In this episode of the Matrix Podcast, Jennie Barker, a PhD Candidate in the Charles and Louise Travers Department of Political Science at UC Berkeley — and a Matrix Communications Scholar — spoke with Emily Rong Zhang, Assistant Professor at UC Berkeley Law School, about her research on voter turnout in the United States.
Voter turnout has been a hot topic in the news. Turnout soared to highs not seen in decades during the 2020 presidential elections and in the 2018 and 2022 midterm elections. Yet at the same time, there has been a new wave of restrictions on voting, including voter ID laws that have been introduced in a number of states. This has led to alarm that these laws could significantly suppress voter turnout.
Emily Rong Zhang holds a PhD in Political Science and a JD from Stanford University and was a Skadden Fellow at the ACLU Voting Rights Project. She has also litigated voting rights challenges in Ohio, Kansas, and New York. We asked her to help us think through the different factors influencing voter turnout and how we should understand this concept today.
Jennie Barker: Let’s talk about why voter turnout has become such a focus for social science and legal research. In recent years, we’ve seen a number of states implement more restrictive voting laws. At the same time, we’ve also seen social scientists and lawyers become really interested in this topic in their research and in their litigation. Why is this happening?
Emily Rong Zhang: In political science, there’s always been an interest in voter turnout. Whether people vote or not has long been the dependent variable of interest. But historically, that interest has been much more at the personal level of explaining differences in why Person A votes and Person B doesn’t by looking at the effects that various socioeconomic factors have had, such as age, education, and other factors.
But the recent concern, and the focus on election laws in particular, has been driven by legal changes. The central piece of the Voting Rights Act was the preclearance regime, which subjected certain localities to the regime based on historical rates of racial discrimination and voting. If you were one of these localities that had historical racial discrimination in voting, you would have to subject changes in your voting laws to the Department of Justice in Washington, DC for preclearance before they could be implemented. That prevented the implementation of many of the kinds of state laws that we’re currently worried about.
The decision of the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013 held that the way we put localities under preclearance was invalid. It basically nullified preclearance. Without preclearance, folks were very concerned about what would happen to various localities and the kinds of laws they would choose to implement, voter ID laws being only one among many other possibilities. The other possibilities include things like changing polling locations without a lot of prior notice, removing early voting opportunities, removing other opportunities to vote, eliminating the ability to register to vote on the same day, and the like.
Barker: In your recently published paper, you focused specifically on voter ID laws, examining the effects of voter ID laws on voter turnout. Can you tell us why you examined voter ID laws specifically, and how people have historically thought about voter ID laws and why they might affect voter turnout?
Zhang: Voter ID laws actually predate the removal of preclearance. You can think of them as the OG voter suppression laws. They had gained notoriety way before 2013. For example, they were very controversial in the passage of the Help America Vote Act in 2002. They have been around for a long time, and there’s a very large academic literature assessing their effects.
It may be more accurate to characterize my paper as focusing on the studies of voter ID laws. Basically, these studies find that these laws have had no effect on voter turnout, which is a surprising finding from everyone’s perspective, including the researchers who did these studies in the first place. And of course, this was a surprising finding to those of us who are concerned about the cost that voting laws can impose on voting. This is what prompted the paper.
Barker: In this paper, you look at the standard approaches to studying vote suppression in the social sciences, but your research takes a different approach to understanding this topic. Could you explain what the standard approaches are to understanding vote suppression? How does your research differ from those?
Zhang: Most of the social science studies are trying to estimate the number of marginal voters — that is, the number of people who would have voted but for the law. I characterize this as counting the kind of number of votes suppressed, but I don’t think that captures the entire picture of what might be going on as a result of one of these laws.
Let me tell you about two sets of people I’m worried about. The first set of people I’m worried about are folks who still vote under the law, but experience more costs to voting as a result of the law. That is, their votes are not lost as a result of the law, even if the cost of voting and their burdens of voting have increased. You might think of these as sort of especially resilient voters: voters who are willing to stand in line, who are willing to go get the underlying documentation, and the like. Obviously, calculating the number of votes lost does not begin to capture the kind of costs that these type of voters have incurred.
