WASHINGTON (SBG) — Reforms to voting procedures in response to the coronavirus pandemic helped facilitate record turnout in Senate runoff elections in Georgia, but partisan warfare over voting access could prevent such changes from becoming permanent there and elsewhere in the nation.
More than 4.4 million ballots were cast in the runoffs, including about 1 million votes by mail and 2 million early in-person votes. Democrats received about 57% of the absentee vote, while Republicans won most of the Election Day in-person vote Tuesday.
With nearly all votes counted, Democrats Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Osoff are projected to have defeated Republican incumbent Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue. If Democrats take both seats, the party will have control of the White House, the House of Representatives, and the Senate for the first time in a decade.
Voting rights groups welcomed the surge in turnout, both in November and in Tuesday’s runoffs, and the measures implemented by the state to increase access to absentee voting. Whether those policies directly affected the outcome is difficult to say, but a fight is already brewing over whether to keep them in place for future elections.
“Expanding voting benefits everyone, and I would say it’s best for our democracy that everyone has a voice,” said Aklima Khondoker, Georgia state director for All Voting Is Local.
After the pandemic hit last spring, election officials in Georgia took steps to make it easier to obtain absentee ballots and allowed voters to return ballots using secure drop boxes. The state Legislature approved no-excuse absentee voting in 2005, but it was used much more widely in 2020 than in the past.
Although the measure had Republican support 15 years ago, state Senate Republicans are now trying to roll back absentee voting, as well as requiring photo identification to vote absentee and limiting the use of drop boxes. They have argued doubts about the integrity of the election justify new safeguards, even if there is no concrete evidence of significant fraud.
“As soon as we may constitutionally convene, we will reform our election laws to secure our electoral process by eliminating at-will absentee voting. We will require photo identification for absentee voting for cause, and we will crack down on ballot harvesting by outlawing drop boxes,” Georgia Senate Republicans said in a statement last month.
Similar disputes are playing out across the country in the wake of an election that brought the highest turnout as a percentage of the voting-eligible population since the 1800s, with nearly half of the 159 million ballots cast by mail. Despite the hardships presented by the pandemic, voters turned out in record numbers for both parties.
In some states, legislatures acted last year to expand voting access, extend early voting periods, and ease limitations on absentee voting amid concerns about the public health risks of in-person voting at crowded polling sites. In others, governors or state and local election officials sought to exercise their own authority to change voting procedures.
Those efforts spurred numerous lawsuits, mostly filed by Republicans, and some courts determined officials overstepped their power. Other reforms were upheld by state supreme courts and federal courts. The U.S. Supreme Court has weighed in on a few cases, but it has more often deferred to states to administer their elections.
The result, in some cases, was confusion and inconsistency, with different counties interpreting the same rules differently within a state. Pointing to the uncertainty caused by hasty and unprecedented changes to election administration, some Republicans planned to object to the counting of electoral votes for President-elect Joe Biden from several states during a joint session of Congress Wednesday.
“After an election with significant allegations of voting irregularities and numerous instances of officials setting aside state election laws, I share the concerns of millions of Americans about the integrity of this election,” Vice President Mike Pence said in a statement, though he stressed he lacked the authority to reject electors personally.
However, election experts say efforts to adjust U.S. election systems to the reality of the pandemic were broadly successful, and the 2020 elections went more smoothly than most. Two months after Election Day, no evidence has emerged of substantial fraud or misconduct that could alter the outcome.
“The states did a remarkably good job of adapting election administration to meet huge challenges caused by the pandemic, and increasing access to voting by mail and early voting likely played an important role in making sure people who wanted to vote could,” said Andrew Hall, co-director of the Democracy and Polarization Lab at Stanford University.
Many pandemic-driven changes to voting rules were designed to expire after the 2020 election, but the experiences some states had could spur heated debate on whether to extend or reform them. In Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, Republican-controlled legislatures are already pushing to change voting laws and impose new restrictions on absentee and early voting, often citing unsubstantiated claims of impropriety.
