- Over half of all US registered voters support two policies that would make democracy more representative by increasing turnout and making voting easier: Automatic voter registration and replacing the electoral college with a system requiring a majority vote to be president.
- A significant percentage of registered voters support measures that restrict access to voting: 40% support requiring voters to demonstrate a certain level of civic knowledge and awareness of current events to vote, and 32% support English language tests to cast a ballot, both of which are illegal under the Voting Rights Act. This includes liberal and progressive voters, indicating that Democratic support for opposing some voting restrictions cannot be taken for granted.
- Our data show how voter suppression and election denial are two sides of the same anti-democratic coin. We find that registered voters who support requiring a certain level of civic knowledge in order to cast a ballot are also significantly more likely than voters who do not support such a test to say that being labeled an election denier makes a candidate more appealing to vote for.
- There is limited support for protecting the voting rights of all incarcerated citizens and banning state felony disenfranchisement laws, leaving this already vulnerable group susceptible to disenfranchisement. This is despite many people in jail being legally eligible to vote or innocent and awaiting trial.
- Democrats and left-leaning Independents are more likely to support voting rights for incarcerated citizens and citizens with previous felony convictions than Republicans and conservative Independents.
- Relative to Democrats and left-leaning Independents, Republicans and conservative Independents express higher support for restrictive measures and lower support for measures that would expand voting. But there is nontrivial support for a test of civic knowledge among Democrats and left-leaning Independents.
With ongoing efforts to undermine the will of voters through both traditional voter suppression strategies and the election denier movement, those working to protect democracy should emphasize the unequivocal right to vote for all US citizens to strengthen registered voters’ commitment to democracy and advocate for policy that reflects majority opinion in favor of increased voting access – namely automatic voter registration and ending the electoral college in favor of the popular vote for the presidency.
From bipartisan support to partisan divides: Voting rights in US history
A foundational principle of a democracy is that all people have the right to vote, a right often presumed to be enshrined in the Constitution. The original authors of the Constitution clearly articulated the role of elections. However, there was no explicit mention of the right to vote in the Constitution until nearly a century after it was ratified, when the 15th amendment was passed to prohibit restricting the right to vote based on race. While subsequent amendments expanded the right to vote to women and citizens 18 and older, as well as one that banned poll taxes, there is still no explicit right to vote for all citizens laid out in the Constitution, leaving voting rights vulnerable to antidemocratic forces.
Indeed, even after the passage of these amendments, states around the country continued to pass laws designed to suppress the Black vote, including literacy tests and poll taxes.1 In response, Congress, which has the power to enforce voter protections laid out in the Constitution, passed the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 to combat these discriminatory voting practices. Decades of bipartisan efforts to make voting easier and more accessible followed the passage of the VRA, including lowering the voting age, allowing voter registration at the DMV, and removing language and accessibility barriers to voting. However, the lack of clear, constitutionally enshrined voting rights means that some groups remain vulnerable to disenfranchisement, particularly those with felony convictions.
Discouragingly for democracy and voting rights advocates, the age of bipartisan support for voter protections has come to an end. The right to vote has become an increasingly politically polarized issue. Moreover, through a series of decisions, such as Shelby v. Holder in 2013, the Supreme Court has weakened the VRA, limiting the federal government’s power to enforce key voting protections in the Constitution. The result is that many Republican-led states have put forward and passed voter suppression legislation with provisions that limit polling locations, access to mail-in ballots, and drop box locations as well as add stringent voter ID requirements. Indeed, supporting voter suppression legislation has even become a campaign strategy for election denier candidates.
Given the vulnerability of voting rights to a changing political climate, we wanted to better understand US registered voters’ support for voting rights. In our nationally representative poll of 3,637 registered voters, we asked about support for a range of hypothetical changes to our voting laws and making democracy more responsive to citizens. We do not expect that any of the measures we included are likely to pass any time soon. However, we do believe expressed support for specific policies that either expand or restrict voting rights provides some insight into views on voting rights and, by extension, democracy more generally. Our analysis reveals that entrenched support for the policies that enhance the core foundational principle of democracy – the right to vote – is far from overwhelming and differs across partisan lines. Notably, we find this among a sample in which 90% indicated that the equal right to vote for all citizens is essential for a country to be considered a democracy.
