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Voting Restrictions and Partisan Gain

For the past decade, the US has been riding a wave tightening voting regulations. These laws are passed in the name of righting the wrong of voting fraud and protecting the integrity of our electoral system. But one analysis of county records going back to 2000 found exactly ten reported cases of voting fraud, over a time-period with 146 million registered voters. What about popular stories of widespread fraud, usually containing accounts of dogs, dead people, and immigrants voting? According to another in-depth analysis, these irregularities are generally due to human error, such as checking the wrong name on the voter roll or mistyping information. In a series of case studies of several states, researchers found an overall fraud rate between 0.0002% and 0.0004%.

This begs the question: why have over 30 states passed some form of voter identification laws if voting fraud is not a problem? To answer this, you must inspect the real impacts of adopting these laws. A case-study of Indiana found that 86.2% of Republicans had ID, while only 81.7% of Democrats did. These margins, while seemingly small, are enough to influence closer elections. Additionally, nation-wide results from a survey find that states with strict voter identification laws experienced Latino voter turnout 10.3 percentage-points lower relative other states, and multi-racial voter turnout 12.8 percentage-points lower. They also find that naturalized citizens were 12.7% less likely to vote in states with strict identification laws. The groups of voters most impacted by these laws tend to disproportionately support the Democratic Party. In the presence of voter identification, turnout among self-described strong liberals dropped 10.7 percentage-points, while amongst strong conservatives turnout dropped only 2.8 points.

Of course, simply because voter identification laws have these effects, does not require the conclusion that they have been done with strategic intentions. If, for example, all states were equally likely to adopt identification ID laws, strategic intentions would be unlikely. This is, however, not the case. Studies have found that the more republicans in legislature, the closer the election, and the larger proportion of blacks in the electorate all significantly increase the probability of passing voter identification laws. Some estimates find that unified Republican governments (both legislative branches and governorship) are 16-times more likely to adopt voter identification laws. The conclusion is clear: probability of adopting voter identification laws is significantly conditioned by the probability it will be beneficial to the party in power.

Analysis from FiveThirtyEight attempted to calculate the overall effect of voter identification laws. They find nationwide, strict voter identification laws decrease registered voters by an average of 2%. Further, for every 1% turnout is decreased, a Republican’s popular vote margin is increased by 0.5%. Looking at Pennsylvania, for example, they find that voter identification laws will decrease turnout by 2.4%, swinging the state in favor of Republicans by 1.2%, enough to change a competitive election.

This effect is not unique to voter identification laws. For example, in 2012, Florida (under Republican governor Rick Scott) passed a bill shortening early voting from 14 days to 8 days. A study of early voting in Florida found that, while Democrats comprise 42% of registered voters, they comprise 52% of early voting ballots, giving the Republican party a distinct advantage to cutting early voting time.

The same pattern is apparent in the disenfranchisement of felons and ex-felons. Utilizing survey data, researchers have shown that Democratic candidates would receive roughly 70% of felon and ex-felon votes. Extrapolating from this data, they found seven senate races since 1978 that would have likely had a different outcome had felons and ex-felons been granted the right to vote. In every case, the differing outcome involved a Democrat winning where a Republican had. No wonder Democratic Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe just enfranchised more than 200,000 ex-felons.

Though studies focused on Republican advantages to voter restriction, they in no way suggest that Democrats are resistant to change laws for their own benefit. In fact, several cases have shown the Democratic Party to be very willing to reduce votes for its own gain. A striking example of this can be found in Michigan. Until 2011, school boards in Michigan were free to hold their elections outside the regular election cycle (generally in May, or odd-numbered years). In 2011, Michigan passed a bill consolidating these elections, largely along party lines, where nearly all Republicans supported the bill, while Democrats stood largely opposed. Nationwide, it has been estimated that Democrats vote against consolidating school board elections 60% of the time, while only 40% of Republicans vote in opposition. The predominant explanation for this phenomenon comes down to Democrats preferring the lower turnout. With such an unattended election, interest groups such as teachers’ unions and government employees are able to make up a large proportion of the electorate and ensure their preferences are well represented.

Beyond school board elections, plenty of other examples (1) (2) illustrate both parties’ willingness to suppress votes for gains. The ultimate conclusion from the evidence is apparent: parties are keen to change election laws to benefit their own, while loudly calling foul when the other tries to do the same.