In 2011, determined to push back the ascendant Democratic coalition that elected America’s first Black president, Republicans capitalized on their control of legislatures and governor’s mansions in 20 states to enact measures designed to suppress minority Democratic voters.
Barack Obama’s successful campaign for the presidency in 2008 had provoked fear in Republican ranks that the conservative coalition could no longer maintain its dominance. At 52.9 percent of the popular vote, Obama was the first Democratic presidential nominee to break 50 in the 32 years since Jimmy Carter won with 50.1 percent in 1976.
Republicans counterattacked, mounting a concerted drive to disenfranchise Democrats, a drive that gained momentum with the June 2013 Supreme Court decision, Shelby County v. Holder. The court ruled that Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which required states and jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to obtain preclearance for any change in election law, procedure or regulation, was unconstitutional.
Within hours of the Shelby decision, Republicans announced plans both to enforce laws that had been blocked by the federal government and to pass laws designed to prevent Democrats from casting ballots.
Greg Abbott, then the Attorney General of Texas, was first out of the gate, immediately declaring that the state would implement a voter identification law that had been barred under Section 5: “With today’s decision, the state’s voter ID law will take effect immediately. Photo identification will now be required when voting in elections in Texas.”
In a 2019 report, the liberal Brennan Center for Justice found that:
Overall, 25 states have put in place new restrictions since 2010 — 15 states have more restrictive voter ID laws in place (including six states with strict photo ID requirements), 12 have laws making it harder for citizens to register (and stay registered), 10 made it more difficult to vote early or absentee, and three took action to make it harder to restore voting rights for people with past criminal convictions.
All of which raises the question: How effective has the onslaught of state-level legislation been at raising the odds for Republican candidates?
The apparent answer: not very.
“Contemporary election reforms that are purported to increase or decrease turnout tend to have negligible effects on election outcomes,” Justin Grimmer and Eitan Hersh, political scientists at Stanford and Tufts, write in their June paper, “How Election Rules Affect Who Wins.”
“Contrary to heated political rhetoric,” Grimmer and Hersh write, “Election policies have small effects on outcomes because they tend to target small shares of the electorate, have a small effect on turnout, and/or affect voters who are relatively balanced in their partisanship.”
How about partisan gerrymandering? Did the Shelby decision open the door to disenfranchising political opponents by allowing Republican legislatures to reduce the number of “minority opportunity” congressional and state legislative districts likely to elect Black or Hispanic Democrats — a process known as retrogression.
Again: apparently not.
Nicholas Stephanopolous of Harvard Law School, Eric McGhee of the Public Policy Institute of California and Christopher Warshaw of George Washington University compared every congressional, state senate and state house district before and after the lines were redrawn to accommodate population shifts in the 2020 census in their paper, “Non-Retrogression Without Law.”
“Our primary finding,” they write,
is that there was little retrogression in formerly covered states. In sum, the number of minority opportunity districts in these states actually rose slightly. We also show that formerly covered states were largely indistinguishable from formerly uncovered states in terms of retrogression. If anything, states unaffected by Shelby County retrogressed marginally more than did states impacted by the ruling.
These two papers raise some intriguing questions.
If changes in election laws, especially those affecting voter turnout, have little influence on partisan outcomes, why should the average citizen care about these developments?
Conversely, even if the laws have only marginal influence on election outcomes, couldn’t that marginal difference become crucial in very close elections? The contest for attorney general in Arizona in 2022, for example, was won by just over 500 votes out of more than 2.5 million cast.
The authors of the two papers cited above, along with other experts in election law, reject out of hand the notion that the often minimal partisan effect of regressive legislation should dampen the continuing effort to make voting easier and more accessible.
Richard Hasen, a specialist in election law at U.C.L.A., emailed in response to my inquiry asking for his view of the two papers:
Even if it turns out that laws intended to suppress the vote do not have that effect overall and in the aggregate, that would not justify such laws. A state should not have the right to put stumbling blocks in front of eligible voters. Such laws violate the rights and dignity of each voter, and such laws should have to be justified by real, empirically verifiable interests in preserving the integrity of the vote or serving some other key state purpose.
Grimmer and Hersh argued in an email that their work should prompt increased public interest in election law:
First, there are a lot of reasons legislators, activists, or political parties might want to reform laws that have nothing to do with the change in laws affecting outcomes. For instance, changing laws might improve the functioning of elections and increase trust in the electoral process. We might think some changes to election laws are simply the right thing to do based on our ethical values.