Almost two-thirds of registered voters support making voter registration automatic for citizens over 18 and slightly more than half support reforming the Electoral College to be more representative of the electorate. On the other hand, support for protecting the right to vote of all incarcerated citizens is low despite many incarcerated citizens being legally eligible to vote. Right-leaning registered voters are more willing to restrict voting and less willing to support policies that enhance voting and direct democracy, while left-leaning registered voters show more robust support for pro-voting and pro-democracy legislation.
Most alarming, a concerning number of registered voters – including 28% of Democrats and 31% of liberal Independents – support limiting voting to those who demonstrate some level of civic knowledge or current events. A knowledge requirement to vote is not only illegal under the VRA but is also a blatant anti-democratic voter suppression technique. Supporting such voter suppression policies and lack of support for protecting the voting rights of all incarcerated citizens and former felons runs counter to the core tenets of democracy, a top political issue for nearly a third of registered voters. Support for restricting the right to vote for some citizens on the one hand, and requiring civic knowledge to vote on the other demonstrates an urgent need for better civic education, including voter education about democracy and the equal, unequivocal right to vote.
Finally, we found that registered voters who support requiring a certain level of civic knowledge to have access to the ballot were also significantly more likely to say that being labeled an election denier makes a candidate more appealing to vote for. Support for voter suppression and election denial go hand in hand. While not surprising, this demonstrates the extent to which election denial must be understood and treated as another form of voter suppression.
Most registered voters support policies that would expand the electorate or make voting easier, but support for voting restrictions is not trivial
In our survey, we asked Some believe our voting laws should be changed. For each of the following changes, please indicate your level of support. Eight hypothetical changes to voting legislation were listed, three expanding voter access, one replacing the Electoral College with the popular vote, and four restricting voting access. Of these, only three received support (somewhat/strongly) from roughly half or more of respondents. None of these were policies that would restrict voting. Almost two-thirds (63%) support automatic voter registration for citizens over 18. Just over half (54%) support replacing the Electoral College with a system that requires a majority vote. And about half (49%) support banning state laws that prevent American citizens with previous felony convictions from voting.
Although there were no voting restrictions in the top three, there was non-trivial support for specific policies that make it harder to vote. More than a third (40%) supported requiring voters to demonstrate a certain level of civic knowledge and awareness of current events to vote and a third (32%) supported English language tests to cast a ballot. Moreover, among the policies that expand voting, support for voting protections for all incarcerated citizens was low. Only 34% support allowing all incarcerated American citizens to vote, a particularly noteworthy finding given that many incarcerated Americans are eligible to vote because they have not yet been charged with a crime or have been charged with a misdemeanor offense, which does not affect the right to vote in most states. It’s also worth noting that although a measure to ban state laws that prevent citizens with previous felony convictions from voting was in the top three measures with the most support, registered voters are still basically split 50/50 on this issue.
Reassuringly, two measures that would restrict the electorate were overwhelmingly rejected by registered voters. Only about a quarter (24%) supported raising the voting age and only 8% supported requiring
Partisan differences underlie patterns of support for measures that would expand or restrict voting
Similar to the partisan split in efforts to change voting legislation at the state level, we found that Democrats and left-leaning Independents are more likely to support measures that expand voting or make it more responsive to the people, while Republicans and conservative Independents are more likely to support restrictions on voting. Moderate Independents do not overwhelmingly support any of the measures we included.
More than half of Democrats and left-leaning Independents supported all three measures that would expand voting as well as a measure that would replace the Electoral College with the popular vote. Both automatic registration at 18 and replacing the electoral college were supported by most Democrats, with 88% supporting a measure to elect the president via the popular vote and 86% supporting automatic registration. However, support was lower for banning state laws that prevent those with prior felony convictions from casting a ballot (63%) and allowing all incarcerated American citizens to vote (58%).
