Recent polls show that more than half of Republicans still believe that the 2020 election was stolen. Republican officeholders feel intense pressure to match the furious outrage that the activist core of their primary electorates has about the issue, and so they have chosen to focus on making sure future elections are somehow “cleaner.” In one sense, it’s a way these officials can placate the disappointed members of their coalition who have fallen prey to wild conspiracy theories, without the officials having to devote their energies to relitigating 2020. It’s the kind of legislation Daniel Patrick Moynihan once called “boob bait for the Bubbas.”
Still, these officeholders and the political professionals around them wouldn’t be so eager to sign on to the effort if it weren’t for their fundamental belief that making it harder to vote is good for the GOP. At the heart of the moves in dozens of states to tighten voting requirements and methods—including such key battlegrounds as Georgia, Florida, Texas, and Arizona—is a persistent myth that high turnout is bad for Republicans. In truth, there is no correlation whatever between turnout rates and partisan outcomes, even though it appears that Republican restrictionists and Democratic populists alike believe that the correlation exists and that it favors Democrats.
This myth is damaging to the Republican Party itself, to its presentation as a tribune of the people, and to its own understanding of the strength and common sense of the American electorate. And it’s tactically unsound, because by pursuing efforts to make voting more difficult, Republicans may be shutting out their own potential supporters among low-propensity voters who might support their candidates if it weren’t too much of a pain to do so. At the same time, as they pursue this aim, they are taking a hit among persuadable voters who hear daily that GOP election rules are racist and undemocratic.
A NEW PEW RESEARCH study finds that only 38 percent of self-identified Republicans support no-excuse early and absentee voting. It was 57 percent in 2018. Over the same period, the share of Republicans who favor revoking the registrations of those who haven’t shown up for recent elections has risen from 53 percent to 68 percent. What all this means is that a party that says it is going to reinvent itself as a champion of working-class Americans without college degrees is working to shut out many of the voters they claim to seek. While there may not be a partisan correlation with turnout rates, there is a strong correlation between socioeconomic status and likelihood of voting. Less affluent, less educated voters turn out at far lower rates than their wealthier, college-educated counterparts. So why would the new blue-collar Republican Party want to make it harder to vote?
Here’s why. The belief in the existence of widespread voter fraud is strong among Republicans and long predates the outlandish claims Donald Trump made in both of his White House runs. Indeed, what made Republicans so ripe for the picking by Trump in his efforts to redefine the 2020 election was a multigenerational legend rooted in some reality. For while there were certainly crooked, big-city, Republican political machines—notably in Philadelphia and Chicago from the 1870s to the 1930s—the story of politics in the past century has often included Democratic election fraud.
When then–Senator John Kennedy was campaign-ing in West Virginia’s 1960 presidential primary, he told reporters and admirers who had gathered at the Daniel Boone Hotel in Charleston that he had a telegram from his rich father admonishing him, “Don’t buy another vote, I won’t pay for a landslide.” It was a laugh line he’d used before, a self-deprecating way to drain some of the power from what everyone knew: Kennedy’s father, Joe, and maternal grandfather, “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, were part of the corrupt Democratic machine in Boston.
It’s by no means certain that election fraud cost Republicans the razor-thin 1960 general election. Kennedy won by 84 electoral votes, so stealing the presidency would have required significant fraud in multiple states. But neither can we rule it out. The long and unabashed tradition of Democratic political corruption in Chicago makes Kennedy’s Illinois margin of victory of fewer than 9,000 votes out of 4.7 million cast look dubious. And the presence of “Landslide” Lyndon Johnson on the Democratic ticket added to suspicions of fraud. Johnson’s nickname was a joke about his 1948 Senate victory by 87 votes—a success widely attributed by Texas politicos to Johnson and his crew paying off officials in the notoriously crooked counties in the Rio Grande Valley. Kennedy’s Texas victory by more than 46,000 votes was stouter than the Illinois squeaker. But it’s easy to believe that at least some of that Texas win was the work of Johnson’s machine.
