What 2021's recent elections tell us about voting in 2022 and beyond
Recent off-year elections showed that voters may not be so invested in making it easier to vote while Republicans may benefit from higher voter turnout than they previously had thought.
DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Over the past few years, partisanship and polarization have seeped into how Americans vote more than ever. We don't know exactly what this means for the future of democracy in the U.S., but this month's elections added new data points. Explaining all of those to us now is Miles Parks, who covers voting for NPR. Hey there, Miles.
MILES PARK, BYLINE: Hi, Danielle.
KURTZLEBEN: So Virginia and New Jersey voted on who would be governor this month, but it was New York that really caught the eye of people in the voting world, people like you who watch these things closely. Why is that?
PARK: So New Yorkers rejected two ballot proposals related to voting, which was really surprising. One of these proposals would have allowed voters to get absentee ballots without having to provide a request. And one of them would have allowed for same-day voter registration. Now we do know that support for mail voting specifically was getting dragged down over the last year and a half by President Trump's false rhetoric around, you know, election fraud and voting security. But that was with Republicans. Democrats were generally really supportive of it still. And yet these voting proposals got crushed, which begs this question, how much has Trump's misinformation campaign affected Democratic voters, too? It's also worth noting that 1 out of every 10 New Yorkers just left these questions, these important questions related to how they are going to vote in the future, blank.
KURTZLEBEN: One in 10 seems like a lot of people to just not weigh in on this. Do we know why that happened?
PARK: It's really hard to say for sure, but I talked to Caitlin Brimmer, who worked the polls in Brooklyn on Election Day.
CAITLIN BRIMMER: I saw a lot of people looking at the questions surprised and a lot of them confused by the language that was used on the ballot itself.
PARK: So that just comes down to voter education. And in the time since Election Day, it has become clear that there were very little resources put towards educating voters on these questions. The Republican state party did put millions of dollars in opposing the measures, but the chair of the Democratic State Party in New York said in an interview earlier this month that they spent no money educating voters, which may have been...
PARK: ...Fine a couple years ago. Exactly. It may have been fine, you know, a couple years ago when these sorts of things were bipartisan. They were pretty universally beloved. But that is obviously not the case now.
KURTZLEBEN: Right. Well, these sorts of reforms - it's worth noting they're pretty common across the country at this point. In Virginia, for instance, this was the first governor's race where voters could vote by mail without an excuse. From an administrative perspective, did that new system go well?
PARK: It seemed to go really, really smoothly, and I think when I've been talking to voting experts the last couple of weeks about that, the big takeaway there is Republicans can win in elections where voting is pretty easy. For a long time, there's been this myth that high-turnout, easy-access elections always benefit Democrats. But in Virginia, this was the first governor's race in that state where anyone could vote by mail without an excuse. There was automatic voter registration, and there was historic turnout. Turnout was up 25% since 2017. I talked about that with Amber McReynolds, who runs a nonprofit center that helps governments implement vote by mail.
AMBER MCREYNOLDS: To me, that election showed that, look. These reforms do not benefit one side or the other. They benefit all electors, and then it's up to the campaigns to articulate their message.
PARK: You know, she noted that lots of Republican states offer vote-by-mail solutions. She helped Nebraska, for instance, transition a number of Republican-controlled counties to all-mail voting. So she hopes an election like Virginia can maybe soften places in the South, where Republican-controlled states have been really hesitant about implementing absentee ballots, implementing vote-by-mail systems - that they can look at Virginia and basically say, oh, maybe we can allow this stuff to happen, and we can still win elections.
KURTZLEBEN: That's NPR's Miles Parks. Miles, thank you so much.
PARK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.