoral system was broken long before Trump and his enablers gained power.
What is one learning experience you took from 2020?
It's so important to be patient with the process during an election, and especially on Election Day. Anyone who has volunteered or worked in an election knows how difficult it is to wait for the results, but given the unique circumstances of 2020, this feeling was exacerbated among our staff. We constantly had to remind ourselves, and everyone in our communities: Every vote must be counted and we won't know the winner of the presidential election on election night. That is okay. Many states have antiquated systems of waiting to count mail-in ballots and, as a result, those ballots took a few days to process. It was more critical in 2020 to remind ourselves, our friends and our families to be patient through this process.
Now let's look ahead. What issues will your organization prioritize in 2021?
Even though we made tremendous progress in 2020, election administration in the United States is a patchwork, with differing state laws, thousands of local election jurisdictions nationwide, countless outdated systems and policies, and a history of unequal access that dates back to the founding. We have a long way to go to ensure every eligible voter can register, vote and have their vote counted.
Thankfully, we know how to get there. This year, the Voter Protection Corps will focus our efforts on pushing state and local leaders to implement important reforms outlined in our Democracy Benchmark. The report provides specific recommendations, including:
- Voter registration: Every state must offer same-day registration, ensure online voter registration is accessible and entirely online for all eligible voters, adopt automatic voter registration, relax restrictions on third-party voter registration, allow teenagers to pre-register, and end the racist practice of disenfranchising people with felony convictions.
- Voting in person: Every state must provide access to at least 15 days of early voting with uniform hours that include mornings, nights and weekends; allow voters to vote at any Election Day voter center in their local election jurisdiction rather than requiring voters to use an assigned polling place; abolish or relax discriminatory and unnecessary voter identification requirements; reduce the risk of frivolous and intimidating voter challenges; and minimize law enforcement presence at voting sites.
- Vote by mail: Every state must adopt no-excuse voting by mail, allow voters to request mail ballots online, provide multiple options for returning mail ballots (including by mail, at a dropbox or voting site, and allowing a person the voter trusts to return the ballot for them), provide prepaid postage, ensure all mail ballots received within a week of Election Day are counted as long as they are postmarked by Election Day, prevent local election offices from rejecting mail ballots unnecessarily, and provide voters the opportunity to fix problems that cause their mail ballots to be rejected.
- Election administration capacity: Every state must assume responsibility for ensuring that local election offices have the funding and flexibility they need for adequate capacity during election season. State election offices should also have the funding, infrastructure and mandate to ensure that every eligible voter is able to vote conveniently, and that their votes are counted.
How will Democratic control of the federal government change the ways you work toward your goals?
State and local leaders carry great responsibility for righting many of the wrongs we saw in 2020, and many of the states where reform is needed most continue to be led by forces that oppose increased access. Still, it is also essential that the Biden administration and Congress prioritize voting rights at the federal level. We encourage Congress to quickly pass the For The People Act and the John Lewis Act, among other measures.
What do you think will be your biggest challenge moving forward? And how do you plan to tackle it?
Those responsible for perpetuating disinformation and attempting to overthrow our democracy in the horrific attack at the Capitol — including President Donald Trump and Republican members of Congress — must be held accountable. Policymakers must not use lies about the integrity of our election to justify voter suppression. State legislatures across the country are seeking to curtail voting opportunities that have been proven to expand access to the ballot — such as early and mail-in voting -— and erect other barriers that make it harder for people to vote. The challenges before us are daunting. We must ensure that efforts to advance voting rights don't dissipate as we move away from the election. The Voter Protection Corps will continue to fight any efforts to suppress legitimate votes and use data to support state and local leaders as they continue to ensure that every American has safe, convenient, and equal access to their most fundamental right.
Finish the sentence. In two years, American democracy will ...
be innovative, efficient and inclusive.
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Republican lawmakers need only clear a couple minor hurdles in their effort to eliminate same-day voter registration in Montana.
On Tuesday, the GOP-majority state Senate voted 32-18 along party lines to endorse a bill that would end voter registration at noon the day before Election Day. Their endorsement all but guarantees the legislation will soon reach Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte's desk.
Montana is currently one of 21 states, plus Washington, D.C., that allow voters to both register and cast a ballot on Election Day. Since Montana adopted the policy in 2006, thousands have taken advantage of this last-minute registration option. Same-day registration would be nationally mandated with enactment of HR 1, the comprehensive voting rights and democracy reform bill Democrats are pushing against solid Republican resistance in Congress.
Republicans in Helena who support the bill say Montanans already have plenty of time to register to vote before an election and the same-day policy places an undue burden on election administrators.
"Elections, you know, they don't just pop up out of the blue. They don't come along and surprise us. We know they're coming. The dates are there. We need to register ahead of time," said GOP state Sen. Mike Cuffe, who sponsored the bill.
But Democrats who oppose this effort called the legislation "voter suppression." They argue limiting registration opportunities will make it harder for people, particularly Native Americans and those with disabilities, to participate in elections.
Last month, the state House passed the bill along party lines. The state Senate will vote on the legislation one more time and then both chambers will need to concur on the amendments. Once it clears the Legislature, the measure will be sent to the governor for final approval.
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Georgia Republicans are barreling ahead with election bills that voting rights advocates say are transparently anti-democratic and racist.