In addition, Grimmer and Hersh argue, the minimal effects of changes in the law on election outcomes means that partisans on both sides “will have to win on the merits of their arguments rather than through changing the rules of the game. We think that’s a pretty optimistic story for democratic governance.”
Marc Elias, a founding partner of Elias Law Group and a longtime Democratic election lawyer, raised the point that even very small shifts can determine the outcome in extremely close races.
Grimmer and Hersh’s reply:
In our paper, we concede that on the very rare occasions that an election is decided with a razor thin margin, nearly everything that happened could explain a candidate’s victory — a seasonal flu, a rainstorm, a “hanging chad” etc. That said, even some of the most hotly contested policies have effects smaller than the margin Mr. Elias quotes from Arizona. For example, in our paper we estimate that the ban on out of precinct voting in Arizona only yielded Republicans 177 votes, even though this policy was a major source of dispute in the Brnovich Supreme Court decision. So even if a policy such as that had been implemented in 2022 and everything else remained the same, the Arizona Attorney General result would have remained unchanged.
In support of their argument, Grimmer and Hersh create a hypothetical case study: “Suppose a state recently held a close election in which 51 percent of voters supported the Democratic candidate and 49 percent of voters supported the Republican candidate,” they write. In response, the Republican legislature enacts a law that “imposes additional requirements to vote” on four percent of the electorate containing voters who are 60-40 Democratic. The law will produce a “a 3-percentage point decline in turnout in this group.”
If the 51-49 election is run again with this new voter suppression regulation, they continue, “the policy would cause a 0.12 percentage point decline in the overall turnout. And it would cause a 0.011 percentage point decline in the two-party vote share for the Democratic candidate.”
50.989 percent of voters would support the Democratic candidate while 49.011 percent of voters would support the Republican candidate. If the state had one million eligible voters, the policy would deter 720 Democratic voters and 480 Republican voters, netting the Republicans a 240-vote shift.
Interestingly, if this hypothetical is applied to the Arizona attorney general race I mentioned earlier, the voter suppression law would have changed the Democratic victory into a Republican one by adding a net of 600+ Republican votes.
In addition to Hasen, I asked a number of scholars and voting rights proponents to comment on the two papers.
There was general agreement, with some caveats, in the case of the Stephanopolous, McGhee and Warshaw paper. The Grimmer-Hersh paper provoked a wider range of reactions.
Kevin Morris, a researcher in the democracy program at the Brennan Center, did not fault the Grimmer-Hersh paper, but stressed that “As the authors do not dispute, the impact of partisan outcomes in statewide races is not the only or even primary reason to be concerned about those restrictions.”
Grimmer and Hersh are careful to note, Morris continued, that “restrictive voting laws usually disproportionately harm voters of color. Whether or not this has a partisan impact on statewide results, this is a significant harm in and of itself.”
Kareem Crayton, senior director for voting and representation at the Brennan Center, argued in an email that the elimination of the preclearance requirements under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act has placed cumbersome and time-consuming burdens on private lawyers bringing voting rights cases.
Preclearance, Crayton wrote, required “a submission outlining the state’s intentions, its underlying data, and supporting documentation,” all of which provided “major sources of foundational evidence for any such lawsuit.”
The lack of this crucial information, Crayton continued,
has meant that Section 2 plaintiffs must gather much of this material through discovery, a litigation tool that involves far more time and resources than when Section 5 was operational. Alabama’s current illegal congressional map has stood for almost a full election cycle, denying Black voters an equal opportunity to elect candidates of choice. At least part of this unjust delay is due to the extra time needed to build the factual case showing the Section 2 violation.
Guy-Uriel Charles, a law professor at Harvard who directs the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, argued in an email that “from a democracy perspective,” partisan outcomes are “the wrong way to think about voting rights.”
What matters most, in Charles’s view, “is whether voter suppression laws prevent eligible voters — whether those voters are Republicans or Democrats; Black, White, Asian, Native, or Latino; live in the South or the North; poor or rich, college educated or not — from exercising what ought to be a fundamental right.”
In addition to Elias, there are others who challenge Grimmer and Hersh’s portrayal of minimal effects on election outcomes resulting from new legislation.