There’s a second group of folks that I’m even more worried about. These are people who would not have voted, even if the law had not been in place. The reason I’m worried about these folks is that the law may still be playing quite an important role in preventing them from voting. That is, if these laws need to go away in order for these people to vote, even if they otherwise wouldn’t have, it may still be playing quite an important and deleterious role in preventing people from voting in this other sort of sense that isn’t captured by the conventional marginal votes approach.
Barker: The distinction you make in your work is that there’s a difference between focusing on vote suppression and voter suppression. What is this concept of voter suppression and how does it differ? Why are these other groups of people you’re worried about missed when focusing on only the broader vote totals?
Zhang: What it reflects is a difference in your perspective and what you care about. I can see why a political campaign working on behalf of a candidate is interested in how many votes they might lose for the candidate, given the imposition of the law. The perspective I’m advocating for is to assess what the voting landscape looks like for voters and think about the role that these laws play for individuals, especially those who have not historically participated at very high rates. They already face an immense number of obstacles. We know this from various other parts of the literature. For voting laws to play an additional role in preventing them from voting is something that’s really worth worrying about.
I think it’s a matter of asking the question from all perspectives. Instead of only the aggregate perspective — of how this has affected our results — it’s also looking from the perspective of how this has affected the consumer, ground-level experience of voting.
Barker: It seems to me that the social science literature takes a very narrow view on what democracy is. They think of it as people turning out to vote and exercising their voices and opinions, rather than the broader experience of what it means to have barriers when you are trying to vote, or to have unequal access in exercising your voice in the country. That’s a really interesting distinction that you’re getting at with your work.
Zhang: I appreciate that. You put that better than I would have put it myself.
Barker: I am glad that I could try. I also study political science, so I am steeped in a lot of these questions. Something you discussed in your paper is that there has been a surprising, if worrying development in that justices in state and federal courts are beginning to focus on just the numbers of votes. They are looking at vote suppression, rather than voter suppression. As someone who is always thinking about how social scientists can bridge the gap to the policy world, I think you highlight the negative side effects of this. Why do you think that this tendency to focus on vote suppression has transcended the social science studies that are really focused on studying causal effects, to the work of justices when they are hearing cases? They are engaging in and citing this research and referencing it in their opinions. Why do you think you’ve seen this happen in recent years?
Zhang: I have two primary concerns about courts and the way they engage with social science evidence. Generally, there’s a lot of interest from the judiciary about what’s going on in the social sciences, which I think is very beneficial. But then there are these two traps that I think that the judiciary can fall into when consuming social science evidence.
The first is there are some facile inferences that can often be made by judges that are “social science-y” but not terribly rigorous. Let me give you a prime example. Judges are always interested in what happens to voter turnout after the voter suppression law in question has been put into effect. That is a very incorrect inference to make. There are lots of other reasons that may cause turnout to go up or down: the competitiveness of the race, the amount of money in the election, and the like. Comparing voter turnout before and after is just a very bad idea for all sorts of reasons that you’re very well familiar with from your social science research background. But this is something that judges are sometimes tempted to do in their kind of armchair social science mode. I think it’s motivated by a good instinct, which is to understand what effect the law has been having in the real world, but they are doing it by asking these questions that are not terribly rigorous.
The second thing I’m worried about with courts is that they’re not terribly good at interpreting the results of studies. This is especially true in the context of voter ID laws. The literature has found no effect, but it is not a null effect that is very well estimated. The best study that I cite in the paper is still consistent with almost a -2% decrease to 2% increase in voter turnout. Simply reading the headline findings of the paper finding no effect is not actually going to peel back that particular precision issue and necessarily lead to the right inferences by courts.
These issues are what I really worry about as we begin to see more thirst for social science evidence from the courts. We should make sure that they are interpreting that evidence in the right way and relying on it for the right things.
Barker: Another consequence of this is the title of your paper, which is “Questioning the Questions.” It seems that justices have become less interested in asking these bigger questions that you have brought up already and that you’re concerned with in your work, which are: why are these laws happening, what are they actually like, and what is the purpose behind these laws? Instead, they are instead simply asking if these laws are affecting turnout. I think we would hope that the judiciary is interested in those bigger questions as well. In your work, have you seen a neglect or perhaps not as careful study of these questions?
