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Seen as 'existential' by campaigns, voting rule changes have little to no impact on turnout, fraud

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To Democrats, Republican-sponsored laws aimed at improving “election integrity” are really just veiled attempts at voter suppression. To Republicans, Democratic-backed efforts to make voting easier are an invitation to fraud.

But in 22 years of changes to Wisconsin voting laws, there’s little evidence to suggest either that stricter voting laws have dampened turnout or that making voting easier has led to more people cheating at the ballot box.

Take, for example, the decision by Wisconsin lawmakers in 1999 to eliminate the requirement that voters have an excuse to vote absentee.

Until then, the vast majority of voters were required to show up on one particular day and cast a ballot in person. Now, anyone can get an absentee ballot through the mail or go to their local clerk’s office on one of many days leading up to Election Day and vote there.

Arizona's House speaker Rusty Bowers, a Republican, is among a series of state election officials who testified before the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection where Trump backers tried to stop the certification of President Joe Biden's victory.

The expanded access to voting was not followed by any major uptick in turnout in the 2000 presidential election. In fact, turnout that year was lower than in six of the 13 presidential elections that preceded it, according to data from the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

Or take the controversial and long-litigated decision by Republicans to enact a photo ID requirement for voting. Because of court challenges following the law’s 2011 enactment, it wasn’t in effect for a major election until 2016.

Turnout in that year’s presidential election was lower statewide than four years before, but by less than 3 percentage points and in a contest that pitted two candidates who had worse favorability ratings heading into the election than any two presidential candidates since Gallup started asking about that in 1956.

Voter ID was expected to have its biggest impact in those areas of Wisconsin, such as Madison and Milwaukee, with higher proportions of nonwhite and poor voters, who are less likely to have valid photo IDs or easy ways to get them.

But post-2016 turnout numbers cast doubt on that assertion. The city of Milwaukee, for example, saw voters turn out for gubernatorial and presidential elections in numbers that were comparable to and, in some cases higher than, pre-2016 elections, according to figures from the Milwaukee Election Commission.

Madison saw more voters cast ballots in the 2018 gubernatorial and 2020 presidential elections than for any prior respective election since at least 2000, according to the Madison City Clerk’s Office. (Turnout is always higher in presidential election years.)

A 2021 working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that voter ID laws “have no negative effect on registration or turnout, overall or for any group defined by race, gender, age or party affiliation.”

Fraud vanishingly small

Available reports of suspected voter fraud or other election irregularities in Wisconsin similarly show no noticeable decline in the already minuscule amount of voter fraud after the passage of Republican-backed “election integrity” laws.

Local election clerks have been required to submit cases of suspected voter fraud or other election irregularities to the state since at least 2007, when the former Government Accountability Board was created. Reports detailing those cases were only available from the Elections Commission going back to June 2016, but they show a total of 158 cases since then, with no clear increase or decrease in cases over time. There were five, for example, in a yearlong span between February 2017 and February 2018, and then 23 over the same time frame a year later.

The most, or 73, came in an eight-month period that included the 2016 presidential election, but 43 of them concerned 17-year-olds voting amid confusion about whether people that age could vote in the primary that year if they would be 18 by the time of the general election, as well as “some false and misleading information ... on social media websites which spread inaccurate information to students who then believed they were eligible to vote,” the Elections Commission said at the time.

Detectable fraud cases in prior years ranged from zero to the single digits, according to an election fraud database maintained by the conservative Heritage Foundation, with the exception of 2013, when there were 10.

In a 2014 study, UW-Madison political science professor Ken Mayer and two other researchers not only found no evidence of widespread voter impersonation, but also that the level of such fraud — which was vanishingly small to begin with — was the same whether or not states had strict voter ID laws or allowed for Election Day registration.

“Voter ID laws have no effect on the incidence of voter fraud,” Mayer said, and the “incidence of fraud is so low that it is unarguable that these laws prevent more eligible voters from casting ballots than the number of potentially fraudulent votes prevented, by orders of magnitude.”

The same 2021 working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research that found no noticeable impact on turnout by voter ID laws also found that “strict ID requirements have no effect on fraud — actual or perceived.”

Turnout and voting rules

Individual voters affected

That major changes in turnout have not followed changes to election law does not mean that such laws have no effect, researchers point out, although that effect tends to be minuscule compared to the other things that motivate people to vote.

A 2019 study co-authored by Mayer, for example, found that the top reason for not voting among people who sat out the 2016 presidential election was that they were unhappy with the choice of candidates or not motivated by the issues. Nearly 51% of survey respondents said that was at least part of the reason they didn’t vote, while 33% said it was their main reason.

