Home > News > Why Americans don’t fight back when states make it harder to vote
263 views 9 min 0 Comment

Why Americans don’t fight back when states make it harder to vote

Our research finds that few Americans realize that logistical barriers — fewer ballot drop boxes, shorter poll hours and the like — actually do stop people from voting

- November 6, 2022

As Americans vote in the midterm elections, many are doing so under new rules for mail-in ballots, stricter identification requirements and at fewer polling places open fewer hours. Texas, for instance, banned overnight poll hours, which Harris County had offered for the 2020 election to make voting easier for workers with inflexible schedules. Arkansas requires election officials to verify that signatures on mail-in ballot envelopes exactly match the ones on voter registration rolls, a process that experts consider error-prone and likely to discount valid ballots. And states from Georgia to Arizona closed polling locations and consolidated ballot drop boxes — often in areas with more minority voters — meaning that citizens will have to travel farther if they want to vote.

Making it harder to vote means fewer people vote. That’s what happens when polling places are farther away, when polls’ open hours are limited, or even when it rains. Such roadblocks especially affect minorities and others who may not own a car, have child care, or be able to take time off work to vote.

And yet few Americans have rallied against legislators as they’ve instituted new voter restrictions in several states since the 2020 election. Last year alone, 19 states put in place laws that make voting more difficult. In fact, many have championed these as blocks against electoral fraud. That’s in part because of the American conviction that a person can do what they set their mind to — which overlooks how likely it is that practical barriers will get in the way.

Don’t miss any of TMC’s smart analysis! Sign up for our newsletter.

Few Americans understand how restrictive voting rules reduce turnout

Certainly, some people support voting restrictions because they want to prevent opposition voters from casting ballots or because they believe these restrictions will reduce voter fraud. But our research uncovered a more basic problem: Many do not recognize that these policies stop people from voting. In a new study, we found that Americans significantly underestimate how much “friction” — scientists’ term for the various difficulties that can make it hard to take action — can reduce voting.

We surveyed 1,280 eligible American voters before and after the 2020 presidential election. These voters were proportionately drawn from 10 election-competitive states, where pre-election polls suggested a less than 10 percent difference between President Donald Trump’s and Joe Biden’s share of the vote. Participants were recruited from opt-in online research panels, with quotas based on census data to match the selected states’ makeup on gender, age, race and education.

Participants answered various questions about their beliefs, such as whether they identified as conservative or liberal and whether they saw voting as their civic duty. We also asked about personal circumstances that might have made it easier or more difficult to vote in person, such as whether they owned a car, would have to find child care, or if they needed to ask for time off work to vote. (We also asked about friction related to alternative modes of voting such as knowing how to vote by mail.) We then followed up with those same people after the election to ask whether they did cast ballots.

To find out which mattered more — how important people thought it was to vote, or how difficult it would be for someone to get to the polls — we examined how well we can predict turnout based on just the frictions that a person faced, or just their beliefs. We found that beliefs proved to be only modestly better than friction in predicting who would turn out to vote.

All participants also listed any major drivers of turnout that they could think of, and then rated the importance of each driver they listed. We then examined how important they thought any frictions they listed were, compared with beliefs, and then benchmarked this perceived importance against the actual impact of friction and beliefs, based on our post-election results.

Respondents overwhelmingly said that beliefs about the importance of voting mattered much more than the circumstances that made it either more difficult or easier to vote. For instance, more than 9 out of 10 respondents mentioned a belief — such as commitment to a party — as something that drove people to the polls, while only 1 in 10 mentioned logistical issues such as not owning a car. Even people who intended to vote but didn’t because of logistical barriers did not mention such barriers as a factor.

How the next Congress could overturn House elections

This misunderstanding affected whether people supported or opposed voting restrictions

The more strongly a person viewed turnout as driven by beliefs rather than friction, the more they tended to support voting restrictions and oppose policies that make voting easier, such as automatic voter registration. This pattern held even after we accounted for other strong influences, such as partisanship and belief in voter fraud.

Americans overlook practical barriers that could make it harder to fulfill their intentions. As a result, our research suggests, some endorse voting restrictions simply because they do not recognize that small barriers can have large consequences.

Seasoned political experts, too, fall prey to this bias. Both Biden and Trump spent the bulk of their 2020 campaign funds on media. When we examined postings on their YouTube channels, we found that — mirroring our participants’ perceptions — nearly all videos invoked beliefs, while fewer than 10 percent mentioned the practicalities of casting a ballot.

Florida is juggling an election — and Hurricane Ida cleanup

Fighting voter suppression

Americans believe that they are in charge of their own destinies, far more than members of other countries. But the new voting restrictions in the upcoming midterms will put that agency to the test.

If policymakers wish to make it easier to vote, they may wish to broaden voting access, such as automatic voter registration, which boosted turnout in a variety of states, including Oregon. Those who instead wish to reduce the electorate, making it harder to vote, are on the right track when they keep adding seemingly small and surmountable barriers in voters’ way.

Professors, check out TMC’s new and improved classroom topic guides.

Asaf Mazar is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.

Geoff Tomaino is a PhD candidate in marketing, INSEAD, Singapore.

Ziv Carmon (@ZivCarmon) is the Alfred H. Heineken Chaired Professor of Marketing at INSEAD, Singapore.

Wendy Wood is provost professor emerita at the University of Southern California and author of Good Habits, Bad Habits (Macmillan, 2019).