Zhang: You’re absolutely right. Conventionally, the legal analysis in assessing voter restrictions is a balancing test. It asks, what burdens does this law impose on voters? And what is the reason for the state imposing this particular restriction? We do lots of things in election administration that impose lots of costs on voters that we accept because they are for a good reason. Voter registration is the biggest one: we require voters to register to vote in advance of voting because it ensures that only eligible folks are participating, and it allows for the state to ensure that they’re not disenfranchised if the state has a disenfranchisement law.
What’s interesting is that there’s been such a strong interrogation of the social science evidence on the part of the balancing test asking whether there are burdens on voters, and much, much less on questioning the state’s rationale. With voter ID laws in particular, I think that is a real shame. Voter ID laws are meant to address in-person voter fraud, which is showing up to a polling location and claiming to be someone else. The incidence of voter fraud is just exceedingly rare. You might ask why the courts do not spend more time interrogating the empirical evidence behind that. I think that is a very fair question.
Barker: So far, we’ve talked a lot about how studies and courts tend to focus on how various policies affect registered voters. There is less of a focus on the particular state’s rationale or even thinking about these populations that you mentioned being really worried about. Here I am referring to the non-voting eligible citizens (people who could vote, but don’t), as well as people who do vote but have to spend numerous hours making sure that they can exercise that right in terms of getting to the polling location, making sure they have all the documentation, all of these different barriers they have to overcome.
In some of your forthcoming work, you focus specifically on voter turnout among system-impacted individuals, or people who have been impacted by the incarceration system in some way. I’d like to talk about who these individuals are and why voting rates are still so low for them. We have seen a spate of laws here in California aimed at restoring voting rights. In California, I believe there is even a law under consideration that would allow people who are currently in prison to vote. In other states, people who have felony convictions have also had their voting rights restored. Even still, their voting rates, as you’ve documented, are still pretty low. Why? I think this connects a little bit with our discussion of the barriers that people face that we might not see in a lot of the social science research.
Zhang: These felon disenfranchisement laws have been around a very, very long time, and they are one of the remaining vestiges of Jim Crow laws in the South. They’ve been tremendously durable. Back in my days of working with voting rights attorneys, I would chat with them and ask them what the one thing they would do to change the voting landscape in the country. The answer would be to get rid of the felon disenfranchisement laws because they disenfranchise large numbers of individuals just based on their bare application.
There has been a tremendous amount of reform in this area, especially in some of the toughest states. Virginia, Florida, and a couple of others used to have lifetime disenfranchisement: if you committed a crime, you lose your right to vote forever. For a long time, it was thought that there was nothing much that anyone could do about it. Recently, however, we got a real landslide of reforms coming from all different sources. In Virginia, the governor used his pardon power to pardon everyone with a particular history. In Florida, a ballot initiative was passed. Other states have also made more individuals with convictions eligible to vote. In California, there was the proposition that gave the right to vote to folks on parole, which passed. The legal landscape is rapidly shifting.
And yet, even in states that have relatively liberal (and I mean here purely descriptively liberal) felon disenfranchisement laws, we know that voting participation rates are really low. The question is, will these reforms actually have any impact if folks don’t know about it? In California, if people have the right to vote following a criminal conviction but are not voting, why would we expect the change, for instance in Florida, to have any effect? Understanding more the experiences that system-impacted folks have with the election system seems vitally important to analyzing the effect these legal changes are going to have.
Barker: In your research, you’ve done some focus groups and interviews. What have you found? How have system-impacted individuals described their experience and whether they have voted or not?
Zhang: This is a joint project with Dr. Naomi Sugie at UC Irvine and a fantastic set of graduate students at UC Irvine and one at Stanford. The big thing that I’ve taken away from the project is that we typically think of election law typically in a federalism way. We always talk about election law federalism because election administration and laws are determined at the state level. When we think about felon disenfranchisement laws, we always think about the varieties. There are some really strict states, like Florida, Iowa, and Virginia, and then there are more liberal states, where even voting from prison or from jail is a goal of the reform movement.
However, the interview and the focus group data suggest to me that there was much less federalism going on in the lived experiences of folks than the laws would suggest. In these experiences, it seems there is actually one felon disenfranchisement law, and the contours of that law are unspecified, very unclear, and blurry to most folks at the retail level. What we have are instances where people in California will point to the example of Crystal Mason in Texas, who was prosecuted for having voted with a conviction. She was ineligible to vote under Texas’s felon disenfranchisement statute, but that has no implication for voters in California. But a Californian hears that and thinks, if she can’t vote, then I can’t.
