By Dhruv Mohnot
Social scientists have long been interested in voting as a phenomenon. There is a famous Georg Hegel quote as well: “The casting of a single vote is of no significance when there is a multitude of electors.” Why, then, do people vote? Theoretical work has failed to predict the high turnout we see in elections, since each individual vote is almost certainly inconsequential to the outcome. Empirically, several papers have found that social pressure influences voting patterns. By making voting behavior more salient, voting becomes more popular (internal/social benefits rather than external candidate-level benefits).
My research focuses on two major changes that plausibly influenced the 2020 presidential election outcomes. First, Black Lives Matter protests were a major national phenomenon that may have motivated individuals to vote (by, for example, making voting behavior more relevant in social contexts). Second, the expansion of universal mail-in balloting in several states due to the COVID-19 pandemic allows for a natural experiment investigating the effect of the cost of voting.
Using two quasi-experimental research designs (instrumental variables for protests & difference-in-difference for mail-in balloting), I estimate the effect of these changes on 2020 election outcomes (voter turnout and Republican vote margin).
Interestingly, I find that protests had a very limited effect on both turnout and margin. A one-unit per capita increase in protest size increased Republican margin by 0.03 percentage points and turnout by 0.17 percentage points, a statistically significant result robust to many specifications and interactions. The effect was primarily concentrated in Democratic areas, suggesting that increases in Republican margin were primarily driven by a backlash against the movement. Notably, this is a very small effect size relative to prior papers investigating the effect of protests (e.g. Madestam et al. find huge effects of the Tea Party protests in 2009 on 2010 midterm elections).
Mail-in balloting, on the other hand, has a large effect. Counties that expanded to universal mail-in balloting in this election cycle saw increases in turnout by 2.52 percentage points and Republican margin by 0.45 percentage points, relative to counties that did not change mail-in balloting policies. This is primarily driven by higher voting rates by 65+ individuals in counties that had universal mail-in balloting, suggesting that older voters who feared COVID-19 infection only voted (primarily for Republicans) when voting was safe. Both changes together only explain about 9% of the overall change in turnout in 2020 and likely did not affect the overall election outcomes.
There are several hypotheses for why protests had such a limited effect. My design estimates the locally specific effect of protesting. It is possible that protests were such a nationalized phenomenon that there was no additional locally specific effect of protesting. For example, protests in Portland were immediately broadcast via news networks and social media to all parts of the country, making the Portland specific effect next to nothing.
Alternatively, political polarization has made protests unlikely to change voters’ minds. Instead, national events are filtered through a partisan lens and only affect voter motivation. Republicans were motivated by seeing protests in their backyard, but voters did not change their minds at all.
Ultimately, my paper shows that making voting easier has a much larger effect on turnout than large-scale protests. Though it is unclear if mail-in balloting expansion will remain in place going forward, it does increase voter turnout, as theory would expect. On the other hand, BLM protests did not have a locally-specific effect in the short-term but may precipitate a longer-term realignment of race discussions in the country, leading to longstanding political changes over the next decade.