I’ve been reading some of the research on the effect on turnout of various changes in the voting rules. It seems that a move to universal mail-in balloting does increase turnout at the margin, while other changes — like the kind of reforms we’ve been debating in Georgia — don’t make much difference one way or another.
As far as I can tell, the most persuasive theory is that what really drives turnout isn’t the convenience of voting so much as voter interest, i.e., if you can get someone engaged in an election, he’s going vote no matter what the rules are.
MIT political scientist Adam Berinsky has made this point:
The problem, I believe, is that when we talk about the “costs” of voting, we have been thinking about the wrong kinds of costs—the direct costs of registering to vote and casting a ballot. Most politicians and scholars have focused reform efforts on these tangible barriers to voting, making it easier for all citizens to vote, regardless of their personal circumstances. But, as I have argued elsewhere, the more significant costs of participation are the cognitive costs of becoming involved with and informed about the political world. Studies of voting from the last 60 years make this point clear. Political interest and engagement, after all, determine to a large extent who votes and who does not.
If this is true, Donald Trump was one the most powerful tools of enfranchisement, in the sense of people actually voting, that American politics has seen in a very long time. This wasn’t necessarily a good thing. It depended on both Trump supporters and opponents being constantly in a state of high agitation. But it was a boon for turnout, and one that changes such as more no-excuse absentee voting or more early voting days couldn’t possibly match.