democracy is a work in progress

Limits to What We Know

Impact of Voter Suppression Activity

While the courts and various research agree that the recent spate of restrictive voter laws are largely targeted to people of color, research has not conclusively demonstrated their impact on voter turnout at the national and state levels. Writing for the website FiveThirtyEight, University of Pennsylvania political science professor Dan Hopkins discussed the challenges in evaluating the impact of voter ID laws and said that “the most credible estimates suggest the laws’ turnout effects haven’t been large enough to swing many elections.” However, Hopkins added, “even if voter ID laws haven’t swung election outcomes, they can deny thousands of people their right to vote — denials that fall disproportionately on black and Latino citizens. Whether voter ID laws swing elections is far from their only important consequence.”

Hopkins raised a concern in reference to the study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison that suggested that between 12,000 and 23,000 registered voters in Madison and Milwaukee did not vote in the 2016 Presidential election because of the voter ID law. In essence, he made it clear that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that the law was the sole factor: ”It’s difficult to untangle whether a given change in turnout was the result of the law itself or some other state-specific factor. Turnout was down in Wisconsin in 2016 relative to 2012, for instance, but was that because of the state’s voter ID law,  or was it because of the absence of President Obama on the ballot, changes in mobilization by the political campaigns or other factors?”

Racial Discrimination or Political Expedience?

Despite the evidence and court findings that voter suppression tactics target communities of color, it is difficult to determine whether the attacks are racially motivated or initiated to achieve supremacy on election day. It is no secret that communities of color tend to vote Democratic. By suppressing black and Hispanic votes, Republicans – and the laws supporting suppression tactics are largely proposed, passed, and enforced by the Republican Party – stand to gain at the polls.

Effectiveness of New Technologies

Innovative new technologies are being developed to combat the spread of disinformation and election interference online and to encourage the shift to electronic voting and even Internet voting.  It is much too early to understand how effective anti-disinformation tools can be, or whether online voting or electronic voting machines can be fully secured from hackers.

Tom Burt, CEO of one of the top providers of electronic voting systems, Electronic Systems & Software, has called for Congress to require more robust security testing of voting systems. He also supports the inclusion of a paper record of each vote that can be used to confirm an election result should there be questions about the security of the votes cast. Burt committed his company to stop selling paperless voting machines, writing, “Along with mandatory machine testing, it’s the only way to secure our nation’s democracy.”

Related Problems: Money in Politics, Income and Wealth Inequality

Contributors: George LinzerMichael Deal, Kyle Mullins

Published: December 5, 2019

Last Updated: January 11, 2022

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