Thad Kousser, a political scientist at U.C.S.D., wrote by email that he sees “two possible caveats to Grimmer and Hersh’s overall message that voter participation reforms have ‘essentially no effect on partisan advantage’.”
First, Kousser wrote, “even marginal partisan effects can be consequential in a nail-bitingly close election.” Kousser pointed to an “illustrative example” that Grimmer and Hersh use,
a reform that increased turnout by 1.25 percentage points overall — a size similar to the impact of many real-world reforms — would yield a decrease in the Republican candidate’s vote margin of 7,500 votes, out of 487,500 votes cast. Because the authors assume in their example that the state overall is strongly Republican, this would only reduce ‘the two-party share for the Republican candidate from 78.46 percent to 77.00 percent.’ In that example, it would not be large enough to swing the election. But of course, if the state were much more closely contested, those 7,500 votes could change the winner. And if the votes were concentrated in a few legislative districts, they could also play an important role in those outcomes.
Second, Kousser wrote,
There are some recent reforms that may have significantly larger impacts than those reviewed by Grimmer and Hersh. California’s recent law that shifts most off-cycle local elections onto the same schedule as even-year presidential and gubernatorial elections is proving to have major impacts on the size and composition of the electorates voting for mayors, county supervisors, and school boards.
Kousser pointed to a 2022 paper “Who votes: City election timing and voter composition” — by Zoltan L Hajnal, Vladimir Kogan and G. Agustin Markarian, political scientists at U.C.S.D., Ohio State and Loyola University-Chicago — which examined the changed composition of the electorate in California as cities shifted from holding local elections on days separate from federal contests to holding them on the same day, known as “on cycle elections.”
When cities shift to on-cycle elections, Hajnal and his two colleagues write, the non-Hispanic white share, previously two thirds of the vote, “decreases by nearly 10 percentage points” in presidential election years and “by 5.7 points when they are concurrent with midterm elections.”
The Latino share increases “from about 18 percent in off-cycle elections to just under 25 percent when these elections are consolidated with presidential contests.” The Asian American “share of the electorate increases by 2.3 percentage points when cities move to the same date as presidential elections,” which may not seem like much “but it’s important to keep in mind that Asian Americans account for only 7.7 percent of the electorate in off-cycle elections, so this represents an increase of 30 percent.”
The changed composition of the electorate in on- and off- cycle elections is equally remarkable for young and old voters. The authors found that older voters “account for nearly half of off-cycle voters. But the share of older voters drops almost 22 points in local elections that coincide with presidential elections and 13 points for midterm elections.” The share cast by younger voters, in turn, “almost doubles during presidential elections.”
In the case of all these factors — race, ethnicity and age — Hajnal, Kogan and Markarian conclude that “on-cycle elections produce a more representative electorate.”
Along similar lines, four political scientists, Michael P. McDonald, Juliana K. Mucci and Daniel A. Smith, all of the University of Florida, and Enrijeta Shino of the University of Alabama, found significant turnout increase in states adopting mail voting.
In their June 2023 paper, “Mail Voting and Voter Turnout,” the four write that
even before the 2020 election, we show voter turnout across the states is consistently higher in every general election over the past decade in states with greater shares of overall ballots cast by mail. Drawing on turnout data from the 2012-2020 Current Population Survey and the Cooperative Election Study, we find states with greater usage of mail voting experience higher overall voter turnout.
During the 2018 governor’s race in Georgia, between Brian Kemp, the Republican secretary of state, and Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate, Kemp gave voice to the precise anxiety of Republicans generally: that they might be swamped by a growing Democratic electorate.
An audio recording leaked from an October 2018 fund-raising event caught Kemp as he was warning his supporters:
As we were going into the start of early voting with the literally tens of millions of dollars that they are putting behind the get out and vote efforts for their base, a lot of that was absentee ballot requests that had just an unprecedented number of that; which is something that continues to concern us especially if everybody uses and exercises their right to vote, which they absolutely can, and mails those ballots in.
Kemp went on to win, but two years later, despite the flood of voting restrictions since 2010, turnout in the 2020 presidential election was the highest in 30 years, according to the U.S. census.
What this suggests is that the American electorate is determined to exercise the franchise and is resistant to legislated hindrances — more so than many would expect This does not bode well for a Republican Party that for the moment has applied its money, energy and strategic skill to reducing Democratic turnout and suppressing Democratic votes.
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.