This article was co-published with The Daily Beast.
When Major League Baseball relocated the All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver in response to Georgia’s new voting law, Fox News was quick to react. “Is the White House concerned that Major League baseball is moving their All-Star Game to Colorado, where voting regulations are very similar to Georgia?” Fox News reporter Peter Doocy asked White House press secretary Jen Psaki last week.
The network also featured Brian Kemp, governor of Georgia and former secretary of state there, claiming that it was “hypocritical” to move the game to Colorado, which, after all, has only half the number of early voting days and more strenuous ID requirements than those the new Georgia law has enacted. In a Republican National Lawyers Association Q&A this week, Kemp said the battle over the law—which pits Georgia-based companies and voting-rights activists against the state’s Republicans—represented the “fight of our lives” against “cancel culture.”
All of this misses the point. It is futile to attempt an apples-to-apples comparison of one state’s voting policies to another’s, because there are wide variations in local voting cultures, demographics, geographies, and legal idiosyncrasies. Comparing Georgia’s voting requirements to Colorado’s without this context is like asking why you can play Beethoven on a piano but not a tambourine, as both happen to be instruments.
For example, although it is factually true that Georgia has double the number of early voting days as Colorado, it’s important to acknowledge that most Georgians vote in person while almost no Coloradans do. To say that this is an advantage over Colorado is to fundamentally misunderstand how Coloradans vote. And the proof is in the numbers: Turnout in 2020 was 10 percentage points higher in Colorado than it was in Georgia. It’s unpersuasive to claim that your state is the same as another state when the results are so different, akin to two stores with the exact same security policies but with far different rates of theft because, say, one store is in a mall and the other is in an outdoor market.
These misleading comparisons between states show the need for a smarter measuring stick. We should compare states to themselves. Would this bill make voting in this state harder to access than the current rules do? That standard would enable appropriate scrutiny of states that choose to make their own laws worse, negating the need for red-state-blue-state pissing matches, and instead holding the line and demanding states don’t undo their own good work.
“If we want to talk about comparing one state to comparing the other, let’s see what trajectory they’re on,” Bob Brandon, president and CEO of the nonpartisan Fair Elections Center, recently told NBC News. Similarly, Justin Levitt, law professor at Loyola Law School at Loyola Marymount University in California, rejected state-by-state comparisons. Having an outdated law on the books is a lot different from “looking back on that law, in the current context, and saying, ‘Yeah, we need one of those,’” he said. “‘Somebody else screwed up’ is not an excuse for screwing up. That’s the inane part about whatabout-ism.”
But that whatabout-ism is how politicians and the media have been focusing their attention. They are distracted by essentially meaningless rankings of states’ “ease of access,” pulled from data that is not uniformly collected or may be entirely based on one activism group’s interpretation of the laws as expansive or restrictive—hardly scientific comparisons. Today, conservative media outlets superficially compare the Georgia law to other states with no context. Not a single one has asked, “Does this make it easier for the exact same people in the same state to vote in the way they just did?” The restrictions of the new law may not affect turnout, but they won’t make voting easier or elections better either. It is far simpler, and more logical, to question whether a state is improving or worsening its own standards, and in light of what the standards have been in the immediate past.
Take Kentucky. It is the only state with a Republican-controlled legislature that has passed bills so far this session to expand voting access. The state will now have three days of early voting, up from none, and firmer security and ease of access measures around absentee voting. It helps that the state has a governor with a “D” by his name, and also that Kentucky didn’t have to do much to make voting easier. As part of its response to the pandemic, Kentucky offered early and absentee voting for the first time. Once voters realized what a hassle voting had been when they only had a single day to vote in person in the middle of the week, there was no turning back. The voters demanded it become law.
Most Republican-controlled state legislatures are poised to do the opposite: Legislation has been introduced that would make laws materially worse for voters, all based on the lie that the election was compromised by fraud. The Georgia law, while it does expand early voting and is a far cry from the horrors of the original legislation, will still produce new barriers for Georgians compared with access in 2020. It gives the state far stricter controls over the counties, essentially makes dropboxes useless, and prevents elections officials from sending absentee-ballot applications out to voters proactively. It also allows partisan groups to challenge the eligibility of an infinite number of voters, with essentially no limitations.
Conservatives have also found a carrier for their grievances in the idea that blue states with restrictive voter laws are ignored while red states that introduce the same laws have big baseball games ripped away from them. Connecticut has no early voting at all. Neither does Delaware, the home of President Joe Biden. New Jersey just adopted nine days, the fifth-shortest window in the country, and New York only has 10. Connecticut, Delaware, and New Jersey also have far more restrictive absentee-ballot requirements than almost every state, including those in the Republican South. So why, they ask, do the Republican states end up getting all the criticism?
While as a Texan I have long harbored the same frustration—when I lived in New York, for example, I could only vote in in-person at my precinct on Election Day (the 10 early days were introduced last year), and in Texas I can vote for 15 days anywhere in the county—the argument is unproductive. With the latest round of voting legislation, blue states are moving far more rapidly toward modern standards while Republican states are aggressively attempting to roll back what little advantages they had over their bluer counterparts (assuming, of course, they ever really had them). Since I’ve left New York, it has adopted early voting and updated its absentee-ballot requirements. It has implemented ranked-choice voting and synchronized federal and state primary schedules.
Meanwhile, my home state has gone rapidly in the other direction. As in Georgia and other Republican-led states, proposals in Texas would restrict access to some of its best voting policies by banning drive-through voting (implemented with great success by Harris County, home of Houston), limiting absentee ballots and reducing early voting. Even the most draconian of these laws will still allow voters more time to vote early than those in Delaware, Connecticut, and New Jersey—but that’s not much comfort to a Texan.