Republicans’ response to losing control of the White House and Senate has been to try and make voting harder in a number of states. Most notably, perhaps, is Georgia, where they’re going after ways of voting that were popular for Black voters and Democrats in 2020 (e.g. mail voting).
Democrats and Black advocacy groups are, of course, up in arms and trying to stop the GOP.
We can’t know how these changes, if they come to pass, would affect future elections. But by looking at two of the most prominent moves Republicans are trying to make, we can see it’s not at all clear that Republicans will succeed in helping their electoral prospects.
Let’s take a look at two ways of voting Republicans are trying to limit: vote by mail and early Sunday voting.
Starting with vote by mail, Democrats are upset for a simple reason: they overwhelmingly won no-excuse absentee voting nationally and in Georgia.
There’s also a racial aspect to this in Georgia. The Brennan Center’s Kevin Morris points out that Black voters were more than 5 points more likely to vote by mail than White people.
When you try and limit no-excuse absentee voting to those 65 years and older (as some Republicans are trying to do in Georgia), you’re limiting absentee voting to a whiter and more Republican crowd. The Georgia exit poll reveals that Donald Trump’s vote share was 16 points higher among absentee voters 65 years and older than those under the age of 65.
But as I noted previously, the idea that expanded absentee voting was responsible for Trump’s defeat and President Joe Biden’s victory nationally is far from clear. Democrats won a load of elections (including the 2018 midterms) in the Trump era when mail voting was far more limited than it was in 2020.
There’s nothing inherently Democratic about voting by mail. Democrats and Republicans did so at about equal rates in 2016. In Georgia, specifically, Trump actually won absentee voting by mail in 2016 by a few points.
The higher use of absentee voting was more a product of the coronavirus pandemic than it was anything else. Democrats are far more likely to fear the virus, while Trump railed against mail voting.
Further, the higher turnout this election likely wasn’t because of mail voting. While we’ll need more data to confirm this, the network exit polls showed that voters who were of voting age in 2016 and did not vote that year were actually less likely to vote by mail in 2020 (22%) than those who had voted by any method in the previous election (36%). They were far more likely to vote on Election Day in 2020 (49%) than those who had voted in 2016 (32%).
Indeed, the state of Texas provides a very good case study for the effects of voting by mail in 2020. As Republicans are trying to do in Georgia, Texas limited no-excuse absentee voting to those 65 years and older.
If no-excuse absentee voting were responsible for higher turnout, we would have seen a very large turnout boost between 64- and 65-year-olds in Texas. It didn’t happen, according to a study from Stanford University. This finding holds when you control for partisanship.
Voting by mail isn’t the only thing Republicans are trying to stop. Not too surprising, they’re going after Sunday early voting in the Peach State.
Trump won early voting overall in the state, but Sunday early voting is quite popular with Black voters. They were nearly 10 points more likely to vote early in-person than other days of the week, while Whites were 13 points less likely.
The eventual electorate effect of this move, if implemented, is not certain, however.
Sunday early voters made up only about 72,000 of 5 million votes cast in the election.
We don’t know exactly how these groups cast a ballot, but we can estimate. We’ll assume those White voters and voters of color who voted early on Sunday voted the same way as those who voted early overall in those demographic groups. With that estimate, Biden’s margin would have shrunk by between about 6,000 and 7,000 votes.
This would not have been enough to erase Biden’s statewide win of a little less than 12,000.
It is also fairly safe to assume at least some portion of those Sunday early voters would vote on other days of the week, if early in-person voting was disallowed on Sundays. We know at least some did in Florida’s 2012 election, when some Sunday early voting was eliminated there after the 2008 election.
This doesn’t mean that what Republicans are doing in Georgia is right, and it doesn’t mean that this time they won’t help their chances.
The bottom line is, though, that voters aren’t static. What’s often been found by political scientists is that moves that try to make voting more difficult don’t succeed in changing election outcomes. The reason is that voters and parties make moves to try and counteract what’s happening.