Republicans want more safeguards and boundaries around voting. They say that greater security is essential to making sure only eligible people vote and that long voting periods and different methods to cast ballots risk enabling fraud and distorting the meaning of elections. They also assume that lower turnout will help the right win more elections, and some of the restrictions they want to impose (like limiting Sunday voting), frankly, reek of the racist practices long used to deny the vote to Black Americans and other minorities.
If we take both parties’ most high-minded arguments at face value, they are worried about problems that barely exist. It is easier than ever to vote: Registration has gotten simpler in recent decades, and most Americans have more time to vote and more ways to do so. Voter turnout is at historic highs, and Black and white voting rates now rise and fall together. These trends long predate the pandemic, and efforts to roll back some state Covid-era accommodations seem unlikely to meaningfully affect turnout.
Meanwhile, voter fraud is vanishingly rare. The most thorough database of cases, maintained by one of the staunchest conservative defenders of election integrity, suggests a rate of fraud so low, it could not meaningfully affect outcomes.
Even judged by the parties’ more cynical motives, their reform priorities don’t make sense. It is just not true that higher turnout helps Democrats and hurts Republicans. In their 2020 book “The Turnout Myth,” the political scientists Daron R. Shaw and John R. Petrocik review half a century of evidence decisively refuting that common misperception. That’s not to say that turnout doesn’t shape particular election outcomes, but it doesn’t systematically benefit one party or the other.
The parties’ emphasis on voting itself also isn’t conducive to bipartisan action, which is essential to public trust. Democrats in Washington should see that using one of the narrowest congressional majorities in American history to nationalize election rules in ways opposed by every Republican official — even if it’s well intentioned — would undermine public confidence in elections. Republicans should recognize that state laws restricting the times and methods of voting over the objections of every elected Democrat will be perceived as an attack on the voting rights of Democrats, even if they aren’t.
Each party is telling its supporters not to trust our elections unless its favored bills are passed while implicitly persuading its opponents that those bills are illegitimate and dangerous. The result amounts to an assault on public trust that’s worse than any actual problem with American elections.
That is why Democrats and Republicans should turn to narrowly tailored legislation focused on postelection administration. Such a bill could, for instance, limit the ability of state officials to remove local election administrators without cause, and prohibit the harassment of election workers (as happened, for example, in Georgia after the 2020 election). It could mandate a mechanism for postelection audits while requiring a clear standard for rendering election results final.