In the Washington Post, Philip Bump says that the debate over voting laws “is more complicated than it needs to be.” The only real question worth considering is whether we should maximize the number of people voting or minimize that number. If you support democracy, you’ll be for the federal voting-reform bill the Democrats want, H.R. 1, and against Republican state legislation. If you oppose democracy, you’ll take the opposite positions. And while Republicans and Democrats may be alike in taking stances on these issues based on what voting policies will help them most in elections, the crucial difference is that the Democrats are pro-democracy and the Republicans against it.
It’s certainly a simple way of viewing the issues. But it’s also one that misses a lot.
First, not all of the issues in play fall on a more-voting/less-voting axis. H.R. 1 takes district lines away from the state legislatures that have historically controlled it; that doesn’t make it any easier or harder to vote. The new disclosure rules, about which the ACLU has raised concerns, don’t make it any easier or harder to vote, either. And one might favor reforms to make it easier to vote while also thinking that states rather than the federal government should be mostly in charge of elections. One might think, for that matter, that our election laws should be ones that state election officials are capable of administering.
Second, some legislation includes measures that would probably increase vote turnout and measures that would probably decrease it. The new and much-debated Georgia election law is in this category. It is not at all clear what the net effect will be. For that matter, some individual policies have either minimal or unpredictable effects. Tighter voter-id requirements have for years been denounced using the sort of terminology Bump favors (e.g., “suppressive”). H.R. 1 forbids states from keeping such laws. Yet one recent study finds that such “laws have no negative effect on registration or turnout, overall or for any group defined by race, gender, age, or party affiliation.” The pro-democracy thing to do is to outlaw an extremely popular policy that doesn’t seem to have any measurable negative effect on voting.
It’s possible to overthink these issues, as Bump says, but underthinking seems at least as likely to be a problem.