Don't blame voting laws.

Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

No, Voting Laws Didn't Doom Democrats

Francis Barry writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was director of public affairs and chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. He is the author of “The Scandal of Reform: The Grand Failures of New York City’s Political Crusaders and the Death of Nonpartisanship.”
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Voting-rights advocates claim that new laws in various states may have tipped the scales in this year’s closest elections. In doing so, they exhibit the same flaw as the Republicans driving those laws: making exaggerated claims based on partisan motivations. I agree with the advocates that most of these laws are unwise, but they do themselves no favors by overstating their case.

A day after the election, Wendy Weiser at the Brennan Center for Justice argued that “in several key races, the margin of victory came very close to the likely margin of disenfranchisement.” She cited the Senate race in North Carolina as one example; here’s the gist of her argument: Four years ago, 200,000 ballots were cast during seven days of early voting that the state has since eliminated. The state also ended Election Day registration, which 100,000 North Carolinians took advantage of in 2012, almost one-third of them black. In last week’s election, since Republican Thom Tillis’s margin of victory over Democratic Senator Kay Hagan was about 48,000 votes, Weiser implies that Hagan lost because so many (Democratic) voters were kept away from the polls. 

Weiser’s argument has been picked up by other voting-rights advocates and pundits, but it falls apart upon closer scrutiny. Even with seven fewer days, early voting in North Carolina increased this year compared with 2010 -- by 35 percent.

Statewide turnout also increased from the previous midterm election, to 44.1 percent from 43.7 percent. Even if turnout was lower than it would have been without the new voting law -- something that's impossible to establish -- it was still higher than it had been in four of the five previous midterm elections, going back to 1994.

In addition, based on exit polls and voter turnout data, the overall share of the black vote increased slightly compared with 2010.

Rick Hasen, an expert on election law, says he's skeptical about Weiser’s analysis, and rightly so. When voting-rights advocates fail to include any balancing points in their discussion of the election, they undercut their credibility and give ammunition to Republicans who suspect that they are mostly interested in electing Democrats.

Weiser and others also point to Kansas, where 24,000 people were unable to register because they lacked the proper identification. If all 24,000 people were in fact eligible to register and would have voted, that is a terrible injustice -- but it would not have changed the outcome of the Senate race, in which Republican Pat Roberts beat independent Greg Orman.

A recent study by the Government Accountability Office found that Kansas’ voter ID law depresses turnout by 2 percent, or 17,000 votes. If we accept the study's conclusion (I have concerns about its methodology) and add the two categories together, then turnout was depressed by a total of 41,000 votes –- still 50,000 votes shy of changing the outcome of the election, although Weiser calls it “perilously close.”

Voting-rights advocates also suggest that ballot restrictions swung the Florida governor’s race. In 2011, Governor Rick Scott reversed a 2007 clemency policy adopted by his predecessor, Charlie Crist, which had made it easier for felons to have their voting rights restored. Estimates are that more than one million Floridians -- including 23 percent of black men -- have lost their voting rights. More than 150,000 Floridians had those rights restored between 2007 and 2011, when Scott slowed the number to a trickle.

If Scott had left the Crist policy intact, it’s conceivable that another 150,000 people would have had their voting rights restored before the 2014 election. Voter turnout in Florida was about 50 percent, and Scott beat Crist by about 66,000 votes. If felons voted at the same rate as other voters, they would have had to break about 90 percent for Crist to have changed the outcome of the election, which seems highly unlikely.

Of course, whether voting laws tip an election to one side or the other should not be the test of their wisdom. Pushing for easier access to the ballot -- including restoring voting rights to felons, which some Republicans support -- is noble work that should be a bipartisan endeavor. But the more that advocates make exaggerated claims in an effort to delegitimize Republican victories, the harder it becomes to convince Republicans to go along with it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Barry at fbarry5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net