By contrast, Republican support was lower for all four of these measures. Only about a third support replacing the Electoral College (37%) or banning state laws that prevent those with previous felony convictions from voting (34%). Only a fifth support automatic voter registration and only 12% support allowing all incarcerated citizens to vote.
The only measure to receive support from at least half of moderate Independents was replacing the electoral college with a popular vote system, which 60% said they supported.
Republicans and conservative Independents were more supportive of measures that would restrict voting. However, it’s worth noting that they did not support any measure, expansive or restrictive, overwhelmingly. 60% of Republicans support English language tests for casting a ballot and 54% support requiring that voters demonstrate a certain level of civic knowledge and awareness of current events to be able to vote. 42% also support raising the voting age. However, few Republicans (14%) support a measure that would require property ownership to be able to vote.
Overall, Democrats’ support for voting restrictions is low, but for one, it is not trivial. Virtually no Democrats support English language tests to cast a ballot (9%), raising the voting age (8%), or requiring property ownership to vote (4%). However, slightly over a quarter of Democrats (28%) supported requiring that voters demonstrate a certain level of civic knowledge and awareness of current events to vote.
Like their support for measures that would expand voting, moderate Independents do not express overwhelming support for any restrictive measures. There were none for which at least 50% of moderate Independents voiced support. However, 39% support the measure that would effectively require a test of civic knowledge and 30% support English language tests. Less than a quarter (22%) support raising the voting age, and only a few support requiring property ownership to vote (6%).
Support for voter suppression associated with higher likelihood of willingness to vote for election deniers
Support for restricting voting access to only those who can pass a civics test has further implications for defending democracy. Those who support a civic knowledge test are significantly2 more likely (much/somewhat) to say that the election denier label makes a candidate more appealing to vote for.
While only 17% of all registered voters reported being much/somewhat more likely to vote for an election denier overall, a much larger portion of those willing to support voter suppression legislation are open to voting for an election denier: a third (35%) of those who strongly support a civic knowledge requirement to vote are much/somewhat more likely to vote for an election denier, compared to only 9% of those who strongly oppose a civic knowledge requirement. One in five people who somewhat support requiring a civic knowledge requirement to vote report being more likely to vote for an election denier, compared to just 11% of those who somewhat oppose such voter suppression legislation.
This combination of support for a civic knowledge test as a barrier to voting and the appeal of candidates who participate in anti-democratic behaviors, such as spreading election misinformation and contesting the results of a fairly conducted election because it didn’t result in their favor, represents Americans at the intersection of a multifaceted threat to democratic norms. These paired positions would eliminate both the equal right to vote and the very notion of free and fair elections.
The state of public opinion on voting rights is mixed. Overall, support is higher for measures that would expand voting or make it more responsive to citizens. However, measures that would protect voting rights for those with a previous felony conviction or who are currently incarcerated is lower than support for automatic voter registration and replacing the Electoral College with a system that elects the president via popular vote. Moreover, there is still some support for restricting access to voting. Among all registered voters, 32% support English language tests to cast a ballot and 40% support requiring that voters demonstrate a certain level of civic knowledge and awareness of current events to be able to vote. And support for a civics test barrier to voting is correlated with being more likely to vote for a candidate who is an election denier.
In general, Democrats and left-leaning Independents are more supportive of laws that expand voting rights, Republicans and conservative Independents are more supportive of laws that restrict voting, and moderate Independents are not widely supportive of any provisions. However, while Democrats and left-leaning Independents are widely supportive of replacing the Electoral College with the popular vote and automatic voter registration, they are less supportive of laws that would protect voting rights for those with previous felony convictions and who are incarcerated. Conversely, even though they expressed more support for voting restrictions than laws that would expand voting rights, Republicans and conservative Independents are not widely supportive of any measures. Only civic knowledge tests (54%) and English language tests (60%) garner support above 50%.
Moderate Independents expressed low levels of support for either restrictions or protections: the only provision with support over 50% is one that would replace the Electoral College with a system that would require a majority of the popular vote to be president.
