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Exploring whether new voter laws affected the turnout for Midterm elections

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Republicans made some gains in this midterm election. They may yet capture the House or Senate or both, but they were denied the big wins many had expected, even though, in many cases, Republicans were the ones who made the rules for this election. In Georgia and many other states, Republicans passed election law changes in a direct and explicit response to the 2020 election, which their candidate lost. Professor Scott Schraufnagel is a political science professor at Northern Illinois University. He specializes in election law. Welcome to the program.

SCOTT SCHRAUFNAGEL: Glad to be here.

INSKEEP: Do you think that the voting laws passed over the past couple of years had any effect on the results we're seeing now?

SCHRAUFNAGEL: Well, you know, we had 11 states who passed only restrictions, and among them were Florida and Texas, Arizona as well. And so these are some states that, you know, have in recent election cycles been relatively mixed in terms of their partisan makeup - not Texas, though, but Arizona and Florida. And in both cases, you know, it could very well be that these election law changes have had an effect.

INSKEEP: Well, of course, we don't want to speculate too much, but let's talk about two different cases that seem a little different to me. One of them is Florida, where there were changes in election laws and also some dramatic gestures by Governor Ron DeSantis - for example, arranging the arrest of people for voter fraud if they attempted to vote while they were convicted of a felony, which is something that many people believed they had received the right to do from a referendum several years back. Did that shape the election and who even felt comfortable voting?

SCHRAUFNAGEL: Well, that's the thing, is the actual number of people that that prevents from voting is really a function of, you know, sort of intimidation, right? So it's not that there's going to be that many people voting fraudulently that are going to get caught or anything like that, but presumably, the election police force could discourage some people from, you know, turning out to vote to begin with.

INSKEEP: I feel like it is a different story, though, in Georgia, where Republicans - some were very upset about Donald Trump losing Georgia, which was affirmed by election officials from both parties, and Donald Trump losing the presidential election, which was affirmed by election officials and courts from both parties. But some people were upset. They proposed changes to the voting laws. There was an intensive debate. And it seems like the final version of that law was far less dramatic and, in some cases, uncontroversial compared to what had been proposed at the beginning. Is it possible that did not have very much effect in the end?

SCHRAUFNAGEL: Well, that's right. You know, what's interesting is both Florida and Georgia proposed much more restrictions than what ultimately passed, and I think in part because, you know, the word had gotten out that, you know, voting early and voting by mail and, you know, absentee voting and so forth does not have an obvious partisan advantage. You know, Republicans like to vote early, too. And so once - you know, for instance, in 2020, we know that where voting was easier on average, Trump actually does better than he had performed in 2016. So, you know, we made voting easier in 2020 as a result of the pandemic. Voter turnout spikes up. And Trump does better in those states that were more liberal and making voting easier.

You know, a real classic example was Iowa, where Trump does better. Joni Ernst - I don't know if you remember - wins the Senate seat. Going away, they pick up a couple of House seats. And then Republicans went out of their way to make voting more difficult, sort of shooting themselves in the foot, if you will. And so there's that - you know, and, of course, Virginia, another state where they made it easier to vote, and the Republicans picked up the governor's race in 2021. So making voting easier does not have obvious partisan implications, and it's pretty clear that Georgia and Florida legislators picked up on that.

INSKEEP: Professor Scott Schraufnagel, a political science professor at Northern Illinois University. Thanks so much.

SCHRAUFNAGEL: Sure. Happy to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.