Are Democrats getting it wrong on voting legislation?


I was going to write a mostly original post on this when I found out that Ruy Teixeira had already written a lot of what I wanted to say:

The Democratic focus in the new year has been on trying to pass some version of voting rights reform. President Biden went down to Georgia and put the effort in stark terms: “Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?”

Aside from the unhinged level of hyperbole here, is this choice of focus wise? Democrats seem to believe both that this focus will produce big electoral dividends and, more grandiosely, that it is the key to saving democracy in the United States.

Wrong. Oh so very wrong. Here are five reasons why.

1. As a practical matter, it will fail. The Democrats will not succeed in breaking the filibuster to pass either the For the People Act or the somewhat more modest Freedom to Vote Act. There are no indications that Manchin and Sinema will relent on this, not to mention the various moderate Senators hiding behind them. It seems unlikely that comparing some of their fellow Democrats to George Wallace, Bull Connor and Jefferson Davis will pry these votes loose…

2. The second thing wrong with the current focus is it’s not what the people want…

The fact of the matter is that voting rights barely register as a public concern. In a recent AP-NORC poll, respondents could mention up to five problems for the government to work on in the coming year; just 6 percent of the public placed voting rights anywhere in their top five. This issue may be a top priority for the progressive wing of the Democratic party but it’s just not for ordinary voters.

Even among the black population, a Morning Consult poll found that only 41 percent think the bigger problem with American democracy is that it’s too hard to vote, rather than voting regulations are not strict enough (among Hispanics the analogous figure was even lower at 34 percent). In a Monmouth poll, 84 percent of nonwhites said they supported requiring a photo ID for voting. This does not suggest that Democratic base groups are up in arms about voting rights in the same way as many of the advocacy groups that purport to represent them.

3. The third problem is that, even if one of these bills managed to pass, Democrats would be unlikely to reap significant electoral benefits. The assumption Democrats make is that, since Republican attempts to change voting procedures appear to be motivated by a desire to reduce Democratic leaning turnout, voting rights reform would buoy Democratic fortunes by preventing such attempts. [emphases mine]

This logic is highly questionable. The key source of confusion here is the failure to distinguish between intent and impact. It is a reasonable contention that Republican intentions are not benign. They would like to depress the turnout of Democratic-leaning constituencies. That is the intent, but what is the impact likely to be?

Here we have data, especially on voter ID laws. The story, as told by relevant research, rather than the wishes of Republican operatives or the fears of Democratic activists, is simple: these laws just don’t have much effect. They don’t deter voter fraud, a minuscule problem to begin with, but they also don’t depress turnout, including among nonwhite voters. This has been the great worry among Democrats, but it appears that, whatever the malign intent of GOP politicians–and it is certainly true that the drive for these laws has been highly partisan–depressed Democratic-leaning turnout has not been the result.

Nor is there much evidence that tweaking the convenience level of absentee/mail/early voting has much of an effect on turnout patterns. These voting procedure changes, as malignly motivated as they may be, are hardly “Jim Crow in the 21st century”, as Biden once averred (if only the original Jim Crow had been so ineffective!)

4. A fourth, and highly significant, problem is that if that the intent is to “save democracy” the voting rights bills under consideration do not take aim at the main problem: election subversion. That is, the real threat is not how easy or hard it is to vote but rather in certifying the results of the voting process. This is what Donald Trump was attempting to interfere with and what the January 6th riot at the Capitol was all about.

The voting rights reform bills under consideration would not solve this problem. And of course they won’t pass. 

Look, I definitely think we should make it easier for people to vote and not harder.  Literally, the first thing I ever had published in a public forum was a letter to the editor of the Columbus Dispatch, sometime in the mid-90’s, arguing for more expansive voting access.  But taking away dropboxes and making it harder to collect absentee ballots en masse is not exactly 1962 Jim Crow.  And meanwhile there’s real urgency to address weaknesses in the counting and certification of elections that we know malign Republicans are looking to exploit.

Especially in light of the evidence Teixieira brings to bear, this NYT article really struck me for its wrongheadedness among Democrats, “With Voting Bills Dead, Democrats Face Costly Fight to Overcome G.O.P. Curbs.”  The key examples in here are telling:

The ruling by Michael O. Bohren, a circuit court judge, invalidated years of guidance from the Wisconsin Elections Commission allowing municipalities to collect absentee ballots in drop boxes before Election Day.

Judge Bohren, who routinely attests to his bona fides as a conservative, was appointed to the bench in 2000 by former Gov. Tommy Thompson, a Republican, and presides over a courtroom displaying portraits of a handful of American presidents, all of them Republicans except for George Washington. He declined to be interviewed.

His decision, if not reversed on appeal, could also forbid Wisconsinites to turn in ballots other than their own and jeopardize city-sponsored ballot-collection events like Democracy in the Park in Madison, in which city workers gathered 17,000 early votes in public parks in the weeks before the 2020 election.

“When you try to suppress the vote, somebody is going to be at the losing end of things,” said Gov. Tony Evers of Wisconsin, a Democrat who faces a difficult re-election this fall. “Those people are the people of Wisconsin.”


Sure, it would be great if we had dropboxes, you could turn in other people’s ballots, and we had automatic voter registration.  But, again, the lack of this (I mean automatic voter registration is great, but we’ve never had it and, historically, the vast majority of ballots are cast in-person) is hardly massive “voter suppression.”  

And this article, “Democrats Face a Dilemma on Voting: Compromise or Keep Pressing?”  Keep pressing… seriously?!  I believe there’s a widely used aphorism about insanity that’s relevant here.  It doesn’t matter how much Democrats want this, it’s not happening now.  I want truly universal health care that is genuinely affordable for all Americans.  But it would be crazy to put a lot of political effort there right now because it’s just now happening in this context.  You’ve got to know the difference between pushing against a stuck door versus just banging your head against the wall.

But, to finish on the most important point.  We know what to do!  Pass legislation to make election counting and certification as free and fair as possible.  That needs to be the priority.  

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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