As the U.S. Senate considers a bill to expand voting rights – and dozens of individual states move the other direction in seeking to limit voting – an assumption underlying it all posits that voter expansion helps Democrats while restrictions helps Republicans.
This is a fundamental mistake, a Duke political scientist said Tuesday.
In fact, voters are far more complicated and nuanced, and the principles behind many of the new proposed voting laws may backfire, said Sunshine Hillygus, a scholar of American political behavior who has written at length about young voters.
Speaking to journalists during a virtual media briefing, Hillygus cautioned against accepting the conventional wisdom about voting expansion and restrictions.
“The assumption seems to be that if you make voting easier, it’s going to inevitably benefit Democrats; that simply isn’t always the case,” Hillygus said. “When you make registration and voting easier, what you tend to do is expand the pool to reach people who are somewhat less partisan, somewhat less activist. The lower propensity voter. They are far more difficult to predict how they are going to vote and far more likely to be the type to change their partisan leanings, their voting, from one election to the next.”
One example is the National Voter Registration Act – known as the “Motor Voter Act” -- which was signed into law in 1993, Hillygus said.
“There was a long-running assumption that when ‘Motor Voter’ was passed, that would somehow be a boon for Democrats,” she said. “That wasn’t the case.”
“And pre-registration, which is a law that allows 16- and 17-year-olds to fill out their registration forms so they’re eligible when they turn 18 … research shows that is not something that necessarily benefits Democrats. In North Carolina for example, that was most used by people registering as unaffiliates.”
“When we talk about and implement these voting restrictions, this should not be a conversation about which side should benefit. It should be about how we give citizens access to the vote, and make it easier to participate in democracy.”
Hillygus addressed several other topics related to voting as well. Watch the briefing on YouTube.
Here are excerpts:
On the current U.S. Senate bill to expand voting rights
“It is multi-faceted in the way it will have an impact on voters. Particularly in light of well more than a dozen states – the last count I saw there was something like well over 300 restrictions in more than 40 states that have been proposed since the last election. You have incredible variation across the states in access to registration and voting. What this Senate bill will do is provide some consistency.”
On voting restrictions proposed in dozens of states right now
“There are dozens upon dozens that are being considered. In a lot of cases the likely impact will potentially be relatively small given the research in political science, but very targeted to young voters, to communities of color, to those who are poor. So they are very narrow sometimes in their actual policy change in terms of the rules of when and where and how individuals are likely to vote. But the rhetoric and polarization surrounding these discussions is terrifying to see that access to the vote has become so politicized.”
“A couple of the laws that are particularly scary take the power out of the local elections (officials) and increases the powers of partisan legislatures in terms of deciding election results.”
On the impact of voting changes on young voters
“Young voters are among the ones most likely to be impacted by changes in laws. North Carolina is certainly in the center of this given the ups and downs of voter identification. It was passed, then litigated, then passed again.”
“What we found in talking to some mobilization organizations, they ended up putting their money elsewhere in some election cycles because they weren’t sure what the rules of the game were going to be.”
“If we make the assumption that the For the People Act is not going to be passed, then litigation becomes the way, and is going to be what we’re looking at over the next several years to find if these voter restrictions are constitutional or not in terms of violating the Voting Rights Act or potentially violating the 26th Amendment. That creates considerably uncertainty and confusion.”
“It’s very hard for the U.S. to claim that we have a stable and healthy democracy in light of this wave of efforts to change the rules of voting.”
On proposed voting changes In North Carolina
“The pairing of voting restrictions with what on the face of it might seem like expansion – I think the North Carolina laws are one type of example of that. You might say, ‘Why in the world would it be a problem to expand the number of places somebody could register to vote online?’ And online registration is hugely important, especially for young voters. And yet, it really is about the devil is in the details. …”
“Rather than us being able to say, ‘Go to this link to be able to register to vote,’ there will be two different links and until there’s additional information or additional changes, there may be different sets of instructions.”
On changes to voting deadline
“Across the nation, there really is a split on whether your mail-in ballot needs to be received by election day, or if there’s a grace period after election day in which those votes can be counted. Fundamentally, the issue becomes can the voter trust that when they put that ballot in the mail, it will be counted? Given delays at the post office recently, given delays in various states in actually getting ballots to the voters, these are issues that could be exacerbated.”
“They are quite technical. They are ones that are quite difficult to debate or explain to the general public. One thing we haven’t really talked about, but in terms of thinking about the impact of these voter restrictions, there is very likely the case of what we saw in Georgia – this backlash, this effort to frame voting restrictions as voter suppression became a mobilizing call. This should be of concern to Republicans, the extent to which these actions … really help to put the fire under folks like Stacey Abrams and others and serves as a bit of a rallying cry.”
On voters of color being disproportionately affected
“There’s pretty clear evidence voters of color are more likely to be affected, just in terms of looking at who has voter ID or not. When you talk about who’s more likely to use Sunday early voting. It is the case for African-American voters, that it does have implications likely for support for Democrats. But as we saw in the last election cycle, it’s wrong to assume that all groups of Hispanics will vote the same way, for instance, or that all groups of young people will vote the same way.”
“In terms of what the impact is, different ones will have different impacts on different groups. I think what we will see is that absolutely communities of color are disproportionately affected. But the impact on the partisan advantage or disadvantage – because other groups are also impacted – is far less clear.”
“Demography is not destiny. You cannot assume every young person is going to vote democratic. Young people were actually supporting Trump in some states. You can’t assume that all Latinos are going to vote Democratic, or all uneducated, rural white voters are going to vote for Trump. We really have to back up and think about what is best for increasing voter turnout and participation in democracy overall.”
Sunshine Hillygus is a professor of political science and public policy who studies American political behavior – including young voters, campaigns and elections, survey methods, public opinion and information technology and politics.