Ballot Questions

Encouraging participation in a democracy should not be a partisan claim.

By: Sarah Niebler ’04  Tuesday, April 19, 2022 08:15 AM

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Illustration by Joyce Hesselberth

In 2021, at least 19 states passed at least 34 laws making it more difficult for voters to cast their ballots. One bill that was proposed, but has not yet passed, would revise Act 77 in Pennsylvania. Act 77, the most significant overhaul to the state’s election rules in more than 80 years, passed the Republican-controlled state legislature and was signed by Democratic Governor Tom Wolf in October 2019. The law created the opportunity for voters to vote by mail without providing an excuse. Its passage looked prescient, as less than six months later, COVID-19 made its way to the United States. The pandemic caused nearly half the states to modify their election laws making it easier for voters to cast ballots without going to the polls in person.

While the votes cast by mail in Pennsylvania’s 2020 presidential general election were disproportionately cast by Democrats, this partisan difference in vote-by-mail rates was not always present. Prior to COVID-19 and the expansion of vote-by-mail, there were only minor differences between the percentages of Democratic and Republican voters who chose to vote by mail. Some of my own research examining voting patterns in the 2020 presidential primary shows that individuals’ choice of how to cast their ballot was affected not only by their partisanship, with Republicans much more likely to vote in person, but also by their levels of support for Donald Trump. Trump’s tweets claiming that mail-in voting would lead to fraud, combined with Republicans’ reduced concern about the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, appear to have contributed to the disparity in voting methods between members of the two political parties. 

Misleading comments about mail-in voting leading to fraud continued into the general election campaign season. Differences in Democrats’ and Republicans’ confidence in the election process resulted. An NPR poll found that nationally, only 58 percent of Americans said they trust that elections in the U.S. are fair, but that figure includes nearly 90 percent of Democrats and just 36 percent of Republicans. Despite these concerns, however, the FBI and the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security have all issued statements saying there is no evidence of significant voter fraud in American elections and that the 2020 election was secure. 

Historically, tensions over voting rights haven’t always been this polarized. The initial Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 1965 passed with bipartisan support in the House and Senate and bipartisan groups of legislators amended and reauthorized aspects of the VRA five times between 1970 and 2006. The 1965 VRA explicitly prohibited racial discrimination in voting and required states with histories of discrimination to get permission from the federal government (called preclearance) before altering their voting rules. However, after the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby v. Holder removed the preclearance provision, states across the country began introducing and passing more restrictive voting laws. These laws required more (or more stringent forms) of voter identification, reduced access to early voting, consolidated polling places and made it easier to remove voters from voter rolls, among other things.  

States introducing bills limiting access to voting often couch the need for such legislation in the desire to reduce fraud, but the number of cases of voter fraud that have been prosecuted in the U.S. is exceedingly small. Additionally, while many of the changes to voting laws are seemingly race-neutral, the balance of evidence suggests they disproportionately disenfranchise people of color, specifically those who are the least educated and least wealthy. There is still no mention of a positive right to vote in the U.S. Constitution and it has taken multiple Constitutional amendments and federal laws like the VRA to approach anything that even looks close to universal suffrage.

So, where does all this leave us headed into the 2022 midterms? Partisan differences with respect to voting rights persist, but slightly less so than those related to the 2020 presidential election. Seventy percent of Americans, including 60 percent of Republicans, say they are confident in their state and local governments to conduct elections fairly and accurately in 2022. Confidence drops among Republicans, however, if asked if they would trust the results if their candidate for Congress did not win, with just 53 percent acceding that point. 

Statewide efforts to restrict voting persist. In Pennsylvania, efforts are being made to repeal Act 77 or have it declared unconstitutional. Across the country, The Brennan Center for Justice tracks restrictive voting bills introduced at the state level and found that at least 150 bills have been carried over from 2021 to 2022. The majority of these bills aim to restrict access to mail-in voting, including shortening deadlines and limiting voters’ ability to receive assistance with returning a mail-in ballot. Other bills establish or expand voter ID requirements or require proof of citizenship in order to register to vote. 

At the federal level, there was the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would have reestablished preclearance and created new national standards about which jurisdictions must do so before changing their voting laws. The law passed the U.S. House in August 2021 with all Democrats voting in favor and all Republicans voting against, but two months later, the bill failed in the Senate.

On my own campus, I work with a nonpartisan group of students, faculty and staff who educate and empower students about how to participate in Pennsylvania elections. Muhlenberg has a similar group, BergVotes. On both campuses, these groups help students register to vote, provide them with information about who the candidates are and facilitate their voting either by mail or in person on Election Day. We don’t care what party students register with or which candidates they vote for, but without their participation—and all our participation—in elections, our democracy is not living up to its promise to be a government of “we the People.” 

Sarah Niebler ’04 is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Dickinson College.