Changing election laws
What do Republicans mean when they say there were "irregularities" in the 2020 election that need fixing?
What do Republicans mean when they say there were 'irregularities' in the 2020 election that need fixing? Here's everything you need to know:
What is the GOP's position? After claiming for months that the 2020 presidential election was marred by widespread fraud, mainstream Republicans are now using the term "irregularities." By this, they mean the expansion of mail-in balloting, early voting, and a host of other procedural measures enacted by courts, state officials, and governors in response to the risk of voting in person during the pandemic. These rule changes, GOP officials say, usurped the authority of state legislatures to set election rules. As former Vice President Mike Pence put it: "Many of the most troubling voting irregularities took place in states that set aside laws enacted by state legislatures in favor of sweeping changes ordered by governors, secretaries of state, and courts." In the wake of expanded access to the ballot, President Biden became the first presidential candidate in U.S. history to amass more than 80 million votes, and a record 159 million people voted in the 2020 election. It was the highest turnout — 67 percent of registered voters — since 1900.
Who makes election laws? The Constitution gives state legislatures the authority to pass election laws. But because the pandemic made many people fearful of going to crowded indoor polling places in 2020, state election officials, courts, and governors adopted extraordinary measures to limit close human contact while people cast ballots. Many states dramatically expanded no-excuse mail-in balloting and early voting, and nine states began mailing all registered voters absentee ballots whether or not they requested them. Thirty-eight states, plus Washington, D.C., employed drop boxes for absentee ballots, up from only 13 in 2016. The new voting methods were popular. Nearly 102 million people voted early in 2020, almost doubling the 58 million who did so in 2016; 65 million people voted by mail, up from 33 million four years earlier. But a recent Stanford University study found that it was the intense opposition and loyalty to Trump that motivated so many people to vote, not absentee ballots. "Voter interest was really driving turnout,'' said researcher Jesse Yoder.
Was there widespread fraud? Every recount, audit, investigation, and court case regarding the 2020 election — included those conducted by state Republican officials and by President Trump's Justice Department — found virtually no evidence of fraud, with a handful of illegally cast ballots out of nearly 160 million. This is in keeping with studies of past elections, which have found that the number of people impersonating someone else to cast a ballot was between 0.0003 percent and 0.0025 percent of all votes cast. Nonetheless, 60 percent of Republicans believe Joe Biden won only because of widespread fraud, according to a recent poll. Republican officials have cited that belief in justifying rollbacks of expanded voting. Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita said the expansion of vote-by-mail had "shaken confidence" in "election integrity,'' and that state legislatures passing voting restrictions are merely "responding to their constituents." Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, a Republican, said the state's new voting law "is really the fallout from the 10 weeks of misinformation that flew in from former President Donald Trump."
Do Democrats benefit from mail-in voting? Studies that have analyzed the five states that have almost exclusively switched to mail-in voting since 2000 — Oregon, Washington, Utah, Colorado, and Hawaii — have found a very slight (0.7 percent) advantage for Democrats. Many seniors, who lean Republican, like to vote by mail. But that was before 2020, when Trump continuously railed that mail-in voting is riddled with fraud, possibly dissuading his supporters from voting in that manner. In that election, areas that voted by mail in higher numbers were more likely to turn blue than four years earlier. Democrats also had a massive advantage in early voting. The U.S. Elections Project said that among early voters, in the 20 states that report party affiliation Democrats held a 15 percentage-point edge over Republicans.
What has been the GOP response? State Republicans in 43 states have waged a national campaign to wrestle back control over election rules, introducing 250 voting measures during the first seven weeks of 2021 alone. In Georgia, a new voting law transfers ultimate authority over elections from county boards of election and the secretary of state to an appointee of the legislature, who could intervene to oust local officials and seize control of election rules and ballot counting. Bills in other Republican-controlled states would curtail early and absentee voting, as well as institute stronger ID requirements and limit or ban drop boxes. Democrats say these changes are all based on "the Big Lie" that the 2020 election was stolen and are designed to discourage voting by African-Americans, Hispanics, the poor, and college students. Republicans insist the rollbacks and restrictions are needed. "We want a system that people can trust," said Texas Republican state Sen. Bryan Hughes. "If folks don't trust the system, they're not going to vote."
The battle over voter ID Most of the new voting laws introduced by Republicans would require voters to show identification to cast in-person or absentee ballots. Republicans claim ID is necessary to ensure fair and safe elections, despite repeated studies over decades that found that people voting illegally are vanishingly rare. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton spent 22,000 staff work hours in 2020 investigating voter fraud, and came up with only 16 cases of voters using wrong addresses. Democrats claim ID laws will disenfranchise some of the 21 million Americans who don't have a government-issued photo ID. The American Civil Liberties Union says voter ID laws disproportionately affect poor people and minorities who might not own cars or driver's licenses. It cited a 2014 Government Accountability Office study that found strict photo ID laws of the kind that are in effect in seven states reduce turnout by 2 to 3 percentage points — enough to change the outcome of close elections. But other studies have found little or no effect, or even increased turnout, possibly because voter ID laws mobilize Democratic groups to help voters obtain ID and to launch get-out-the-vote drives in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods.
This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.