We need to lower the temperature on rhetoric about voting. One side falsely claims wide spread voter fraud while the other charges that some election law changes are, “the new Jim Crow.” Neither accusation holds up under scrutiny.
To hear Democrats tell it, the bill recently enacted in Georgia to change some voting rules is the reincarnation of the post-Reconstruction South. But a close analysis of the bill indicates that it’s a mixed bag of measures that probably won’t have much effect on voting one way or the other.
Who says so? Republicans? Fox News? The Wall Street Journal?
Nope. The New York Times’ wonky analyst Nate Cohen.
Over the weekend Cohen wrote that, “the (Georgia) 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.”
Take, for example, a provision that limits the number of drop boxes for ballots. True enough, the number would be fewer than was allowed this past year, but there were no drop boxes in Georgia before 2020. So, even a lower number is more than there were in all of the state’s history before last year.
Cohen’s analysis was so balanced that the Times found the need to follow it up the next day with a piece that ignored anything that might mitigate the voter suppression narrative. In that article they report that in metro Atlanta there were 94 drop boxes last November. The bill would cut that to about two dozen. So, is it a restriction designed to marginally lower turnout? Probably. But is it akin to requiring Black voters to recite the constitution from memory? Not close.
The bill also expands the days of early voting, including adding another Saturday, which has been a priority of progressives. And it requires that some heavy-voting districts be divided up into smaller ones, which should lead to shorter lines on election days. To quote Cohen’s analysis, “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.”
But the Republicans managed to hand Democrats an easy argument when they also included a silly provision prohibiting the distribution of water and food in voting lines. That was unnecessary and only served to obscure what they did to actually shorten those lines in the first place.
Even more importantly, there’s no evidence that efforts at voter suppression actually work. In fact, there’s evidence that the opposite is true. Also, in last week’s Times, columnist Thomas B. Edsall reports on research showing that Black voter turnout has increased in response to Republican efforts to suppress it. Republicans are hurting themselves by justifiably angering Black voters who are only more energized to show up and vote against them.
Edsall quotes two political scientists who studied voter ID laws and concluded in their paper, “Why the Sky Didn’t Fall,” that:
Surprisingly, empirical evidence for significant demobilization, either in the aggregate or among Democrats specifically, has thus far failed to materialize. We suspect strong emotional reactions to the public debate about these laws may mobilize Democrats, counterbalancing the disenfranchising effect.
Actually, this probably explains the Democrats’ hyperbolic rhetoric about the Georgia law. Democratic strategists understand that by building it up to be worse than it is, they can actually use it to increase Black turnout.
That’s fine by me. Serves the Republicans right. Because the Republicans have started this whole mess by creating an issue of voter fraud when virtually none has existed. They were already undermining confidence in a solid system before the November election. And then they just followed Donald Trump right down a rabbit hole into claims that were beyond bizarre.
Now, they’re hard at work on a flurry of bills in states around the country to fix what isn’t broken. They’re like arsonists now demanding an expanded fire department. But they should also ask themselves whether the traditional view that higher turnout helps Democrats is still valid. Despite all their attempts at voter suppression last November, turnout was very high anyway and Republicans did well. They picked up a dozen seats in the House, retained control of two-thirds of state legislatures and lost the Senate by the narrowest of margins. Trump lost and the GOP lost the two Senate seats in Georgia because of voters’ personal distaste for the man, but high turnout didn’t hurt Republicans overall.
And then there’s the question of exactly whose voters they might end up suppressing. It’s fair to accuse the Republicans of trying to suppress Black voters, but their measures might just as well discourage anyone who doesn’t have the proper identification. That could apply to anyone who is poor or older. Given the new Republican base of older, less educated white voters, the party could be shooting itself in the foot.
On the other side of coin, Cohen reports that Democrats’ policy proposals to increase turnout aren’t likely to succeed either. “For decades, reformers have assumed that the way to increase turnout is to make voting easier,” Cohen writes. “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.”
Look, even Stacey Abrams issued a statement after Major League Baseball pulled its All Star game from Atlanta that was less than full-throated in her support for the move, “”I am disappointed that the MLB is relocating the All-Star game; however I commend the players, owners and League commissioner for speaking out,” she wrote. “I urge others in positions of leadership to do so as well. As I have stated, I respect boycotts, although I don’t want to see Georgia families hurt by lost events and jobs. Georgians targeted by voter suppression will be hurt as opportunities go to other states.”
That was a balanced and thoughtful statement. The very Georgians that MLB is allegedly sticking up for will be hurt both in their pocketbook and in their pride by MLB’s decision. Moreover, as Nate Cohen’s analysis shows, it was a rash move in response to over-heated rhetoric that doesn’t take into account the real effect of the Georgia legislation.
(But as long as MLB is moving the summer classic, they should move it to Milwaukee. It’s the first All Star game after the passing of Henry Aaron and so it would be fitting to honor him in the city where he began and ended his career.)
The Republicans are wrong: There is no widespread voter fraud. And the Democrats are wrong: The Georgia bill was not a return to Jim Crow.
What everyone can agree on is that the vote is sacred. That’s why any changes to the voting process need to be treated with bi-partisan seriousness, not the cheap political posturing that we’re getting from both sides.