“Ironically, almost all of these reforms are the ones that came through the legislature...,” said Charles Zelden, an expert on voting rights at Nova Southeastern University. “They ended up getting used more than they wanted by people they didn’t want.”
Experts say it is difficult to determine how much the eased voting rules contributed to the increased turnout compared to other factors. Vote totals were also high in states that already offered universal mail-in voting and in states that did not significantly change their voting procedures for the pandemic.
“I think this is just a high-intensity election that people were passionate about on both sides,” said Travis Crum, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
Conventional wisdom in both parties has long been that easier access to voting benefits Democrats. On the surface, the outcome in Georgia and other swing states could be seen as validation of that, but the reality is more complicated.
“The parties have historically been pretty bad about determining what is and is not in their best interests when it comes to either promoting or restricting access to the franchise,” said Jacob Neiheisel, a political scientist at the University at Buffalo who studies voter turnout. “I think it really depends on a lot of different factors that are going to vary from one context to the next.”
The 2020 election presents a problematic test case for surveying the political consequences of expanded voting access because the circumstances are unique. Democrats promptly embraced mail-in voting during pandemic lockdowns in the spring, while President Donald Trump and his Republican allies cast suspicion on it from the start.
“Democrats did rely on alternative methods of voting more than Republicans, but I think that has more to do with Trump's comments about absentee voting than anything else,” Neiheisel said.
The result was a drastic partisan disparity in the use of early voting options. According to a Pew Research Center survey, only 17% of Biden supporters cast their ballots in-person on Election Day, compared to 37% of Trump voters. About 60% of Biden voters submitted ballots by mail, nearly double the percentage of Trump voters who mailed in their ballots.
“The Republicans generally don’t feel the pandemic was as serious and thus they emphasized in-person voting... whereas the Democrats really pushed mail-in voting and early voting,” Zelden said.
Although the use of mail-in ballots and other forms of early voting disproportionately favored Democrats in 2020, that has not historically been the case. Republicans have frequently won local and statewide races in states that conduct elections entirely by mail, and research has shown widespread vote-by-mail confers no inherent partisan advantage on either party.
A study co-authored by Hall earlier this year found expanded vote-by-mail programs in California, Utah, and Washington increased turnout by about 2% overall but they did not boost one party over the other. Under normal circumstances, the outcomes of vote-by-mail elections tend to mirror those of in-person elections.
“Because the main effect of expanding vote by mail is to get people who were going to vote in person to vote by mail instead, it doesn't change the electorate very much, and so it doesn't have huge partisan effects,” he said.
Hall has also looked at turnout data from a Texas primary runoff in July in the midst of the pandemic, where only voters 65 and older could request absentee ballots without an excuse. They found 64-year-olds voted in person at the same rate as 65-year-olds who voted by mail.
“The effects of expanding voting by mail during the pandemic on turnout are probably smaller than people think, though it's hard to know for sure,” he said.
Further complicating attempts to draw conclusions from the 2020 elections, the outcome was far from decisive for Democrats. Biden’s victories in key states were narrow, Trump got more votes than any incumbent in history, Democrats lost seats in the House, and several vulnerable Republican incumbents in the Senate survived.
“The assumption that high turnout elections benefit Democrats, I think we might see a reassessment of that in the future,” Crum said.
It is unclear if past trends will still hold true after the pandemic. As President Trump continues to insist without evidence that he won the 2020 election in a landslide, many Republicans remain skeptical of the voting methods that Democrats embraced.
“In a post-pandemic world, it seems unlikely that a lot of people will be deterred from voting if they have to do it in person,” Hall said. “On top of that, voting by mail is extremely popular among people who have the chance to use it, and once people have the option of doing it, they tend to like doing it in the future.”
The fact that these voting methods were popular and widely utilized could pose political challenges for legislators trying to roll them back. Voting rights advocates maintain both parties should celebrate the uptick in turnout and the removal of barriers to the ballot box, regardless of the reason or the outcome.
“When you allow for greater access to the ballot, voters are going to show up,” Khondoker said.