This has been a big realization of mine. I thought of this in relatively formalistic terms: what is the law in Texas and what is the law in California? I now think much more that there is some amorphous force that people refer to and have some experience with. This is what they go by, rather than the letter of the particular statute in their state.
Barker: I found that story so impactful. It seems that the way researchers approach this issue is focusing on specific states and what is happening there. In social science, we’re always thinking about the unit of analysis, and we’re not really thinking about what’s going on outside of that. In this case, what has been the role of media coverage? Even I remember that story about the woman in Texas. It seems like people are hearing about cases like this in the news, but then it isn’t counteracted by actual information that says, no, this isn’t actually what’s going on in the state in which you live. Why is there this gap? Why is the media filling in a lot of the space where you should see actual information that could help people?
Zhang: That’s a great point. There’s a huge information vacuum for this particular population. For folks who have been a part of the criminal legal system from a young age, there was no time between when they became eligible to vote and the point of reentry. They lack a prior history with voting and any base level of knowledge. Plus, there is a lack of official sources to obtain this information. This is not a part of what people are told by anyone, typically, in the process of reentry. Even if they receive this information, it is at a time when they need it least. Upon reentry, people are worried about making ends meet.
The other piece of it is extreme risk aversion in this population about doing the wrong thing. Voting illegally with a criminal record is a fear that is very palpable for folks who have spent time in the criminal legal system. I think all of these forces combine to create an inclination to disbelieve that you are eligible to vote when you actually are eligible to vote.
Barker: A bright spot that you and your co-authors discussed in the paper is that these individuals can, in fact, be brought successfully into the electorate. Can you speak a bit about what has helped these individuals access their right to vote?
Zhang: The literature is very clear on this. If you tell people they are eligible to vote, some of them will vote. This suggests that the problem people face is really one of misinformation. But if you correct that misinformation, there are real gains to be had. What we don’t know beyond that is who is the best messenger for the information. We are still working on the best ways to convey that information in terms of timing, the quality of message, and the like, but there’s clearly a lot we can do on that front.
The other frontier is drawing on this area of work on what motivates people. There may be something in particular about being system-impacted that may be motivational for folks to participate. This is a very active area of work that our team and others are working on.
Barker: In your research, you worked with community organizations. What role can these types of organizations play in helping overcome this vast information gap that people are facing?
Zhang: At the baseline level, as you’ve referenced already, we know a ton about people who are registered to vote and who regularly vote. This is because they are in a database provided by the state, which can be obtained through public information requests in many states. Campaigns regularly do this. That’s why you and I get text messages, emails, mailers, and the like, because we’re known to participate. We are typically the population that campaigns and other political actors are trying to move.
We know much, much less about the population of folks who don’t and have not historically participated in voting at high rates. There is a way in which the high quality of information available for registered voters has further prevented work to be done about folks who have not historically participated. This is just because it is infinitely harder to know about their situation. Thus, there are many, many reasons to work with community organizations. At the baseline level, we’re actually getting to hear from people you wouldn’t otherwise get to hear from. This is enormously important because it allows research to shed light on something that we don’t know that much about already.
Of course, there are lots of other incredible things these organizations do. In this project, we are partnering with the Alliance for Safety and Justice. They are a tremendous community organization that provides all sorts of wraparound services for folks in reentry, and they come with a tremendous amount of expertise about the particular barriers folks face. We have just learned a tremendous amount from working with them.
Barker: That makes me think a bit about the trade-offs of doing research. I’m currently a grad student, and you’re encouraged to do very innovative research, but then you have limited time and resources; you have to get data. I can see why people tend to take advantage of the high-quality data we do have on people who regularly vote. As you’ve mentioned, there are the startup costs associated with getting to these other populations, even if you work with community organizations. Obviously it’s not a great thing, but I can understand why there has been this tremendous focus on analyzing the information on regular voters. Besides finding out that, people are often thinking about disenfranchisement laws in relation to what is happening to people who I relate to, even if they’re outside the state, what are other surprising findings that you’ve had from doing this research about people whose stories do not typically make it into the literature?