Whether or not Richard Nixon got ripped off in 1960, the idea that he did quickly became a foundational belief in Republican politics. Nixon himself was so haunted by the idea that he tried to be the bigger crook in his 1972 reelection campaign and ended up having to resign for his crimes. Watergate also produced a crackdown on election fraud. Federal and state prosecutors around the country got serious about bringing heavy penalties against perpetrators who might have been winked at in previous decades. The rise of automated, computerized voting and tabulation made fraud harder to commit and easier to catch. Big-city political machines withered in the newly hygienic atmosphere. Elections became increasingly secure.
Still, long before Trump was selling his line about election officials “finding” Democratic votes to erase his Election Day advantage in several swing states, Republicans harbored suspicions about late results from population-dense urban centers. There were concerns about a stolen Philadelphia mayor’s race in 2000 and the presidential ballot in Milwaukee in 2004, in both cases featuring credible allegations that, in some precincts, there were more votes cast for Democrats than actual residents. But some of the drama simply was the result of timing differences on Election Nights. In most competitive states, the race often came down to the differences between quick-counting, Republican-leaning suburban and rural precincts and the slow-counting cities. For decades, Republicans watched their early leads disappear as waves of millions of overwhelmingly Democratic votes rolled in from cities. This was the backdrop to the central idea of the 2020 voter-fraud claims, which is that Trump had won and then the Democrats created votes through various brilliant subterfuges to overtake him and seize the Electoral College.
BUT CONSPIRACY theories about voter fraud are not limited to Republicans. Democrats had their own popular theory about how Diebold voting machines had been tampered with in the 2004 election; The Campaign, a political satire starring Will Ferrell, came to its climax as voting machines owned by the “Motch” brothers suddenly changed their numbers and gave the victory to the Republican. The only difference was that in 2020, the villain turned from libertarian businessmen to two companies, Smartmatic and Dominion, accused by Republicans of changing machine counts (in part, it was said, in service to the Colombian Communist dictator).
Nonetheless, Democrats have poured time and money into the premise that bigger turnout is better for the blue team. Insurgent Democratic-primary candidates have often leaned into the argument that they can mobilize low-propensity voters—in other words, that they can generate the kind of high turnout that will overwhelm even nefarious Republican vote-rigging schemes. Senator Bernie Sanders repeatedly pushed the claim in 2016 when he was chasing front-runner Hillary Clinton. “Democrats win when the voter turnout is high. We can generate that,” he said. “Republicans win when the voter turnout is low.”
It’s not true, but the idea has its basis in an indisputable fact: Democrats tend to do better in presidential years than in lower-turnout midterm years. A 2017 Pew study tracked the differences between voters who showed up every two years and those who turned out only for presidential contests. Fifty-eight percent of these “drop-off” voters were Democrats compared with 47 percent among consistent voters. We can attribute much of this to Democrats’ historical strength among poor voters who don’t tend to vote at the same rates as their more affluent counterparts. Now, Democrats have seen some smashing successes in recent midterm elections, notably 2006 and 2018, but those were more likely attributable to success with extremely high-propensity suburban swing voters than a surge in poorer, traditionally Democratic precincts. But these aren’t the voters we’re talking about. We’re looking for the same kinds of voters Republicans are targeting with their new legislation: the disengaged.
It’s not likely that a consistent voter, even if he votes only in presidential years, would be stymied in his effort to get to the polls by Republican rules shortening voting periods, limiting eligibility for absentee ballots, or eliminating ballot drop boxes. There will certainly be some effect at the margins, but there is plenty of evidence to show that while not every “likely voter” ends up casting a ballot, Americans who decide to participate in an election overwhelmingly do so. If you’re civically engaged to the point of getting registered and seeking out a ballot, you’re probably going to see it through. But what about the citizens who are attached only marginally? It stands to reason that the less engaged one is, the easier one would be to dissuade from voting. And these are the voters who made 2020 the highest-turnout election in modern political history. The new Census numbers show that 2020 saw the largest-ever increase in voter turnout from the previous presidential contest. Seventeen million more Americans voted in 2020 than in 2016, bringing total turnout to 67 percent of the adult population.