Not having an adequate ID was part of the reason for 6.5% of respondents, and 1.7% said it was the main reason.

Still, the study found the photo ID requirement likely reduced turnout in Democratic-heavy Dane and Milwaukee counties by up to 1 percentage point, meaning that between 7,000 and 7,900 otherwise eligible voters would have been prevented from voting and between 12,300 to 13,900 would have been deterred from voting, according to the authors’ statistical analysis.

For the sake of comparison, Donald Trump’s razor-thin margin of victory in Wisconsin in 2016 was 22,748 votes. Joe Biden’s win in 2020 was by 20,682.

“Looking at aggregate turnout will miss the effects on individual voters — those whose access to the voting booth is blocked or impeded by these laws,” Mayer said.

Surprisingly, research on early voting — which gives people many more opportunities to vote — is not consistently correlated with an increase in turnout.

A 2020 study that looked at the practice in Ohio found “substantial positive impacts of early voting on turnout equal to 0.22 percentage points of additional turnout per additional early voting day” and that “women, Democrats, independents and those of child-bearing and working age” were most likely to benefit from early voting.

At the same time, an analysis by the data-crunching site FiveThirtyEight found no correlation between the increasing popularity of early voting and turnout nationwide, while Mayer and three colleagues found in 2013 that “early voting ... is actually associated with lower turnout when it is implemented by itself.

“We propose that early voting has created negative unanticipated consequences by reducing the civic significance of elections for individuals and altering the incentives for political campaigns to invest in mobilization,” the authors said.

‘Unexpected effects’

Teasing out the effects of voting law changes on turnout over the last 22 years is “complicated,” Mayer said, and “the data show that changes often have unexpected effects.”

Allowing people to register to vote on Election Day increased GOP vote share, for example, he said, and there is a forthcoming study that shows automatic re-registration also benefits Republicans.

“At the same time, the evidence shows that many of these laws disproportionately affect already-disadvantaged voters,” he said, meaning, in general, nonwhite and poorer voters. “Virtually all of the restrictive laws have been passed by GOP legislatures and governors, and that’s not an accident.”

The president of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, which lists “election integrity” as one of its policy areas of interest, was not aware of research that attempts to measure the effect of more restrictive voting laws on voter fraud.

“I don’t know how you go about measuring that since ... I think that fraud is a very, very difficult thing to uncover,” Rick Esenberg said.

But he said he also didn’t think “reasonable” voting safeguards depress turnout or that widespread fraud of the type that could change the outcome of a state or national election is likely to occur.

“I think both sides overemphasize the issue,” he said. “The stakes are not as existential as the rhetoric would sometimes lead you to think that they are.”

The Heritage Foundation did not respond to requests for information on any research that might show a link between more restrictive voting laws and a reduction in voter fraud.

Using fear to motivate

Asked why there appears to be little effect on turnout from tighter voting rules, Sam Roecker, a spokesperson for Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ campaign, instead pointed to Republican-sponsored voting bills vetoed by the governor over the last year.

“Make no mistake: Democracy is on the ballot this year,” he said, “and our state would be much less free without Governor Evers to stop legislation undermining the right to vote.”

Republican state party spokesperson Chad Doran said “common sense laws like voter ID are supported by 80% of Americans because voters want to have confidence in the electoral process when they go to the ballot box,” but he did not respond to a question about whether there’s any evidence showing that enacting stricter voting rules was followed by a drop in fraud cases.

UW-Madison political science professor Barry Burden said party officials might not be aware of the research showing that voting changes have little effect on turnout.

At the same time, “even if the effects are small, elections are sometimes decided by thin margins, especially in Wisconsin,” he said, and “an election practice that affects turnout of one side’s voters by just 1 percentage point could easily change the outcome.”

And then there’s the need to motivate voters.

“By threatening that voting rights are being denied or fraud is being committed,” Burden said, the parties “might be able to use fear to motivate supporters to vote, donate money or volunteer their time.”

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Related to this story

The Wisconsin Election Commission has initiated the process of reviewing its rules for election observers, an issue that’s drawn attention and concern as Democrats and Republicans alike aggressively recruit partisan watchers to ensure election workers adhere to the law this November. Commissioners voted 5-1 on Wednesday to send a scope statement to Gov. Tony Evers laying out their intent to review the ways election observers can interact with people at the polls and what access observers are allowed to have. If approved by the governor, the statement will continue in a lengthy process that could last one to two years before new rules are enacted.

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