And while Georgia may be ground zero for voter suppression tactics, it's not the only state where Republicans are attempting to limit access to the ballot box. In the wake of the 2020 election, the Brennan Center for Justice has seen more than seven times the number of restrictive bills be introduced in legislatures this year compared to last year.
The Georgia Senate passed legislation Monday to roll back no-excuse absentee voting, which has been in place since 2005 and saw heightened use during last year's pandemic-era election. The bill — passed with a one-vote majority along party lines — would mandate that only those who are 65 or older, have a physical disability or are out of town would be eligible.
Majority Leader Mike Dugan, the bill's lead sponsor, said 2.8 million of the state's 7.7 million voters would meet at least one of the requirements. Those voters would also need to provide identification when requesting an absentee ballot.
Georgia is currently one of 34 states that has permanent no-excuse absentee voting. In the 2020 election, all but five states allowed every voter to cast a ballot by mail, at least temporarily due to the Covid-19 pandemic. One-fifth of the 5 million votes cast in the Peach State were by mail.
The Senate action comes on the heels of the state House passing its own restrictive measure aimed at limiting Sunday voting, requiring an ID to vote by mail and eliminating drop boxes.
The House bill also takes aim at absentee voting, although it doesn't roll back eligibility. Under the measure, which was passed along party lines last week, Georgians would need to provide an ID to vote by mail. It would also move ballot drop boxes inside early voting sites.
Another provision would limit early voting. Currently, counties must offer early voting on the second Saturday before Election Day and are given the discretion to set any additional early voting hours. But this legislation would give counties just one Sunday as an optional early voting day.
Cutting back early voting on Sundays is a "transparent effort to reduce the voting opportunity that Black Georgians overwhelmingly use," said Jonathan Diaz, voting expert at the Campaign Legal Center.
Black voters accounted for 37 percent of the in-person ballots cast in Georgia on Sundays during the 2020 election, according to the Brennan Center, largely due to the "Souls to the Polls" voter drives organized by Black churches.
Nsé Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project, called these bills "a turducken of voter suppression" and clear retaliation from Republicans after Joe Biden won the state and both Senate seats flipped blue.
"They were shocked by the new Georgia and how it manifested itself and how they showed up in elections," she said. "And this is backlash. It's mean. It's petty. It's racist. It's anti-democratic."
With Republicans holding the majority in both halves of the General Assembly, each chamber is likely to pass the other's bill and send them to GOP Gov. Brian Kemp. The governor has yet to indicate whether he supports this legislation, but he has been accused of peddling voter suppression efforts in the past, including when he served as the state's top election official while running for governor.
Restricting ballot access, state by state
In Georgia and elsewhere across the country, these election reform efforts are steeped in partisanship. In nearly every state, Republicans are pushing restrictive measures while Democrats are advocating for expanded access to the ballot box.
This political tug-of-war is more acute in battleground states where the 2020 election was decided by slim margins.
For instance, in Arizona, Republican senators passed a bill Monday to require an affidavit or another form of ID to vote by mail. And the Senate is gearing up for another bill that would cut down on the time Arizonans have to vote by mail. Last month, however, lawmakers did narrowly block one bill that would have purged 200,000 voters from the permanent vote-by-mail list.
Also this week, Iowa, a state Trump won by 8 percentage points, became the first to enact tougher voting rules this year. On Monday GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into law provisions to reduce the early voting period by nine days and prevent the state from proactively sending out vote-by-mail applications. The measure also requires absentee ballots to be received before polls close on Election Day.
Voting experts agree that vote-by-mail access should not be the partisan issue it's become following the 2020 election.
"All of the data and all of the research shows that it's used by both parties, and it's often actually used more by Republicans, who are the ones now sponsoring a lot of this legislation. I think it's just the result of this disinformation campaign around the security of absentee voting," said Liz Avore, vice president of law and policy at the Voting Rights Lab.
It's not uncommon to see legislation amending voting procedures following an election, but what is unusual this year is the overwhelming volume of bills to restrict voting access, said the CLC's Diaz.
"And they're not coming after some major scandal that would justify tightening up these rules. There was no major fraud investigation," Diaz said. "But you have legislators saying we have to restore trust in elections, when the reason that people have lost trust and confidence in elections is because some of these state legislators have been telling people that the elections are riddled with fraud."
Republicans' main argument for rolling back absentee voting access is that it will boost election integrity, despite no evidence of widespread voting fraud in the 2020 election. But voting experts say there are more reasonable reforms lawmakers can consider that won't make it harder for people to vote.
The politicization of the voting process, in particular vote by mail, has caused a lot of Americans to lose trust in the election system. One way to build back that trust is for states to implement ballot tracking systems, said Hannah Fried of All Voting is Local.
"That is the kind of transparency that gives people confidence that their vote is going to be counted," she said.
Reaching out to voters to educate them on the election process and combat the spread of misinformation is also key to restoring trust. And modernizing systems with automatic voter registration would boost security, experts say.
On the federal level, experts point to legislation like HR 1 and the John Lewis Voting Advancement Act, which would implement national voting standards, while still allowing states and localities to adjust procedures based on what works best for them.
"Those are the kinds of things that would make our election system more accessible and more transparent and more secure," Diaz said. "And you don't have to reach for a manufactured voter fraud reason to make those changes."
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