- How Did Absentee Voting Impact the 2020 U.S. Election? (Joint with Jesse Yoder, Cassandra Handan-Nader, Tobias Nowacki,
Daniel M. Thompson, Jennifer A. Wu, Chenoa Yorgason, and Andrew B. Hall). 2021. Science Advances.
The 2020 U.S. election saw high turnout, a huge increase in absentee voting, and brought unified national Democratic control—yet, contrary to much punditry, these facts do not imply that vote-by-mail increased turnout or had major partisan effects. In fact, states newly implementing no-excuse absentee voting for 2020 did not see dramatically larger increases in turnout than states that did not. Focusing on natural experiments in Texas and Indiana, we find that 65-year-olds turned out at nearly the same rate as 64-year-olds, despite voting absentee at higher rates since they didn’t have to provide an excuse to do so. Being old enough to vote no-excuse absentee did not substantially increase Democratic turnout relative to Republican turnout, either. In sum, no-excuse absentee voting seems to have mobilized few voters and had a muted partisan effect despite the historic pandemic. Voter interest appears to be far more important in driving turnout.
- Polarization and State Legislative Elections (Joint with Cassandra Handan-Nader and Andrew B. Hall).
U.S. state legislatures are critical policymaking bodies and the major pipeline of candidates to national office. Polarization in state legislatures has increased substantially in recent decades, yet we understand little about the role of elections in this process. We offer the first systematic study of state legislative candidate ideology across all election stages using a new dataset on primary- and general-election results for over 84,000 candidates, 1992-2020. We find that the pool of candidates has polarized substantially in recent decades amidst consistently low electoral competition. More-extreme candidates have enjoyed a modest advantage in contested primaries that has doubled in the past decade. More-moderate candidates previously enjoyed an advantage in contested general elections, but this has shrunk to nearly zero in the last decade. The results indicate a shifting equilibrium in which more-extreme candidates increasingly seek office, win primaries more often, lose general elections less often, and face limited competition.
- Why Do Term Limits Polarize State Legislatures?
How do term limits affect polarization in state legislatures? Pairing novel roll-call based candidate ideology scalings with a difference-in-differences design for 1992-2020, I conduct the first comprehensive study of the ideological effects of term limits in state legislatures. I find that term limits increase polarization across the candidate pipeline, from the pool of primary election candidates to eventual general election winners. This effect is strongest in more-professionalized legislatures, where term limits devalue office the most, and is accompanied by a sharp decline in newspaper coverage of legislative elections, thereby limiting candidates' cost of extremism. As a result, term limits systematically erase the traditional advantage of moderate candidates in general elections and correlate with diminished voter knowledge about, and ability to hold accountable, their state legislators. These findings help explain why term limits polarize state legislatures and illustrate how the devaluation of office and elections contribute to legislative polarization.
- A Pressing Concern? How Newspaper Coverage Affects Accountability in State Legislatures
State legislatures are critical policymaking bodies, yet recent studies suggest that elections rarely hold state legislators accountable for their representation and voters generally know little about legislative politics. Would elections function and legislators behave differently if voters had access to more information about legislative politics? I construct and validate a measure of congruence between newspaper markets and legislative districts in all 99 state legislative chambers for the years 2000-2022 to evaluate how the quantity of legislative news coverage shapes elections and accountability. Leveraging these data, I demonstrate that newspaper coverage has an important monitoring effect on legislative elections and legislator behavior. Specifically, I find that the electoral returns to ideological moderation are significantly higher in districts with robust press coverage. Beyond elections, I show that press coverage incentivizes legislators to work more for their constituencies. When newspapers cover legislative politics closely, legislators miss fewer roll-call votes, sponsor more bills, and are more-active on committees. Finally, I find that legislators diverge less from their district's median voter when newspaper coverage is strong. These results underscore the importance of robust media coverage for legislative accountability and suggest that legislative elections and state legislators would be more moderate, representative, and productive were press coverage strengthened.
- Are Dead People Voting By Mail? Evidence From Washington State Administrative Records (Joint with Jennifer Wu, Chenoa Yorgason, Hanna Folsz, Cassandra Handan-Nader, Tobias Nowacki, Daniel M. Thompson, Jesse Yoder, and Andrew B. Hall).
A commonly expressed concern about vote-by-mail in the United States is that mail-in ballots are sent to dead people, stolen by bad actors, and counted as fraudulent votes. To evaluate how often this occurs in practice, we study the state of Washington, which sends every registered voter a mail-in ballot. We link counted ballots and administrative death records to estimate the rate at which dead people’s mail-in ballots are improperly counted as valid votes, using birth dates from online obituaries to address false positives. Among roughly 4.5 million distinct voters in Washington state between 2011 and 2018, we estimate that there are 14 deceased individuals whose ballots might have been cast suspiciously long after their death, representing 0.0003% of voters. Even these few cases may reflect two individuals with the same name and birth date, or clerical errors, rather than fraud. After exploring the robustness of our findings to weaker conditions for matching names, we conclude that it seems extraordinarily rare for dead people’s ballots to be counted as votes in Washington’s universal vote-by-mail system.
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