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Against complacency on voting rights

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Charlotte Hill, Jake Grumbach, Hakeem Jefferson, and Adam Bonica — four of the top political scientists doing research on voting — have an excellent piece pushing back against the Cool Kid mobilization against voting rights legislation:

The policy premise is that concern about gerrymandering and voter suppression is overblown: that recent Republican attempts at voter suppression have not been very successful, and that GOP gerrymandering is falling flat in the 2020 redistricting cycle. Furthermore, some suggest expansions to voting rights in blue states like Washington and Colorado cancel out voter suppression in states like North Carolina. Compared to the threat of election subversion, some suggest, attacks on voting rights and biased district maps are really much ado about nothing. 

But that is the wrong conclusion to draw. Political science research and legal analysis have uncovered much to be concerned about. Voter registration purges increased significantly after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act; between 2014 and 2016 alone, states removed a record near-16 million people from the voting rolls. Voter ID laws continue to impose large barriers on those without access to valid government-issued IDs — disproportionately low-income, minority, and transgender Americans. New laws are making it harder to request a mail ballotrestricting voter registration drives, removing ballot drop boxes in urban areas, and making it illegal to give voters food or water while they wait in line. 

It is also not at all clear that, as some pundits have recently claimed, voter suppression laws “don’t have much of an effect.” It is true that voter ID laws, in particular, do not appear to have significantly depressed voter turnout like many advocates feared. But this may well be because grassroots groups have invested ever-greater resources to help voters learn about new requirements and, when necessary, procure the requisite forms of identification. The outcome may sometimes be “unchanged” turnout numbers, but only because one side had to work notably harder to overcome new barriers. Indeed, this is what political organizers plainly say is happening. And while the effects of recent voter suppression bills are sometimes tempered by evoking sufficient public anger to drive voters to the polls, experimental evidence suggests this backlash effect will not hold for young people, who are increasingly becoming the targets of the GOP’s suppression attempts. 

A related argument is that it has gotten easier to vote in the United States, on average. This fact provides little solace for those concerned about the state of American democracy. The system of American federalism puts voting rights in the hands of state governments. There is a growing gap in voting access across states, with some states expanding it and some increasingly suppressing it. Just as it would have been absurd to claim that Jim Crow was not a problem because civil rights were improving on average due to changes in northern states, it is similarly absurd to suggest that the expansion of voting access in some states makes up for voter suppression in others. 

The evidence is also clear that partisan gerrymandering is helping to entrench minority rule in the American political system. Research has long found that single-party control of legislative redistricting “dramatically benefits the party in charge.” But the maps drawn in the 2010 redistricting cycle by Republican state legislatures set new records for partisan bias. Recent scholarship finds that when Republicans gain control of a state’s district-drawing process, the average Republican House seat share increases by 9.1 percentage points in the next federal election, whereas no similar effect is found when Democrats take control. In the heavily gerrymandered state of Wisconsin, the Republican candidate for governor won less than half of the statewide vote in 2018, but Republicans still won 63 of the 99 state Assembly districts. The maps for the 2020 redistricting cycle in Republican-controlled states, while still incomplete, show little sign of change

Multiple public letters from democracy experts — including one signed by more than 1,000 political scientists — view this as a do-or-die moment for voting rights and fair districting. These concerns are grounded in America’s troubling history of voter suppression.

To add to this, there are some very flawed assumptions underlying the “Republican vote suppression is no big deal”:

  • Even assuming arguendo that the premise was true, it would be very unwise to conclude that since Republican vote suppression efforts did not seem to have a huge impact in the context of a small number of elections with unusually high turnout intensified efforts won’t matter going forward. A lot of elements of Trump’s impact on politics are highly unusual and it would be unwise to assume that recent spikes in voter mobilization reflect a permanent new baseline.
  • Given the competitive nature of contemporary national elections, the idea that marginal effects aren’t worth worrying about is bizarre. Trump was less than 50,000 votes in three states from an Electoral College tie that would have resulted in his re-appointment by the House! Vote suppression measures don’t have to have a massive effect on turnout to have a major impact on the outcome of elections.
  • The fact that some of the worst anti-democratic elements are constitutionally entrenched is a poor reason not to addressed what can be addressed by statute.

It may also be worth asking why vote suppression is such a high priority for Republicans if we’re sure that it won’t actually matter.

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