State Republican lawmakers have introduced a historic number of bills this year to restrict voting rights, zeroing in on restricting mail-in voting. More than 250 bills have been introduced or carried over in 43 states, of which 125 are focused on absentee or mail-in voting.
The effort to implement voter restrictions on one level seems odd. Republicans made gains in the House of Representatives, and outperformed polls in competitive Senate races, suggesting they aren’t having trouble winning elections under the current laws.
On the other hand, “Trump still lost, control of the Senate still changed, and so there may be an element of reacting to that and ultimately believing that [if voting is] restricted it will affect their voters more than our voters,” said Sophia Lin Lakin, deputy director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.
More Americans than ever before voted by mail in the 2020 general election, about 46 percent of all voters, according to the MIT Election Data and Science Lab. A large motivator behind this was to avoid the in-person contact of voting lines and Election Day polling places. Perhaps wanting to downplay the severity of the coronavirus pandemic and concerned about boosting Democratic turnout, Trump took issue with the expansion of the mail-in voting systems across the country on the campaign trail and online.
As early as last spring, while most states were still under public health restrictions and primary voting was being rescheduled, social media sites were forced to deal with Trump’s lies about fraud in the vote-by-mail system. In May, Twitter added its first fact-check banner below one of Trump’s tweets that falsely claimed mail-in ballots would “rig” the November election. Polls began to show the effects of this messaging; just a few months before the general election, 58 percent of Democrats said they preferred to vote-by-mail compared with 19 percent of Republicans. By January, similar false statements would get Trump booted from the platform.
But when all the dust had settled after Election Day, recounts, audits, and litigation indicated there hadn’t been massive voter fraud at all; instead, Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security declared the 2020 election the most secure in history. And despite the polling, the massive uptick in mail-in voting doesn’t appear to have been a major boost to Democrats; even where turnout increased, mail-in voting did not have a partisan slant. But if current trends hold and Republicans become more reliant on lower-propensity voters, for whom barriers to voting do have an effect, greater regulation on mail-in voting could actually wind up hurting the very Republicans who are proposing them in competitive districts.
For Brigham Young University professor Michael Barber, it’s unclear why Trump specifically attacked mail voting for so much of last year.
“I don’t ever want climb into the mind of Donald Trump and figure out why he’s doing what he’s doing, but if you look pre-Donald Trump, many of the states that were the most aggressive in implementing vote-by-mail were run by Republicans,” Barber said.
The history of no-excuse mail-in voting in Republican states, briefly explained
Mail-in voting, or at least expanded absentee voting options, have had bipartisan support, even in many Republican-led states. Attacks on voting by mail now are coming from the GOP mostly in swing states, and especially in Georgia. But among the five states that already have universal vote-by-mail elections, Utah is a Republican stronghold and mail voting hasn’t changed that.
Utah introduced its universal vote-by-mail system in 2013 during the tenure of Republican Gov. Gary Hubert. County by county, the new voting procedure rolled out across the state, and by 2020, all 29 counties in Utah offered universal mail-in voting as the primary method to cast a ballot in all elections.
Utah’s Republican elected officials boasted that voting by mail was cost-effective and more convenient, Barber said. Voting by mail fit in with other messages about the government’s fiscal responsibility.
The GOP has won elections up and down the ballot in Utah since the transition began. Sens. Mike Lee (R) and Mitt Romney (R) both won their reelection and election, in different cycles, in addition to the election of Republicans in the state House of Representatives and state Senate, which are both currently in Republican control. A history of resounding GOP wins may be preventing calls to change Utah’s system.
In Georgia, where many of the proposed restrictive voting bills were filed (and are being voted on), the GOP is attacking an absentee voting system designed by former Republican Gov. and Trump Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. Georgia doesn’t have a universal vote-by-mail system, and its long lines and voter roll purges that disproportionately affected minority voters in its recent elections hardly make it a model for American elections. But its absentee voting system is comparatively more accessible than even some Democratic-run states.
Under the bills signed into law by Perdue in 2005, Georgian voters can request an absentee ballot (a mail-in ballot) without needing an excuse. In 16 states, a voter is required to have a state-approved reason to want to vote by mail. The excuses could be related to age, being too ill to vote in person, or being out of the state on Election Day. Georgia’s no-excuse system didn’t face issues at the time of its passage, but today both the Republican governor and secretary of state are calling for an end to the current, no-excuse absentee system.
Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger told the House Governmental Affairs Committee in December: “It makes no sense when we have three weeks of in-person early voting available. It opens the door to potential illegal voting.” He added that absentee voting was also a “tremendous burden on our counties” when running elections.
In November, however, about one-quarter of Georgia’s voters utilized the vote-by-mail option.
But the push for mail-in voting restrictions could wind up hurting the very Republicans putting them in place.
What the research says about voting by mail
In response to Trump’s attacks on vote-by-mail last summer, researchers went to work to study the validity of his claims. Oregon was the first state to introduce voting by mail for local elections in the 1980s, and it became a universal vote-by-mail state in 2000, giving academics decades of data to evaluate.
In their 2020 paper “The Participatory and Partisan Impacts of Mandatory Vote-by-Mail,” co-authors Barber and John B. Holbein, of the University of Virginia, compared the rollout of universal vote-by-mail elections in several states where the transition happened on a county-by-county basis. The analysis found no partisan impact on election results. Using mail voting as the primary method for participation only increased turnout by about 2 percentage points overall.
“The degree to which Republican elected officials at the state level — at the place where it really matters — where these policies were made prior to 2020, they were really enthusiastic about vote-by-mail,” Barber said. “And I would anticipate that many of them feel that way still and just don’t feel comfortable saying it publicly.”
Jennifer Wu, of Stanford University, co-authored a research paper with Daniel Thompson, Jesse Yoder, and Andrew Hall, that found similar results. After evaluating two decades of elections, Wu’s analysis found that election results after the expansions of vote-by-mail were much the same as in previous elections.
“People should be cautious about making any big sweeping generalizations that vote by mail will benefit any party because the research doesn’t suggest that,” Wu told Vox.
Both studies were published last summer, when President Trump proclaimed that Republicans would never again be able to win elections if vote-by-mail was more widely adopted on Fox & Friends.
“I’ll tell you this is you look at the before and after [of the CARES Act], the things they had in there were crazy. They had levels of voting that if you agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican get elected in this country again. They had things in there about Election Days and what you do, all sorts of clawbacks. They had things that were just totally crazy,” Trump told the Fox hosts.
While in the last election Biden voters were more likely to vote by mail than Trump voters, a survey of the 2020 election from Pew Research Center also shows that Republicans also utilized the opportunity to avoid voting in person.
Voters age 65 or older were among the most likely to vote absentee, likely because they are at greatest risk for serious cases of Covid-19, and 42 percent of Trump voters in that age group did so in 2020. Seniors in this age group are usually able to request absentee mail-in ballots in the most restrictive states — qualifying for being elderly — and in 2019, the 65-and-older group was more likely to be registered and Republican or lean Republican.
The study also found that Black voters, a demographic that votes overwhelmingly for Democrats, were actually the least likely of any group to vote by mail in 2020.
More Trump voters than Biden voters reported choosing to vote in person because they were worried about fraud, the study finds. But it also shows that 53 percent of all in-person voters felt that way. In comparison, only about 24 percent of all voters said they chose their method of voting because of the pandemic. The final tallies show that the rhetoric about voting by mail — like fears of fraud or attacks on the USPS and drop boxes — seriously affected people’s voting plans in 2020.
Early studies of the 2020 election suggest that vote-by-mail may not have even been a driving factor in the historic turnout, Wu said. Her latest research paper evaluates voter turnout in states that expanded no-excuse absentee voting and states that didn’t. The analysis did not find any partisan impact. In Texas, her team compared the turnout between 64-year-olds who could not vote by mail and 65-year-olds who could. Again, there was not a substantial difference in Democratic turnout.
Even before 2020, according to Wu’s research, vote-by-mail elections did not have much of an effect on the results. The main measurable difference between the two ways to run elections was a modest increase in voter turnout. The study also found that people took advantage of being able to mail their ballots back in for counting.
In summary, the authors wrote that vote-by-mail “offers voters considerable convenience, increases turnout rates modestly, but has no discernible effect on party vote shares or the partisan share of the electorate.”
