Democrats are pushing an important set of voting reforms, from expanding dropboxes to helping ex-felons vote. They’re convinced it will help them at the polls. That’s hardly certain.
by Bill Scher
hen Democrats and progressives talk about voter rights, usually they speak in moral terms of democracy and justice. But sometimes, the quiet part is said out loud.
The Intercept’s Ryan Grim, in his “Bad News” newsletter, recently wrote: “Partly because of the way the American population is flowing, and partly because the Trump administration deliberately rigged the Census, [House] Democrats are going to get pounded” in the midterm elections, and the Democrats’ “For the People Act” voting rights legislation is “likely the only chance the Democrats have to stave off this disaster.”
Slightly less explicitly, New York’s Ed Kilgore spoke of the electoral value of the Democratic proposals: “The urgency of these measures should be obvious, with red states narrowing the path to the ballot box and with the decennial redistricting about to begin.” The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne summed the general concern with the existing electoral system, asserting that “voter suppression actions across the country would hit the young and racial minorities the hardest,” and counseling Democrats to “consider self-interest” and abolish the filibuster for the purpose of passing the For the People Act.
Republicans are certainly playing to type. In response to their shocking losses in the presidential and Senate races, Georgia Republicans aren’t going full Bull Connor, but they’re doing a good impression by pursuing measures to limit mail voting, ban drop boxes, and expand photo ID requirements. The Republican chairwoman of the Gwinnett County Board of Registrations and Elections, in explaining her fierce lobbying in support of those proposals, was clear about their partisan nature: “I will not let them end this session without changing some of these laws. They don’t have to change all of them, but they’ve got to change the major parts of them so that we at least have a shot at winning.”
But what if the election reform warriors of both parties are wrong? What if more voter enfranchisement and access don’t help Democrats win elections? What if Republican suppression tactics are inadvertently galvanizing Democrats and suppressing their own vote?
“Republicans have really talked themselves into believing that these non-registered Americans are just going to vote Democrat. It’s just not true,” said Chuck Warren, a Republican strategist whose political consulting firm, September Group, engaged in a 2020 voter contact operation that reached 5 million doors. He points to last year’s Knight Foundation study of unregistered Americans and registered voters who vote very rarely. The study found that were they to vote regularly, they “would add nearly equal share to Democratic and Republican candidates (33 percent versus 30 percent, respectively), while 18 percent said they would vote for a third party.” The study also concluded that these non-voters “skew center-left on some key issues like health care, [but] are slightly more conservative than active voters on immigration and abortion.”
Republicans fared respectably in a 2020 election that featured a larger turnout than any election since the Constitution guaranteed women’s suffrage. A whopping 21,725,329 more people voted in the 2020 presidential election than in 2016. Yet despite their loss of the White House and Senate, Republicans still made gains in the House and state legislatures.
Compared to the 2018 midterm election, 38,957,440 more people voted in the 2020 House elections, and Republicans increased their share of the House popular vote by 2.9 percentage points, flipping 13 seats. And 10 of those seats were in states where Republicans likely had a higher comfort level with no-excuse absentee mail voting because such policies were in place several years before the pandemic and before Donald Trump savaged them. “This was supposed to be a huge Blue Wave with this record turnout,” notes Warren, “and it wasn’t.”
The Democrats’ For the People Act is chock full of federal requirements on state election systems designed to making voting easier and further boost turnout, such as mandating states to allow mail voting for all eligible voters, providing at least two weeks of early voting, and offering voter registration on Election Day. Democrats may think these provisions will help them win more elections, and Republicans may oppose those provisions based on the same assumption. But the data doesn’t back it up.
Before 2020, voters regardless of party affiliation “tended to just take advantage of the process, whatever it was in a state,” including vote by mail and early voting, according to John C. Fortier, a resident scholar at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute. So the partisan split about traditional and nontraditional voting methods that we saw last year, fueled by Donald Trump’s disparagement of mail voting and polarization around the merits of social distancing, should not color our views about which party would benefit from Democratic proposals to nationalize and encourage such methods.
Another plank in the Democratic bill would give any convicted felon the vote “unless such individual is serving a felony sentence in a correctional institution or facility at the time of the election.” So felons who completed their prison sentences (regardless of whether outstanding fines have been paid), or are out of prison on probation or parole, would be able to vote.
As African-Americans suffer disproportionately high rates of felony convictions, and African-Americans largely vote Democratic, many assume enfranchising more felons would help Democrats get more votes. But a deeper dig into the numbers will alter your view.
First, just because African-Americans are disproportionately convicted of felonies doesn’t mean most felons are African-Americans. According to a report from The Sentencing Project, an estimated 3.87 million felons and ex-felons are not incarcerated and live in one of 31 states which deny them the vote. This population is not evenly spread across the country. Slightly over one million are in the swing state of Florida. Red Tennessee and blue Virginia combined account for another 1.1 million. A third million come from the southern states of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas.
Of those, 3.87 million, 1.29 million are African-Americans. The Sentencing Project report estimates about 345,000 are Latinx, but the authors caution that’s a rough estimate because of uneven data collection. The researchers were not able to make a specific estimate for the number of whites, but in all likelihood, they make up somewhere in the neighborhood of two million of the national non-incarcerated felon and ex-felon population—at least a plurality and probably a majority.
