Not all “voter suppression” is created equal

Every once in a while, FiveThirtyEight decides it needs to re-up on its #NoLabels cred and uses good data to make a bad argument.

For instance, Nate Silver has made it his mission of late to disabuse the punditocracy of the notion that Democrats have a “Blue Wall,” or built-in advantage in the Electoral College. As he points out, it would only take a slight shift in the national popular vote to put a number of states that have consistently voted for Democrats back in the Republican column. As Max Mills pointed out earlier this year, while Silver isn’t wrong, he’s missed the point: The Blue Wall doesn’t exist because demographic shifts have made certain states impregnably Democratic; it exists because demographic shifts have made the national popular vote trend Democratic, and there’s no reason to believe that those trends won’t continue given the current state of the Republican Party. So, yes, if the national popular vote shifts a few points to the right, the Republican candidate will win, but that’s unlikely for the same reason that seeing the popular vote shift to the right in New Mexico or Virginia is unlikely (though certainly not impossible).

That said, Silver’s argument pales in comparison to the one he let Eitan Hersh, a Yale political scientist, publish on his site yesterday. Hersh, drawing on research from Timing and Turnout, by UC Berkley political scientist Sarah Anzia, claims that Democrats are just as gung-ho about voter suppression as their Republican counterparts.

Hersh’s claim draws on perfectly valid data showing that Democratic legislatures are more likely to oppose moving local elections for offices such as school board into even-numbered years, which have higher turnout. But he goes far beyond Anzia’s point to claim, rather boldly, that “for Democrats like [Hillary] Clinton who are apparently aghast at Republican efforts at voter suppression, today [an Election Day in an odd-numbered year]  is a good day to take a look in the mirror.”

Predictably, the article is being passed around by conservatives as evidence that Democrats, not Republicans, are the party of rigged elections. “See?” they say, “we told you so:”

This is why FiveThirtyEight’s commitment to occasionally going out of their way to argue that, “Actually, both sides are bad” is misleading and dangerous. For starters, as Hersh himself concedes, Anzia’s core assertion is that Democratic elected officials resist moving school board elections to even-numbered years against the wishes of their own constituents and in response to interest group pressure. In other words, while organizing elections to produce non-random changes in voter turnout in order to achieve a political goal could be called voter suppression, this form of voter suppression clearly isn’t a Democratic priority; it’s an interest group priority. As Hersh writes:

Can't Vote, via Daniel Lobo / Flickr

Can’t Vote, via Daniel Lobo / Flickr

Why do Democrats and Democratic-aligned groups prefer off-cycle elections? When school boards and other municipal offices are up for election at odd times, few run-of-the-mill voters show up at the polls, but voters with a particular interest in these elections — like city workers themselves — show up in full force. The low-turnout election allows their policy goals to dominate.

Anzia shows that off-cycle elections lead to higher salaries and better health and retirement benefits for teachers and public employees…Higher salaries and better benefits for municipal employees can be a good outcome. What is interesting is that this outcome is the result of a deliberate move to hold municipal elections at times when few voters are participating.

But there’s no reason to extend these interest group preferences to the party as a whole. In fact, per Anzia’s research, Democratic voters are more likely than Republicans to favor consolidated elections, not less. As Hersh notes, “Voters of all political stripes prefer consolidated elections, and by wide margins. But that’s especially true for people who identify as Democrats, who prefer consolidated elections 73 percent to 27 percent.”

Additionally, none of this extends to the national level, where off-year elections have crippled the Democratic Party. While local Democratic elected officials may oppose consolidated elections, you won’t find progressives writ-large mounting spirited defenses of off-year elections. One need only look at last night’s results in Kentucky, Virginia and Texas to figure out why: Progressives stand to gain when more people vote.

Coincidentally, this is the same reason why we want to expand, not restrict, ballot access.

Finally, granting for the moment that local Democrats really are “suppressing votes” by scheduling elections for odd-numbered years because they know fewer people will be interested in the race, that’s a very different kind of voter suppression than actively making it harder for people who want to vote to cast a ballot. In the former case, you’re screening for voters’ information and enthusiasm; in the latter, you’re screening for voters’ race and class. Both of those may be bad, but one is clearly worse.

However, that didn’t stop Hersh from equating the two:

For readers who are sympathetic to the perspective of the off-cycle election proponents (typically Democrats), it is worth noting that these are very much the same arguments that Republicans might make in favor of voting restrictions that make voting a little bit harder for the average American. Just like voter ID or voter-registration requirements, off-cycle elections impose a cost on political participation. The cost is evidently high, since very few people participate in local elections when they are held in odd-numbered years. Maybe the cost leads to a more enlightened electorate. Or maybe it is Democratic-sponsored voter suppression.

Three quarters of Democrats are more than happy to grant that consolidated elections are good, and that intentionally avoiding consolidating elections is not the best way to secure specific policy outcomes. They may break with their local elected officials and teachers union reps on that front, but it’s a pretty big break, nonetheless. Conversely, Republican support for voter ID laws actually increases from 94% to 99% when you tell them that they may keep eligible people from voting (really). And Republican elected officials — from top to bottom — are more than happy to represent their party’s rank and file.

One party likes it when more people show up to vote; one party likes it when fewer people do. Exaggerating data to claim that both parties are Actually Bad when it comes to basic questions of democracy doesn’t make that any less the case.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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