Why Higher Voter Turnout Scares the GOP

Republicans are once again drumming up fear of a nearly non-existent crime: “voter fraud.”

David Sirota

Voters wait in line in Miami, Fl. to cast early ballots in the 2012 presidential election. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

It is rare for a politi­cian to pub­licly deride efforts to boost vot­er turnout. It is seen as a taboo in a coun­try that prides itself on its demo­c­ra­t­ic ideals. Yet, New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie last week slammed efforts to sim­pli­fy vot­er registration. 

In reality, same-day registration is all about turnout, not partisanship. According to data compiled by the think tank Demos, average voter turnout is more than 10 percent higher in states that allow citizens to register on the same day that they vote.
Refer­ring to Illi­nois join­ing oth­er states — includ­ing many Repub­li­can-led ones — in pass­ing a same-day vot­er reg­is­tra­tion law, Christie said: Same-day reg­is­tra­tion all of a sud­den this year comes to Illi­nois. Shock­ing. It’s shock­ing. I’m sure it was all based on pub­lic pol­i­cy, good pub­lic pol­i­cy to get same-day reg­is­tra­tion here in Illi­nois just this year, when the gov­er­nor is in the toi­let and needs as much help as he can get.”

Christie was cam­paign­ing for Illi­nois GOP guber­na­to­r­i­al can­di­date Bruce Rauner, who is chal­leng­ing Demo­c­ra­t­ic incum­bent Gov. Pat Quinn, who signed the same-day reg­is­tra­tion bill into law in July.

Christie, who chairs the Repub­li­can Gov­er­nors Asso­ci­a­tion, denounced the effort to boost vot­er turnout as an under­hand­ed Demo­c­ra­t­ic tac­tic, despite the Illi­nois State Board of Elec­tions being com­posed equal­ly of Democ­rats and Repub­li­cans. Refer­ring to the same-day vot­er ini­tia­tive, Christie said Quinn will try every trick in the book,” accord­ing to the Chica­go Sun-Times. Christie said the pro­gram is designed to be a major obsta­cle” for the GOP’s guber­na­to­r­i­al candidates. 

The trou­ble with such rhetoric — beyond its anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic themes — is its absurd asser­tions about par­ti­san motives. After all, many of the 11 states with same-day reg­is­tra­tion laws cur­rent­ly have Repub­li­can governors.

In real­i­ty, same-day reg­is­tra­tion is all about turnout, not par­ti­san­ship. Accord­ing to data com­piled by the think tank Demos, aver­age vot­er turnout is more than 10 per­cent high­er in states that allow cit­i­zens to reg­is­ter on the same day that they vote. Demos also notes that four of the top five states for vot­er turnout in the 2012 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion all offered same-day reg­is­tra­tion.” There was some evi­dence in Wis­con­sin that same-day reg­is­tra­tion boost­ed Demo­c­ra­t­ic turnout, but the Wis­con­sin State Jour­nal of Madi­son reports that Repub­li­can areas also saw heavy use of the state’s last-minute reg­is­tra­tion law.” The reg­is­tra­tion sys­tem been also been adopt­ed by such deeply Repub­li­can states as Wyoming, Ida­ho and Utah.

Unlike Christie, most Repub­li­cans who have fought vot­er turnout efforts like same-day reg­is­tra­tion have argued that same-day reg­is­tra­tion would increase vot­er fraud. This has allowed the GOP to posi­tion itself as bat­tling crime — not as try­ing to block legal vot­ers. But the GOP has been unable to sub­stan­ti­ate that vot­er-fraud claim, and there is over­whelm­ing evi­dence to the contrary.

Demos, for exam­ple, sur­veyed data from six states with same-day reg­is­tra­tion and found that there has been very lit­tle vot­er fraud in [same-day reg­is­tra­tion] states over the past sev­er­al elec­tion cycles.” In GOP-dom­i­nat­ed North Dako­ta — which requires no vot­er reg­is­tra­tion at all — Sec­re­tary of State Alvin Jaeger, a Repub­li­can, report­ed that vot­er fraud has not been wide­spread in North Dako­ta” and that there have been very few known inci­dents of vot­er fraud” in the state.

Those find­ings con­firm a recent analy­sis of pri­ma­ry, gen­er­al, spe­cial and munic­i­pal elec­tions by Loy­ola Uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor Justin Levitt. He found that since 2000, more than a bil­lion bal­lots have been cast in the Unit­ed States and there have been just 31 cred­i­ble inci­dents of vot­er fraud.

In light of that data, Repub­li­can efforts to pre­vent same-day reg­is­tra­tion and pre­clude vot­ing betray a fear that has noth­ing to do with vot­er fraud and every­thing to do with polit­i­cal pow­er. Essen­tial­ly, the GOP fears that when more Amer­i­cans exer­cise their basic demo­c­ra­t­ic rights, Repub­li­cans may have less chance of win­ning elections.

David Siro­ta is an award­win­ning inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist and an In These Times senior edi­tor. He served as speech writer for Bernie Sanders’ 2020 cam­paign. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @davidsirota.
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