Whites almost certainly make up a majority of the non-incarcerated felon and ex-felon population in politically consequential Florida, where the African-American portion is 28 percent and the Latinx portion is eight percent. In some states, this population is majority African-American; the only swing state in that category is newly purple Georgia, with the others being Delaware, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina. In two other states, African-Americans appear to comprise a plurality of 45 percent: red Alabama and purple North Carolina. Still, overall, while felony disenfranchisement disproportionately affects African-Americans, national re-enfranchisement would produce more new white votes than black votes.
Moreover, the incarcerated population is overwhelmingly composed of people who never attended college, let alone graduate; a 2003 government study found that 87 percent of those incarcerated for any crime had no postsecondary education. And they are mostly men; 91 percent, according to a 2015 government study. So to put a fine point on it: most of the felons and ex-felons who would be enfranchised by the Democrats’ For the People Act would be non-college white men. And non-college white men are heavily Republican. If you’ve been lucky enough to see the documentary, “One Vote,” a nonpartisan and emotional look at voting in the U.S., you’ll know that one of the main characters is a former white felon and father from Shepherdstown, Kentucky, waking up before dawn to cast his first vote ever—for Donald Trump.
And let’s not forget: the African-American community is not a monolith. Two 2020 exit polls found that Donald Trump did much better with black men than black women; AP Votecast reported Trump won 12 percent of the black male vote versus 6 percent of the black female vote. With Edison Research, those numbers were 18 percent and 8 percent. Plus, an NBC News poll found that Trump won 26 percent of the black male non-college vote. All exit poll data is notoriously imprecise, but it stands to reason that Republicans would win at least some of the restored black felon vote.
Furthermore, sociological or political science research does not suggest that experience of being an incarcerated felon would make one more likely to vote Democratic. Assistant Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Maryland Robert Stewart told me that for felons, “vote preference is heavily influenced by the many socioeconomic and demographic characteristics that influence vote preference for the general population.”
Yet another factor weighing against ex-felons tipping elections is the likelihood that they won’t register to vote in big numbers. In 2018, Prof. Marc Meredith of the University of Pennsylvania and then-graduate student Michael Morse analyzed the 2016 voting behavior of 150,000 Floridian ex-felons who had their voting rights restored between 2007 and 2011 by gubernatorial clemency. Only 12 percent of the nonblack ex-felons and 16 percent of the black ex-felons voted.
We had another real-world Florida turnout experiment this year. In 2018, voters passed a constitutional amendment seemingly restoring voting rights for an estimated 1.4 million felons who completed “all terms of sentence including parole or probation.” But the following year, the Republican state legislature passed a bill further defining that phrase to include the completed payment of any financial penalties. That kept 774,000 felons who haven’t settled up from being eligible to register for the 2020 election. Republicans sped it through the legislature with talk of paying dues to society, but no one could doubt that they had a real fear that these newly enfranchised voters could hurt them at the polls.
But something interesting happened on the way to the voting booth: Of the roughly 625,000 remaining ex-felons who were newly eligible, according to preliminary estimates from the Florida Rights Restoration Committee (FRRC), about 88,000 people registered and 52,000 voted in November. These estimates may yet be revised upwards as more data comes in, but it would seem a low share of the newly eligible population registered and voted in 2020, tracking the findings from the 2016 election in the Meredith-Morse study.
Those numbers shouldn’t make us sad for two reasons. One is the human impact. For those individual ex-felons who did register and vote, the feeling is life-changing. I spoke with Neil Volz of FRRC, an ex-felon who recently had his own voting rights restored. He shared with me, “When we can talk about the impact it has on people and their families, when they feel bought into the community, we begin to see that everyone benefits. [And] you see data that backs up the idea that, if I’m able to be more engaged in my community, I’m less likely to re-offend or to be a negative contributor to my community.” The second is crudely political. If restoring voting rights to felons doesn’t actually produce that many new voters—and in most states, the gross numbers will be much smaller than in Florida—then there’s less reason for members of one party to worry that their political rivals will benefit.
Does all this mean Democrats have no political incentive to prioritize voting rights? On the contrary. Democrats know they wouldn’t control the White House and Congress without healthy African-American turnout, and they know 2020’s turnout might not be replicated if they can’t now deliver for African-Americans. But at the same time, the restoration of voting rights for roughly two million whites, who are mostly men without college degrees, is a probable net benefit for Republicans.
The For the People Act would also weaken state laws requiring would-be voters to present photo identification in order to vote by requiring states with such rules to also allow signed affidavits in lieu of photo identification. Republicans have pushed voter ID laws since 2011, prompting Democratic panic because a higher percentage of nonwhites lack photo identification than whites. Over the past decade, some Republicans have openly admitted that the laws are intended to hurt Democrats and who can doubt that a Republican bill in Georgia requiring two photo IDs has as its real target African-American voters and not ballot security.
