What Everyone Gets Wrong About Voting

What happened in the 2020 U.S. election? Here’s a quick summary that may sound familiar. Spurred by the coronavirus pandemic, states expanded early voting and voting by mail, leading to historic turnout that helped Joe Biden win.

The problem: Almost everything about that summary is likely wrong.

Recent studies have confirmed that changes to voting in 2020 had little or no effect on turnout, and even though Democrats took more advantage of mail voting, there’s no evidence that those voters wouldn’t have shown up anyway. And if there was a partisan benefit from expanding voting by mail, it probably helped Republicans, not Democrats.

These misconceptions aren’t just a matter of historical interest. Along with other urban legends about how elections work, they appear to be driving legislation at the state and federal level that would change how elections are run in the future.

State lawmakers across the country have filed more than 1,200 bills seeking to change voting laws, with Republicans looking to roll back early and absentee voting and Democrats seeking to make voter registration easier. In Congress, House Democrats have passed a bill, H.R. 1, that would require states to offer early voting and expand access to voting by mail, but it remains stalled in the Senate because of Republican opposition.

Here’s what we know about how voting works, based on years of quantitative studies.

Myth 1: Voter fraud is a big problem

It isn’t. 

Polls have long shown that many Americans regard voter fraud as a major problem, a view encouraged by Donald Trump and his baseless claims about the 2020 election. But the most thorough survey of election fraud cases, compiled by the Heritage Foundation, found just over 1,200 cases in 20 years, resulting in 143 criminal convictions. As two election experts noted, that’s equivalent to seven or eight cases a year, across the entire country: “We are talking about an occurrence that translates to about 0.00006 percent of total votes cast.” 

Myth 2: Early voting boosts turnout

If anything, the opposite is true. 

It seems intuitive that offering more opportunities to vote would lead to more people voting. But in 20 studies reviewed by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, five found mixed evidence, seven found no significant effect, and eight found that early voting actually decreased turnout. One theory: It reduces the significance of Election Day, which otherwise spurs some halfhearted voters to show up. 

Myth 3: Strict voter ID laws hurt minority turnout

The evidence is inconclusive.

Critics of stricter voter ID requirements point to research showing that minority voters tend to possess photo IDs at lower rates. But there haven’t been consistent findings that passing these laws hurts minority turnout. Some studies show no statistical link, and others show they hurt turnout somewhat. Some scholars suggest they may even inadvertently motivate people in minority groups to vote, or spur campaigns to do more outreach to them.

Myth 4: Strict voter ID laws boost confidence in elections

They don’t seem to have any effect on confidence.

A common argument for stricter voter ID requirements is that they’ll boost public confidence in elections, which seems especially important now given the recent decline in trust among Republicans because of Trump’s false claims. But research has found little difference in confidence levels in states with tough ID laws and those without. The two factors that do make a difference? Whether or not the candidate a voter supported won and a voter’s experience casting their own ballot. A study of the 2020 election indicated that people were also less confident in their state’s handling of the election when the results were close, even if their preferred candidate won. 

Myth 5: Voting by mail boosted turnout in 2020

So far, there’s no reason to believe this.

After many states made it easier to vote by mail in 2020 because of the pandemic, the U.S. had the highest turnout in modern history. But a study of voting in Texas by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research found that 64-year-olds, who needed an excuse in that state to vote by mail, and 65-year-olds, who did not, voted at almost the same rate. Other studies show that voting by mail likely increases turnout more in midterms and local elections than in higher-profile presidential races. 

Myth 6: Voting by mail helped Biden win

Again, so far, there’s no evidence bearing this out.

In a January survey by the Pew Research Center, both Republicans and Democrats said the expansion of early voting and mail voting helped Biden win the presidency. But a Public Policy Institute of California study found that steps to make voting easier in 2020 most likely had little partisan effect—and if there was any effect, it was a slight boost to Republicans. Generally, studies of elections conducted mostly by mail haven’t found any partisan advantage.
Read next: Biden Went Big in His First 100 Days, and Now Comes the Hard Part

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