Here’s how expanded voting restrictions may affect upcoming elections

Politics professor Zachary Albert takes a look at how voting restrictions passed over the past year are likely to impact American politics

A woman at a protest holds a sign reading "Count Every Vote"

Zachary Albert, assistant professor of politics, concentrates on issues of partisanship and polarization, and their impact on elections. This semester, he’ll be teaching classes on political parties and interest groups, and quantitative methods. He also teaches Elections in America. Albert says that when he started graduate school at UMass Amherst, his main interest was in why third parties don’t succeed — but realizing that question had largely been answered, he turned his focus to partisanship.

Albert says the increasing polarization of both major parties in the U.S. “has only made it more important to understand the motivations and structures of parties and how they affect politics.”

With federal attempts to curtail state voting restrictions having failed, Albert spoke with BrandeisNOW about how changes in voting laws — enacted almost entirely along partisan lines — are likely to affect the upcoming national election cycles.

It seems like every other week there is news that another state — typically one that went for Trump, or where Biden won by a narrow margin — is imposing voting restrictions. Just how widespread have new restrictions become?

A lot of states are making it harder, but interestingly, in those states it was already harder to vote. While Republican states are making it increasingly harder to vote, Democratic states are making it easier to vote.

In terms of how widespread it is, the Brennan Center for Justice’s 2021 roundup of changes in voting laws confirmed what I expected: More restrictions passed in 2021 than in any year since 2011. In just the last year, 19 states passed more restrictive laws, but 16 passed laws that expanded access, and eight states passed laws that were mixed, both expanding and restricting. Those last places may be where the two parties might work together. Some Republicans might be willing to vote for same-day registration or mail-in ballots in exchange for some kind of voting security measures, for example.

What are the most common new restrictions we have seen?

We are seeing more action on the hot-button issues of 2020 like mail-in voting, ballot drop-off locations. Those are all areas that are affecting how individuals vote. But one area that really concerns me are the laws targeting election administration and the process used in counting ballots. These laws are changing who is in charge and what types of challenges can be made after an election. It’s not just about who gets to vote, but who counts those ballots.

When you’re talking about the legalese of the state Board of Elections challenging the certification of the election in a state, that’s more in the weeds. It’s a little bit more in the shadows and it’s a highly effective way to “rig the system,” if that’s what you’re after. And I do think there are folks out there who are interested in and willing to overturn elections.

The most consequential changes, and my biggest concern, is the politicization of election administration. Georgia and Arizona have instituted procedures to overturn election results. These are things that, had they been in place in 2020, and had folks who are willing to overturn the election been in the positions of power, the election might have had a different outcome. Arizona and Georgia were states that helped decide the election, and we see that there are more people running for election-administration positions who are committed to the big lie of the rigged election.

Which types of measures are likely to have the greatest impact on the upcoming midterms and the 2024 presidential election?

I think it’s fair to say that nationally, Democrats have a demographic advantage and a structural disadvantage. That’s why you see a lot of models that say to hold the Senate, Democrats have to win much more than 50 percent of the national vote. Republicans are well-represented in small states that have two senators.

So it’s already an uphill climb for Democrats in 2022 and beyond. Then the question is what additional effect are these voting restrictions going to have on the election, and the answer is certainly some, especially in swing states. And again, if the cards align, the election administration changes could be most consequential.

Might these Republican-backed laws backfire by making it more difficult for their own base to vote? Or are the laws too targeted toward Democratic-lleaning voters?

In a two-party system you need two strong, responsible parties to check the other party. What healthy parties do is they expand their appeal to bring in other voters. Instead, there seems to be a long-term trend for Republicans to not say `we’re going to bring in more people who support us, we’re going to try to restrict the other side.’

Anything that makes voting harder is going to reduce voting in both parties, but not always equally. There’s a lot of research that shows these laws especially affect certain kinds of people who generally fall into the Democratic camp. But beyond laws, high-profile Republicans are saying you can’t trust voting and you can't trust procedures, and if I’m a Republican and the system is the problem, why would I take part in the system? I don't know if we’re going to see that play out in a way that reduces Republican turnout, but it is a risk.

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