The problem for Republicans is that the laws have not worked as intended. In 2012, 11 states had voter ID laws on the books, but only two were swing states. Other attempts were blocked in courts. Meanwhile, the attempted suppression had the opposite effect, galvanizing young and black voters and fueling Barack Obama’s re-election.
Undeterred and buoyed by the 2013 Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, which ended federal authority to block potentially suppressive policies in jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination, Republicans continued to push for voter ID laws. Now 36 states have some form of one on the books, though only six have an inflexible requirement for photo ID, with another three for a non-photo ID. Other state laws request some form of identification at the polls but give options to those who can’t provide it, such as signed affidavits.
These laws haven’t helped Republicans either. A 2019 research paper from Harvard Business School Prof. Vincent Pons and University of Bologna Prof. Enrico Cantoni tested the effects of “strict” voter ID laws, in which identification must be provided either at the polls or soon after, over the prior 10 years. They found that “strict ID laws have no significant negative effect on registration or turnout, overall or for any subgroup defined by age, gender, race, or party affiliation.”
If the academics can’t convince you, consider this—Joe Biden flipped three states with strict voter ID laws: Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin. And Democrats have won key races in nearly every jurisdiction freed from federal supervision by the Shelby County ruling and now have some form of voter ID law in place, including Senate races in Arizona, Georgia, and Alabama, House races in Texas and South Carolina, and the governor’s race in Louisiana.
As Sarah Walker, Executive Director of the voter rights organization Secure Democracy said to me, “I don’t think we need more voter ID laws, but I will say that what we see is parties adapt to it [and] the parties that do the best outreach and infrastructure overcome those hurdles. Those hurdles shouldn’t be there, but as long as they are there, I think that’s what you see, that people are adapting to them.”
Yet Republicans can’t seem to let go of the notion that voter ID laws should be even stricter. That’s why the first impulse from Georgia’s Republicans after their Senate defeats was to propose legislation to tighten their voter ID laws further by requiring documentation of identification for voting absentee, in addition to other restrictive measures: the end of no-excuse absentee voting, automatic voter registration when receiving a driver’s license, and the use of drop boxes when voting absentee.
In the view of Warren, the GOP political consultant, the actual problem facing the Republican Party is that it’s getting out-hustled on the ground. He thinks that the For The People Act provisions that increase voter access may give Democrats an edge, but only because “Democrats are better at organizing and getting people out to vote. That’s where it helps. And that’s not really anything to do with the law. That’s just a matter of giving a crap and working harder at it.” He counsels his party to heed the “old Dirty Harry line”: if you’re going to play the game, you better know the rules, love.
Ryan Tyson, a Republican pollster from Florida who heads The Tyson Group, told me he believes Republican state legislatures should be “encouraging vote-by-mail” (as well as “adding transparency to vote-by-mail”) because “the more opportunities to vote, the higher turnout is going to get. And we should never shy away from a turnout war. Never.”
The impulses of both parties feed their mutual suspicions, to their mutual detriment.
Mistrust runs so deep that many Democrats presumed bipartisan support for expanded voter rights and access is impossible, and only the nuking of the filibuster and a subsequent party-line vote can get the job done. In turn, without any expectation of winning Republican support, some Democrats and progressives have felt a little too liberated in how they promote their voting rights proposals.
But by telegraphing that their underlying motivation for passing the For The People Act is to help themselves win elections, Democrats have done the cause for enfranchisement a huge disservice. What Democrats should be doing is promoting the data showing that expanded voter access would not favor one party over the other.
Similarly, Republican leaders should tell their followers the truth: admit that voter fraud is not an issue and provides no reason to stymie the spread of mail voting and related measures that make it easier to vote. Vote-by-mail began in Oregon and moved to western, GOP-dominated states like Utah, where it’s become part of the culture, and ballot drop boxes are like library book returns—no big deal.
Granted, even with a common set of facts debunking errant assumptions, Republicans and Democrats would not easily agree on a voting rights bill. The two parties do have some core beliefs separating them, particularly when it comes to the role of the federal government, which will complicate efforts to pass a national voting rights bill.
“When I hear Washington’s trying to get into managing elections and throwing in additional requirements for the states, that scares me,” said Tyson, “The appropriate way for this change to occur is from the state level outward. It shouldn’t be coming from Washington. States know how to run their elections.”
If Republican state legislators listen to Kevin Kosar, Marc Hyden, and Steven Greenhut, then they will reverse course and embrace expanded mail voting without being forced to by Congress. In a June paper for the conservative-ish R Street think tank, beyond noting that mail voting doesn’t favor Democrats, they argue, “if Republicans have become concerned that their platform and brand is so unpalatable that voter suppression is the only way to secure elections, then party officials should focus on improving the underlying problem, rather than on attempts to make legal voting more difficult for all Americans.”
That’s tough love for Republicans that Democrats can’t easily deliver. But Democrats could and should stop wrongly suggesting that their proposals would automatically benefit themselves at the ballot box. And with Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema refusing the abolish the filibuster, if Democrats want to provide some sorely-needed racial justice for their core constituencies, bipartisanship is the only available avenue. That’s not naïve. It’s what the facts on the ground demand.