Both sides attribute President Biden’s victory to this increased turnout, but this is probably false. In their book The Turnout Myth, political scientists Daron Shaw and John Petrocik put to rest the old saws about the subject. In 2006, Democrats swept in a low-turnout vote, but they got crushed in the midterms four years later when turnout increased dramatically. Turnout climbed from 2000 to 2004—but Republicans performed better at every level. Like those cycles, 2020 offered no evidence that bigger is bluer. Even as Biden was winning, Republicans defied expectations, gaining House seats and keeping a lock on statehouses across the country. It was not a blue wave that swept Trump from office. Rather, it was the nudge from moderate voters in the suburbs of big cities in swing states. Nor was it mail-in voting that made the difference. A study from Stanford’s Institute for Economic Policy research presents very strong evidence that mail-in voting itself did not drive the turnout surge, nor did it constitute any significant partisan advantage.
So, what do we know about these unlikely voters? Who are the men and women who made 2020 a blockbuster turnout year but who usually don’t participate? It should come as no surprise that they’re not passionate about politics. But what leaders in both parties don’t understand is that they don’t tend to have strong ideological views or attitudes. It sounds obvious to say, but people who aren’t politically engaged don’t care that much about the issues that drive much of our red-versus-blue political fight club. If they did, they’d be likely voters.
The Knight Foundation wanted to find out why eligible voters so often don’t participate. They talked to 12,000 “chronic non-voters” across the country and found attitudes and opinions that contradict the conventional wisdom of both parties. What its study found was that non-voters would have added equally to both parties had they participated last year. Pushed to make a choice, 33 percent would have voted for Biden, 30 percent would have voted to reelect Trump. The rest would have backed a third-party or other candidate. If every eligible voter had turned out, according to Knight, Trump might actually have done a little better. He lost the national popular vote by 4 points but trailed in the preferences of non-voters by 3 points. It’s a statistically insignificant difference, but this significant piece of data provides evidence that Republican fears about turnout are wrongheaded or at least long out of date. These non-voters showed “slightly more support for constructing a wall along the Mexican border than active voters, while being less supportive of replacing the Affordable Care Act.” In other words, a jumble.
This matches the findings of the American National Election Studies group, a collaboration between political scientists at the University of Michigan and Stanford. Their 2020 survey found the same thing as in previous elections. The partisan and ideological distributions of the least engaged, least attentive voters tend to mirror the distribution among active, engaged voters. Indeed, as you climb down the rungs of voter engagement, Americans may actually be more right-leaning. Voters who described themselves as highly engaged—meaning those who “pay attention to what’s going on in government and politics always”—were slightly more liberal than conservative. But that six-point advantage disappeared with less engaged voters. Conservatives made up the larger share of those who paid less or very little attention.
What self-destructive madness it is, then, for Republicans to waste so much of this year fighting to discourage voting. Their mythologies about the prevalence of fraud and the value of reducing turnout directly conflict with the goals of a party wisely intent on getting low-propensity voters to engage. Republican lawmakers are getting it wrong when they attribute Biden’s win to the get-out-the-vote efforts in Georgia led by losing 2018 gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, combined with high turnout among urban voters. In pursuing their agenda, Republicans threaten to shut out the very working-class voters they say can make theirs a majority party again. Moreover, in further alienating swing voters who were turned off by the ugliness of the Trump-era GOP they badly compound the error. Devised in fear of their primary electorate, executed gracelessly, and rooted in false beliefs, the GOP efforts against easy voting in 2021 are nothing short of political malpractice.
We want to hear your thoughts about this article. Click here to send a letter to the editor.