Are election law changes really much ado about nothing?

A new study suggests that recent state-level changes in a number of states don't have the partisan effect some expected.

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Civic Nebraska has always advocated for secure elections with as few unnecessary barriers to the ballot as possible. Over the years, we’ve seen more than a dozen iterations of voter ID bills at the statehouse; as recently as this past spring, we worked with lawmakers to craft a bill that would fulfill a voter ID amendment to the state Constitution – but harm as few Nebraska voters as possible. And, of course, we campaign, educate, and organize year-round to ensure access to (and robust participation in) our state’s elections.

So, we’ve been intrigued by a new working research paper that conducts a deep dive into the effect of modern election laws around the country ­­– and more specifically, the consequences of those laws on different and specific portions of the electorate. The research, which was authored by political scientists Eitan Hersh and Justin Grimmer, was published last month. In that time, it has generated more than a few raised eyebrows as well as headlines.

That’s because the findings directly counter the overheated, partisan rhetoric about recent changes to election law in states around the country. It suggests that laws that are purported to either increase or decrease turnout tend to have negligible effects on the outcomes of elections. In other words, state-level measures such as voter ID (typically, a restrictive measure) or same-day registration (typically, designed to increase participation) do not tip elections to one party or the other, even in extremely close elections. Such laws “have small effects on outcomes because they tend to target small shares of the electorate, have a small effect on turnout, and/or affect voters who are relatively balanced in their partisanship,” Hersh and Grimmer wrote.

As a nonpartisan organization that is committed to growing the Nebraska electorate so our institutions are truly reflective of our state, we can’t say we’re surprised. In Nebraska and around the nation, we’ve seen how policies targeting a particular group create noise around the edges but translate to very little to no partisan impact. It’s why we often say such laws are unnecessary. Of course, we’ll be watching closely in 2024 to see how Nebraska’s brand-new voter ID law may cut into different slices of the existing electorate – but in our estimation, the new law’s most damaging impact isn’t on the current electorate. It’s on the electorate that is currently emerging, from car-free, paperless Gen Z voters to newly naturalized Americans to a host of other potential voters. To that point, it’s unclear how the study’s authors, who deftly analyze a handful of real-world examples of new election laws in a number of states, define the term electorate.

Does this mean the heated, hard-fought election-law battles at the statehouse are much ado about nothing? Not necessarily. As opposed to one-off measures that have narrow impacts, Hersh and Grimmer caution against two types of election laws in specific – ones that clearly target large, homogenous groups (think Jim Crow voting laws in the early 1900s, which reduced Black participation in the South to near-zero), and laws surrounding the counting and recounting of ballots. The first example would obviously be difficult to impose today in one fell swoop. Preventing the second is a matter of protecting election workers at the local and state levels now, so they are not subject to future laws that could artificially tip an election one way or another. If we had written this study, we might have added a third dangerous example: A diverse, multi-layered suite of laws aimed to restrict voters of a wide range of ages, races, incomes, and locations, carefully assembled over time – disenfranchisement by a thousand cuts.

The authors are careful to say that while the effects of many recent election laws don’t necessarily rise to the level of partisan rhetoric surrounding them, together they are still important to follow, understand, and scrutinize as a whole. Further, there are compelling nonpartisan or bipartisan reasons to advocate for pro-voter policy at the state level, as Civic Nebraska and many of our partners do.

Maybe this kind of data will be a pivot point in the seemingly endless partisan fights over election law. We’re cautiously optimistic, even as we’re about to enter yet another anything-goes election year, that a bipartisan or nonpartisan effort to improve elections may emerge from the findings. Time will tell – but in the meantime, we’ll see you at the statehouse.

The study, titled How Election Rules Affect Who Wins, is a working paper. Grimmer and Hersh are from Stanford University and Tufts University, respectively.

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