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Abramowitz: It’s not the new election laws, but who’ll enforce them, that’s troubling

By Tom Baxter

What impacts are all the election laws passed by state legislatures this year going to have? Alan Abramowitz, who has a stellar record as a political prognosticator, has been studying that question.

Abramowitz, now an emeritus professor of political science at Emory, developed a forecast model which, with one asterisk, has accurately predicting the outcome of every presidential election since 1988. (The asterisk: In 2016, the model accurately predicted that Donald Trump would win the presidency, but inaccurately predicted he’d win a majority of the popular vote.)

Last week, in a program sponsored by the Stanford Constitutional Law Center at Stanford Law School, Abramowitz discussed laws, like the one passed in Georgia, which place new restrictions on absentee and early voting, drop boxes and voter identification. For all the controversy they have stirred, he doesn’t think they will have much impact. But that’s only part of the story.

What Abramowitz refers to as non-traditional voting procedures, like voting by mail, have been increasing in use and popularity for years, but they increased dramatically after the beginning of the pandemic. In the 2016 presidential election, 40.1 percent of the total votes weren’t cast on Election Day. In 2020, this rose to 69.4 percent, the first time in the nation’s history that the majority of votes weren’t cast on one day. That’s at the root of the suspicions Republicans continue to hold about the validity of the last election, and the laws those suspicions gave birth to.

Since each state handles elections differently, a wide variety of these nontraditional procedures were already in use in the 2016 election, which gives political scientists a useful basis for comparison. What Abramowitz found is that voter turnout in 2020 was greater than in 2016 in every state, with very little difference in the amount of turnout between states that allowed early voting and those which didn’t, between those which allowed drop boxes and those which didn’t, and so forth. The only significant difference was that the 10 states which now mail ballots to every registered voter had a greater increase in turnout.

As for whether any of the changes benefited one party or the other, Abramowitz said, “none of these voting procedures had any noticeable effect on the outcome of the election whatsoever.” What did matter, he said, was that with a few exceptions, Joe Biden got a slightly higher percentage of the vote than Hillary Clinton in 2016, netting him a greater share of Electoral College votes.

What he finds “much more troubling” isn’t the changes in the rules, but the way they might be administered by partisan election officials, some of whom, like Rep. Jody Hice, are running for secretary of state and other positions this year on the premise that the last election was stolen.

“If we have people like Jody Hice in charge of running our elections in 2024, I think there are real dangers there, but I don’t think the dangers are going to come primarily from changes in absentee voting rules or early voting rules or things like that,” he said.

Abramowitz was joined in the discussion by Stanford law professor Nathaniel Persily, who amplified his concerns about the way coming elections will be administered.

“I am extremely worried that we have this perfect storm of election dysfunction brewing,” Persily said, citing a combination of new laws, inexperienced and sometimes biassed administrators, underfunded local election offices and widespread distrust among voters. For a blood-curdling example of what the professor is talking about, see the Washington Post’s story about the changes in the Floyd County Board of Elections after 2020.

The scholars didn’t say much about the intimidation and harassment of election officials, but that’s also a factor in this perfect storm. With the May primary only a month away, Fulton County is still struggling to find a new elections director, a hot-seat job if there ever was one.

Abramowitz cited some convincing evidence that the more restrictive new laws will make much difference, but by the same token, these changes won’t quell the anger of some voters, like those with whom Gov. Brian Kemp engaged in a testy exchange last weekend at a Fulton Republican Party meeting. They’ll hold on to their suspicions, especially when the other side wins.

Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.


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