Zhang: The first thing I’m always surprised by is the number of people we talked to who learned something about their state’s felon disenfranchisement regime. There is almost always someone who says, “Oh, I didn’t know that.” This reaffirms the kind of misinformation landscape that people are typically in.
The other thing that I have spent some time thinking about more recently is the mental transition for people who go from being a non-voter to a voter. What is the mental process that someone goes through? It’s interesting hearing the way people talk about this. Something that has occurred to me as I have been going through the data is that people who become voters tend to see themselves as a constituent.
I was very struck by one person who said, “I never voted or participated before, but there are maggots coming out of the showerhead in the prison. Someone has to be responsible for this. Who is that person? And what role can I play in holding this person to account for this thing that’s happening to me?”
I think there is something that happens to people that causes that transformation at some point, and that’s what motivates them to vote. For me, as someone who studies voting, trying to put my finger on that transformation has been a really interesting and fun part of the project. As you can tell, I don’t have a way of describing it yet, but I do think there is something that occurs that makes people see the role that they as an individual can play. That’s what matters.
Barker: That’s super interesting. I am excited to see what you come up with! From our discussion today, it seems like a challenge in the fields that you’re in is bridging the gap between focusing on voter turnout and how to bring new voters into the electorate. Campaigns, social scientists, and judges, as we have said, are interested in voter turnout. But it is also important to think about this question that you’ve just so eloquently discussed, which is why some people make this transition to becoming a voter and seeing themselves as having the ability to hold someone to account. How can scholars and practitioners bridge the gap between these two problems and stop talking past each other?
Zhang: That’s a such a good question — and a question that so many people face, even beyond the world that we are in, with political science and law and policy. I am still very much for all of the fancy ways of learning we now have in the world, ChatGPT being only one of many changes. However, I still think talking to people is one of the best ways of learning about things that you do not know as much about than someone else does, and facilitating that dialogue.
I do not mean to make this seem like an individual responsibility issue; I think there are structural ways that academic and other types of institutions can facilitate this dialogue. It should not be on individuals to seek out others. There should be institutional and structural incentives for that kind of dialogue to occur. This is also not without its challenges. People come to these conversations with their backgrounds, their trainings, and their particular way of seeing the world. If you are a social scientist, you come in looking for causal effects; that’s what you’re trained to do. If you are a lawyer, you are trying to bring about a lawsuit. It can be hard to get people to break out of their mold, whatever that might be. I think the trickier question is not just in setting up structures for interactions but finding ways to make those interactions really meaningful and fruitful for people. This is an ongoing struggle.
Barker: I know this is still early on in the project, but are there communities — such as counties, cities, or states — where you are seeing this dialogue happening more successfully than in other places? Maybe you have seen election administrators, lawyers, or academics take a broader view of voter turnout or seek out these opportunities or perspectives that they might be missing. Are there places where people who may not have ever voted are entering the electorate, or is this an area where there’s still a lot of room for improvement?
Zhang: Much of this work thus far has been on the convenience voting side. For all of the gloom and doom about how hard it is to vote in certain parts of the country, there is a phenomenon where it has never been easier to vote in other parts of the country. However, the work on this is not as driven by wanting to bring new people into the electorate. Part of this is because it is really, really hard, and we don’t know much about what is good at doing that, apart from election day registration and some other measures.
There has been a huge amount of evidence-based reform in making voting easier for folks who are already in the habit of participating, whether it’s vote-by-mail ballots or other regimes. Social scientists do not typically get involved until a policy is implemented and they are in a position of evaluating it. For example, ranked choice voting has become very prominent in recent years, and there’s going to be a large cohort of social scientists interested in the effects that these regimes will have.
Barker: Thinking about the push for vote by mail in some states during COVID-19 experience, I wonder if there is a realm of opportunity that has opened in some places that we could not imagine five or ten years ago. That’s really interesting.
I wanted to ask you a bit about the potential broader impacts that restrictive voting laws or the more reform-minded provisions that we just discussed might have. We know, for example, that things like voter ID laws may introduce additional burdens, including from your own research. We know also that felony disenfranchisement, as your research also shows, can have long-lasting effects on access. But I wonder if there are other ways that these restrictive voting laws can impact elections. One of the things I’m really interested in is confidence in election results and institutions. How do you think these voter ID laws or more reform-minded provisions, like implementing new opportunities for people with felonies to vote, are shaping people’s perception of how confident should they should feel in electoral outcomes?
