The research team at the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, have a new paper analyzing the partisan impact of early voting laws, in combination with a set of other election reforms. The abstract is provided below; the piece is gated at the Political Research Quarterly but may be available from the authors.
Conventional political wisdom holds that policies that make voting easier will increase turnout and ultimately benefit Democratic candidates. We challenge this assumption, questioning the ability of party strategists to predict which changes to election law will advantage them. Drawing on previous research, we theorize that voting laws affect who votes in diverse ways depending on the specific ways that they reduce the costs of participating. We assemble datasets of county-level vote returns in the 2004, 2008, and 2012 presidential elections and model these outcomes as a function of early voting and registration laws, using both cross-sectional regression and difference-in-difference models. Unlike Election Day registration, and contrary to conventional wisdom, the results show that early voting generally helps Republicans. We conclude with implications for partisan manipulation of election laws.
The piece is a follow up from the team’s widely cited 2014 piece (conveniently available because it is part of the North Carolina case)that shows that early voting may have a mixed effect on turnout, depending on the mix of other election reforms that are already in place.
I like what the authors have done here, and I don’t find it particularly surprising. I’ve never been convinced by the conventional political wisdom that early voting always helps Democrats. That just doesn’t comport with the longstanding findings that Republicans use no-excuse balloting at higher rates than Independents or Democrats. The reasons for this are complex, including what I suspect is a historical legacy of the emergence of direct mail mobilization by Richard Viguerie in the late 1970s, tied to higher rates of absentee voting among older, more conservative, more Republican voters, and Reagan’s roots in California politics.
This kind of suspicion led to some criticism of the 2014 piece because the team coded “early voting” as a single administrative procedure, not discriminating between no-excuse absentee and early in-person. They’ve fixed that here, and the results hold. A key table of results is reproduced below.
I would still caution against overinterpreting these results as providing a roadmap for election law gamesmanship. Burden et al. spend a bit too much time, in my judgment, opining about how partisan actors may or may not misestimate the political impact of reforms to election laws, without acknowledging the highly contingent and dynamic nature of the legal and administrative environment.
For example, it’s almost certain than when a new voting method is made available, strategic political actors from both parties look at these changes, look at what groups opt for one or another method, and start to change their campaigns accordingly. Capturing this kind of institutional dynamic is nearly impossible to do in a national study like this, and can easily make gamesmanship seem a lot simpler than it actually is.