Democracy Project Forum: Overestimating the Effect of New State Laws
QUESTION: On Wednesday, October 10 a joint report from the Bipartisan Policy Center and Center for the Study of the American Electorate found that the national primary turnout fell to the lowest level since presidential primaries proliferated in 1972.
Will voters turnout for the general election and is this indicative of increasing polarization in our politics?
View the full forum here. By Allison Hayward One might have thought that a polarizing national election, featuring two nominees with vastly different personalities, backgrounds, and policies, might have been preceded by a bracing primary election contest. Well, it doesn’t seem that was the case. Why not? Firstly, because as the charts in this study demonstrate, volatility in turnout tends to come from one party’s voters – Democratic primary voters. Republican nomination fights are, unfortunately, pretty predictable. With rare exception, Republicans tend to nominate the candidate whose “turn” is up. So the suspense (when there is any) in a Republican primary is concentrated in a few early contests, but afterwards feels a little like paging through a suspense novel after having read the last chapter. Democratic turnout, like Democratic primary politics, is more erratic, emotional, and thus drives changes in overall turnout. In 2012, the administration successfully discouraged credible primary challengers. So, why would a Democratic voter turn up? There isn’t anything interesting going on. Not every primary contest down the ballot fits these stereotypes, of course. But the primary voter who knows enough to have a strong opinion about a Senate or mayoral candidate isn’t, I’d bet, the occasional voter who makes up the shifting percentage at the top. It also seems to me that changes on state law don’t have much effect on this big picture. Open primaries have a modest positive effect, but that stands to reason when you increase the number of souls who can cast any one primary ballot primary having to inflate the eligible voting population. Despite that, some of the sharpest punches in the voting arena are thrown by activists seeking to change state voting laws – some, by “increasing access” and others by “preventing fraud.” I’m not so certain that such changes in state law do much for turnout one way or the other – except perhaps to give potential voters a feeling that the system is rigged in some way – and suppress it. Allison Hayward writes widely on election law topics and has been published in a variety of law journals and magazines, including the Harvard Journal of Legislation, Case Western Reserve Law Review, National Review, the Weekly Standard, Reason, the Journal of Law and Politics, Political Science Quarterly, The Green Bag, and the Election Law Journal.
Welcome to the Democracy Project Forum! This forum explores the Democracy Project’s work in government institutions, election administration, and leadership. The Democracy Project has invited some of the leading policy and political experts to respond to discussion topics, Democracy Project reports, and current events. Any views on this forum do not necessarily represent the views of the Democracy Project, it’s Co-Chairs, or the Bipartisan Policy Center.