There are other voting laws that may have partisan and disproportionate impacts. Strict voter ID laws and signature verification laws are more likely to disenfranchise people of color, even if the overall effect on turnout is unclear. And social media has made it easier to share what happens when the number of polling places is reduced on Election Day, as videos of long lines go viral and people share how late into the night they waited to cast a ballot. However, mail-in voting is not one of those policies. And before 2020, most people saw mail voting as neutral to election results.
“When it comes to mail voting, I do think it’s an interesting phenomenon that we’re seeing,” Lakin said. “The pandemic really shifted a lot, in terms of [vote-by-mail] usage and who was interested in using it, as well as just the rhetoric around it, to be frank. And in turn, I think that affected who might have used it.”
Lakin said that it’s difficult to separate the rhetoric against vote-by-mail from Trump, his campaign, and other GOP officials from the partisan debate over vote-by-mail procedures now.
“What we’re seeing right now in terms of the backlash has never been seen in this particular way,” Lakin said, adding, “If anything, [vote-by-mail] had sort of been expanding over time slowly and slowly as states had adopted it, and so it’s this very, very intense backlash against it that’s impossible to explain without also looking at the way it was attacked by a certain party.”
Republicans are correcting for the previous election, not necessarily thinking about the next one
Barber said that he understands why Republicans followed Trump’s lead in the campaign against mail-in voting when he was the head of the party, but the strategy is actually “self-defeating.”
While decades of data and research show the lack of partisan benefit, the backlash to some of the most restrictive state laws could be a more motivated electorate. As Paul Waldman wrote for the Washington Post following the Wisconsin primaries, “it becomes more important to exercise your right to vote if you think someone is trying to take it away.”
It’s not that restrictive voting laws do not have an effect on turnout, but the impact is not always as intended. And the large quantity and severity of recent GOP laws that suppress peoples’ right to vote have been a focal point for organizers and a way to galvanize Democratic voters.
Republicans aren’t exactly subtle about their strategy on restricting voter access. A Republican attorney from Arizona argued before the Supreme Court that the main reason to keep a state voting law that prevents votes cast at the wrong polling site from counting (which can happen when polling sites change or when the polling site closest to someone’s home is not actually their assigned site) was the advantage it gave Republicans over Democrats in close elections.
Those who are most affected by barriers to the ballot box are the low-propensity voters, those who turn out sporadically or every four years for elections.
The Republican Party is becoming more reliant on low-propensity voters and working-class voters, who have less flexibility in their schedules to wait in long lines on Election Day. This simultaneous reliance on low-propensity voters and the desire to make voting more difficult could hurt Republicans in the next election cycle.
“Even if these policies had an impact, which I don’t think that they do, in some cases it’s kind of self-defeating,” Barber said. “If you’re the Republican Party and you’re seeing your party becoming more and more the party of the white working class, well the white working class are marginal voters. They’re not nearly as reliable as college-educated voters. So if you’re party is shedding college-educated voters and gaining working-class voters, you would think the last thing you want to do is making voting more difficult.”
In 2022, Republicans will have a chance to win back control of the House and Senate, in addition to the gubernatorial races that will be on the ballot. The push to cut down on different ways to vote could make it more difficult to turn out their supporters, even if the objective is to try to target Democrats.
“I just don’t think that these policies will have the impact that these state legislators think that they’ll have,” Barber said. “There are few exceptions, but most of them are wasting their time chasing after policies that they think are going to give them this really big electoral benefit, but in reality aren’t going to have nearly the impact that they think they have.”
Because the myths of Democratic advantage or getting a partisan edge have been repeated so often in the last year, Republican officials may feel like they need to respond with legislation, Lakin said, even though a partisan benefit is not found in the data.
“It’s a little hard to predict how voting patterns will persist into the future after this. What is clear to me is that these laws are a knee-jerk response to a feeling that mail voting is a tool to increase the franchise, which it certainly is, but also that by restricting it you will get the results as other types of [voting] restrictions,” Lakin said.
Brittany Gibson is a politics and policy reporter based in Washington, DC. She is a writing fellow at the American Prospect magazine and a Pulitzer Center grantee.