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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

March 10: Voting By Mail Isn’t the Only Issue in the Voting Rights Battle

Trying to follow the action in various Republican efforts to restrict the franchise, I offered an observation at New York that differs a bit from the conventional wisdom:

The Republican-controlled Georgia state senate voted on March 8 to kill the no-excuse voting by mail that a previous Republican-controlled legislature put on the books way back in 2005. But something interesting happened along the way: This change has been opposed by several top Republicans in the state, and Governor Brian Kemp is not onboard either. Maybe these hard-boiled Georgia Republicans understand that the bipartisan belief that liberalized voting by mail cost Trump their state and ultimately the White House is far from clearly supported by the evidence.

Recently that Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz conducted a regression analysis that convinced him Joe Biden would have won without significantly higher levels of voting by mail. Last week, a new Stanford University study reached the same conclusion:

“The results of our paper do not offer a clear recommendation for the policy debate around vote-by-mail, but they do suggest that both sides of the debate are relying on flawed logic. Vote-by-mail is an important policy that voters seem to like using, and it may be a particularly important tool during the pandemic. Despite all that, and despite the extraordinary circumstances of the 2020 election, vote-by-mail’s effect on turnout and on partisan outcomes is very muted, just as research prior to the pandemic would have suggested.”

The participants in the Stanford study agreed that expanded voting by mail might boost turnout by one or 2 percent in midterm elections, but probably little or not at all in presidential elections, when a higher percentage of marginal voters are likely to vote in any event. Increased voter interest and engagement drove the turnout spikes of 2018 and 2020, not changes in voting procedures, they argue. As pre-2020 elections clearly showed, Republican voters are as likely as Democratic voters to take advantage of “convenience voting” (so long as their lord and master at Mar-a-Lago doesn’t tell them they shouldn’t).

So what’s the point of a GOP crackdown on liberalized mail ballots? And for that matter, should defending liberalized voting by mail be the main focus of Democrats at a time when Republicans are assaulting voting rights generally?

It’s a pertinent question in GOP-controlled places like Georgia, where, in addition to an end to no-excuse absentee voting, cutbacks in weekend in-person early voting, new voter-ID requirements, elimination of automatic voter registration, and mandatory voter purges are all in play, with less Republican opposition. In Iowa, Republican governor Kim Reynolds just signed partisan legislation that reduces early in-person voting days and even cuts Election Day voting hours.

Yes, the principle that all kinds of voting should be encouraged as a matter of basic democratic rights — as reflected in H.R. 1, the For the People Act, which recently passed the U.S. House — is worth defending. But when push comes to shove, perhaps the overemphasis on voting by mail on both sides of the voting wars doesn’t make a lot of sense. Being denied any path to the ballot box is surely the most urgently objectionable development to stop. People can adjust to changing incentives and disincentives to one form of voting or another, as so many did at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. But being excluded from the franchise altogether is not something that can be overcome easily.

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