Easier Voting Probably Doesn’t Make Much Difference

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- We often believe that efforts to limit or increase access to voting helps one political party more than the other. But that’s not always the case.

Earlier this month, in an outcome that surprised many, a liberal judge defeated a conservative, Trump-backed incumbent in a race for Wisconsin’s state Supreme Court. The election itself was the subject of a lot of attention because Republican lawmakers fought hard to block proposed changes to the voting schedule and process because of the coronavirus.

Republicans in particular opposed the Democratic governor’s attempt to expand voting by mail. They also challenged a federal judge’s order to extend the deadline for absentee ballots, resulting in a last-minute U.S. Supreme Court decision requiring that absentee ballots be postmarked by Election Day (April 7), even though coronavirus-induced delays meant that many of the absentee ballots voters had requested had not even been sent out by then.

It’s hard to know the precise motivations of Republicans here. But they probably wouldn’t have opposed expanding mail-in voting quite so vociferously unless they thought doing s­o increased their chances of winning.

A timely paper by Daniel M. Thompson, Jennifer Wu, Jesse Yoder and Andrew B. Hall of Stanford University (accessible summary by the authors here) suggests that this sort of reasoning may have been wrong all along.

The four collaborators looked at states that piloted voting by mail in some counties, then rolled it out more broadly in later elections. This lets them compare changes in voting patterns between nearby counties that made the switch and those that hadn’t.

Consistent with past research, they found that expanding voting by mail increased turnout modestly -- by about 2%. And of course, the convenience of voting by mail means that many people choose to do so when the option is available: The Stanford team found that many people who would otherwise have gone to the polls chose to mail their ballots instead.

But as far as partisanship is concerned, there doesn’t seem to be any effect: In the states they examined, voting by mail didn’t change relative party turnout. It didn’t seem to alter the parties’ vote shares either.

This is consistent with an argument my Harvard colleague Louis Kaplow and I made in a recent paper about the determinants of voter turnout: Making it harder to vote should only change the outcome if the policy is a greater burden on members of one party than the other.

Voting by mail doesn’t do that. It makes it easier for everyone to vote, meaning it’s less likely to offer partisan advantage. On the one hand, for example, lower-income individuals may not have as much time or opportunity to go to the polls, so voting by mail may increase their turnout -- and those voters often skew Democratic. On the other hand, older voters also have more trouble going to the polls, so they would benefit from voting by mail too -- and those voters tend to skew Republican.

There is no way to know for sure, but it’s quite possible that Wisconsin’s election outcome wouldn’t have been any different had the expansion of voting by mail actually gone through. There’s even a chance that in this specific case, older, Republican-leaning seniors were especially likely to stay home because of coronavirus concerns, so reducing voting by mail might actually have turned the election toward the Democrats, making the Republican opposition an impressive self-own.

Of course, there’s one other possibility we should consider: It’s plausible that the GOP’s aggressive tactics to limit voting by mail backfired by shifting people’s preferences.

We don’t normally think that changing the method people use to vote affects whom they vote for -- people are likely to vote the same way whether at home or in the voting booth.

But Republican insistence on having in-person voting during a pandemic forced many people to take health risks in order to cast their ballots. That could have angered those voters enough to support Democrats even if they otherwise might not have. And paradoxically, the angriest voters might be especially likely to turnout in order to make their voices heard.

Those thinking ahead to November should take notice.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Scott Duke Kominers is the MBA Class of 1960 Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, and a faculty affiliate of the Harvard Department of Economics. Previously, he was a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows and the inaugural research scholar at the Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics at the University of Chicago.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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