On Thursday, the Texas Senate passed SB 7, a restrictive voting law that makes it harder to claim a disability on a mail ballot application, limits voting hours to between 7:00 a.m and 7:00 p.m, and bans voting sites in temporary structures like tents. In Georgia, Republicans have already signed into law a voting bill that many are comparing to Jim Crow. GOP-controlled state governments are enacting similar legislation across the country in the name of “election integrity,” a response to the false claims that the 2020 election was stolen.
However, while these voter suppression tactics are obviously intended to give the GOP an edge in upcoming elections, it is far from clear that the results will actually benefit Republicans. The law of unintended consequences is real, and there is evidence to suggest that voter suppression will end up backfiring on Republicans.
First, voter suppression efforts can lead to increased mobilization efforts on the other side. People often take their right to vote more seriously when someone is trying to take it away. Furthermore, political parties and activists are not blind to voter suppression efforts and will take action to counteract them. So while voter suppression can make it harder for people to vote, the backlash can make it a wash for both sides or even counterproductive for those trying to rig the game in their favor.
Take the recent example of Wisconsin, where the Republican-controlled legislature installed all sorts of voter suppression methods. Yet in spite of voter suppression, or perhaps because of it, Democrats turned out in droves in Wisconsin’s 2020 spring election, resulting in a liberal candidate winning a seat on the state’s Supreme Court by double digits. Note that this occurred as the COVID-19 pandemic entered full spring, so voters were literally risking their lives as they waited in long lines at the polls.
One could also look at the aftermath of the infamous Shelby v. Holder case in 2013, which gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision, states with a history of racial discrimination no longer had to get preclearance from the federal government when changing election laws, resulting in a flood of legislation designed to make it harder for people of color to vote. Yet one study suggested that black turnout actually increased in some states as a result of Shelby.
There’s also reason to doubt the efficacy of the particular kind of voter suppression Republicans are currently attempting to pull off. One major target of the GOP is mail-in ballots, which tended to skew toward the Democrats in 2020. However, 2020 was a unique year regarding mail-in ballots as there was an ongoing pandemic that Democrats were more likely to take seriously. Furthermore, Donald Trump repeatedly railed against voting by mail throughout the campaign. But in future elections, we may see Democrats being more likely to vote in person and Republicans more likely to vote by mail. Historically, vote-by-mail hasn’t benefitted either side. In fact, Pew found that voters over the age of 65 were more likely to vote by mail than younger voters in 2020. Older voters tend to be more conservative than younger voters. Furthermore, Pew also found that black voters were the racial demographic least likely to use mail-in ballots in 2020.
Finally, it’s not entirely clear that Republicans will benefit even if their voter suppression efforts actually succeed in depressing turnout. While it’s often been assumed that more people voting helps Democrats, that may not always be the case and lower turnout could actually hurt the GOP in the future. Recent trends show college-educated voters shifting toward the Democrats, while non-college-educated voters skew Republican. Previously, education levels didn’t matter much in determining how people voted but that’s changed. Since voters with less education are less likely to turn out, Republicans may be faced with the problem of having a base that doesn’t always go to the polls, a problem likely exacerbated by the GOP’s own Big Lie about election fraud. Low Republican turnout already cost them their Senate majority, and even Trump supporters who were willing to storm the Capitol were not always willing to vote.
This does not mean Democrats should be complacent. As stated earlier, voter suppression often fails only because of actions taken to counter it. But if activists, organizers, and the voters themselves take action, then the Republicans may one day regret implementing bills like SB 7. To paraphrase Talleyrand, perhaps voter suppression is worse than a crime, it’s a mistake.
Photo: SUZANNE CORDEIRO/AFP via Getty Images