Zhang: That’s an extremely important question, and we know very little about it. There’s the very important question of whether some folks are less confident in the results of the election if there are no voter ID laws in place. Who are these people? And how does that interact with the countervailing potential, that confidence is increased among other populations?
According to the court, voter confidence was the reason for implementing these voter ID laws. Apart from the in-person voter fraud concern, which we’ve already talked about as being not a particularly strong reason for implementing these laws, the court relied on its empirical assumption that these laws boost voter confidence. There is some evidence on this question, but not much (see here, here, and here). This research is extremely important.
Vote by mail is the other big question, specifically whether vote by mail reduces confidence in the legitimacy of the result. This is obviously a huge concern, but we just do not know that much about it. Even if there are people whose confidence is reduced, we also need to think about the extent.
Barker: I wonder if there is another layer to this. In your research on felony disenfranchisement and enfranchisement, you found that people are not just hearing about what is going on in their states or their county, they are hearing about the whole landscape in the country. Is that another complication? Are people who are living in California thinking that because there are these voter ID laws in Georgia, they are less confident overall? In your research on voter ID laws, is this something you’ve seen or heard or are thinking about?
Zhang: It’s a nice connection. In the voter ID literature, everyone is moving towards looking within specific states, such as North Carolina, Wisconsin, and the like, and leveraging the difference between people who have and do not have ID and detecting various effects. What I’m learning about the felon disenfranchisement world leads me to think that the discrete way of thinking about these laws and their effects within states may not apply in the voter ID context as well.
That is, do we expect people who currently do not have an ID to really be asking detailed questions about the particular voter ID regime in their state? Or do we expect them to just have the view that people like us are not allowed to vote? This obviously has not been empirically tested yet, but that is certainly a suspicion that I now have, knowing what I know about the way individuals with convictions approach felon disenfranchisement laws. Of course, there are lots of reasons to believe this would not be the case, so that is why I think the empirical tests would really tell us a lot.
Barker: Hopefully you can help contribute to this! We are approaching the end of our time here, so I wanted to turn to your experience as a scholar. This podcast is with Social Science Matrix, which is an organization that’s intended to support cross-disciplinary research across the social sciences. Your research is very much doing this. You have a background as a political scientist but you are also a practicing lawyer, and you draw on both of these traditions. You also examine where these two traditions are speaking to one another and where they are also speaking past each other. Could you talk about your own experience of the challenges and the benefits of doing the kind of work that’s bridging different disciplines, traditions, methods, and understandings of what the causes are?
Zhang: My view on this, as with my view on almost everything, is that there are costs and benefits on both sides. I think the benefits are a little easier to highlight in an interview like this, because when we talk about this topic, you can see how it all fits in.
I can be a little more explicit in thinking about the costs. There is no free lunch; I do not have any more hours in my day than you do. Investing in two different sets of skills means a few possible outcomes. You can invest mostly in doing one well and the other poorly, or you can do both poorly. For those costs to make sense, one has to be working on something where it makes sense to take on those costs, because the benefits ultimately outweigh them.
In many ways, I was very lucky. I happened upon election law, despite having very little background in it. It fit both my professional and personal, temperamental ways that it worked out for me. I do not want to downplay the amount of time it takes to hone one’s skills in any particular area, and having to do that in two fields entails certain sacrifices. On the other hand, it comes with immense benefits.
The final thing I’ll say about what I like about having done both of these things is, I really do feel like I have a sense of how the world works in a way that I think I would not have gotten if I’d only honed my skills in one area. That is, I feel like I both have a theoretically driven and a factually accurate view of how things happen that I have found personally and professionally satisfying.
Barker: I think there are ways that you have been able to look at both the legal research and the social science research and say, are we missing something really important? For such an important question such as being able to vote in our democracy, I am glad that you are doing this.
Zhang: Thanks so much. I really appreciate it.
Barker: Thank you for joining us today and for this very wide-ranging discussion on voter turnout and on voting rights in general, as well as how we should think about our democracy and who can participate, and who isn’t participating and who should be able to participate. UC Berkeley is very lucky to have you thinking about these questions that are, as I said, so important to our democracy.
Zhang: Thanks so much, Jennie.