Does Partisan Self-interest Dictate Support for Election Reform? Experimental Evidence on the Willingness of Citizens to Alter the Costs of Voting for Electoral Gain

Daniel R. Biggers

That elected officials seek to change electoral rules and institutions for their own advantage is widely accepted by both academics and in public discourse. Such efforts are perhaps best illustrated by the decades-long partisan battle across states over the ease with which eligible citizens can exercise their right to vote. Debates over what identification one must show to vote, when and how one can vote, and the degree to which state governments should facilitate the voter registration process all divide officials along partisan lines based on how those changes might impact future electoral prospects.

Less clear is whether average citizens think about electoral policies in a similar manner. Previous research suggests they do: partisans often share the preferences for election laws of their party’s leaders, and those identifying with the party out of power are more favorable toward reforms that could improve their chances of future electoral and policy success. That work, however, fails to conclusively show that citizens engage in this type of evaluation, as their attitudes may instead derive from simple cue taking or a reflexive desire to alter the rules of the game under which they lost. Furthermore, a large literature suggests that citizens value procedural fairness, which should make them hesitant to support any reform that games the system too much for one side, even their own.

In my recent article in Political Behavior, I show that citizens can and do evaluate election rules based on how they impact their party’s future electoral prospects. To do so, I focus on three common reforms that directly influence how easy it is for citizens to register and vote: requiring photo identification to vote, permitting registrants to vote before Election Day (early voting), and allowing citizens to both register and vote on Election Day (Election Day registration, or EDR). Requiring photo ID to vote makes turnout more difficult by introducing an additional burden on political action (even if relatively modest for many registrants), while the other two reforms make voting more convenient by expanding opportunities to register and vote. I selected these policies because they are among those most frequently debated and implemented across states, as well as the fact that they tap into stated concerns about ensuring procedural fairness. As these reforms directly affect who can and will take part in the political process, to the extent that fairness concerns moderate a willingness to game the system in one’s favor, they should do so here.

I asked respondents in two survey experiments to report their level of support for each of these policies. In explaining the policies, I used either a generic description of the individuals affected by the reform (e.g., “some eligible voters”) or identified them as supporters of one of the two major parties. These latter conditions provided respondents with a clear understanding of the implications of adopting or rejecting the reform in question (in terms of how it would affect the participation of partisan allies or opponents). The results show that party members consistently consider their own partisan self-interest. Both Republicans and Democrats express greater support (opposition) for a reform framed as making voting easier (more difficult) for co-partisans than when that same reform is framed as doing so for their electoral opponents. In other words, citizen update their attitudes toward the rules governing how easily people can participate in the political process when informed about how those rules impact their party’s prospects at the polls.

These findings have several important implications. For one, public opinion is thought to restrict the extent to which officials can shape electoral institutions for partisan interest, but the results here suggest that this constraint may not be as strong as some claim. Despite professed concerns about institutional and procedural fairness, some citizens appear open to altering the ease of participation to improve their party’s prospects. To be fair, the changes in policy support are relatively modest in size and still often signal a high degree of support. That equity considerations do not completely mitigate the desire to obtain an electoral edge, however, raises questions about the limits to which partisans can be swayed to game the electoral system in their favor. More broadly, the results show that when provided with the necessary information, individuals choose to update their attitudes to better reflect their preferred electoral outcomes. As such, the future prospects of electoral reforms and their support among the mass public likely hinge at least in part on the extent to which they are viewed as advancing partisan interests.



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