We suspect that one reason for ideological differences in support for voting rights might be due to perceptions of who is electorally advantaged or disadvantaged by specific policies. Prior research has shown that even those who profess a commitment to democracy may be open to policies that undermine democracy if there are perceived political benefits for the ideological/partisan group with which they identify (Krishnarajan, 2023; Malka & Costello, 2022). And indeed, although 90% of respondents indicated that each citizen having the equal right to vote is essential for a country to be a democracy, our data show that this does not translate to support for policies that would guarantee that right.
For those on the right, certain restrictions, like raising the voting age, may be perceived as politically advantageous, as younger voters are less likely to register as Republicans and generally lean left on many political issues. One Republican presidential candidate recently voiced support for raising the voting age to 25 and requiring anyone between 18-25 to pass a civic knowledge exam to vote. He claimed he was not trying to disenfranchise young voters, but it is hard to imagine this kind of provision resulting in any outcome other than an additional barrier for young people to cast their ballots. Similarly, 5 Republican-led states require voter ID that expressly prohibit the use of a student ID to verify identity at the polls. Likewise, support for replacing the Electoral College with the popular vote is lower among those on the right, who likely recognize a system that elects the president through the popular vote would be disadvantageous to them even while it benefits democracy.
It’s also hard to ignore the larger political context in which politicians on the right have taken many opportunities to undermine democracy by tipping the scales in their favor. At the state level, they waged a campaign to take control of state legislatures to control the redistricting process. They then gerrymandered districts to benefit themselves, allowing them to ignore the preferences of their constituents with virtually no accountability. For example, as we noted in our previous piece, even though there are only seven states where more than 50% of residents do not think abortion should be legal in all or most cases, abortion is now banned or restricted beyond the Roe v. Wade standard in 21 states. All the while, they are also passing voter suppression legislation that will not only make it harder to vote them out of office but also for voters to make their voices heard in all elections. This disadvantages all voters from across the political spectrum – particularly in areas where the policies enacted by conservative politicians do not reflect public opinion, including that many of the conservative voters they purport to represent (for example, on abortion and gun laws).
It is important to note that while we found right-leaning registered voters were more supportive of restrictive voting provisions, roughly a quarter of Democrats support a policy requiring a demonstration of civic knowledge to vote. Although a quarter seems low, it is considerably higher than the share of Democrats that supported any other voting restriction. This concerning level of support for such a policy may be explained by a misconceived notion that the other side is less likely to pass a civic knowledge test, curtailing their ability to vote. Whatever the underlying logic, measures restricting voting for any US citizen is antithetical to democracy. When leveraging democracy as a political issue, pro-democracy advocates should clearly communicate that true democracy means voting rights for all citizens, even those who are otherwise inclined to expand and protect voting rights.
Importantly, this should include rights for citizens with previous felony convictions and who are currently incarcerated. Registered voters do not overwhelmingly support allowing all incarcerated citizens to vote. This is especially concerning given that most incarcerated citizens are eligible to vote, as many are legally innocent, waiting in jails for their trial. However, registered voters are also not overwhelmingly supportive of protecting the voting rights of those with former felony convictions. This is also concerning for multiple reasons. First, felony disenfranchisement is voter suppression; there are no circumstances under which a felony conviction should affect the right to vote. But it’s more than that. Because Black Americans are more likely to be charged with a felony due to racism in policing and policy, felony disenfranchisement has effectively served as a backdoor way to keep many Black citizens, especially Black men, from voting. And it’s worked. The Sentencing Project estimates that 5.3% of the adult African American population is disenfranchised due to a felony conviction, compared to 1.5% of the non-African American population.
Encouragingly, two policies that would enhance our democracy have at least some support from over half of registered voters: automatic voter registration and reforming the Electoral College. Automatic voter registration for citizens 18 and older would increase voter turnout, which is low in the US compared to democracies around the globe. Creating a system in which more voters can easily voice their opinions at the ballot box would foster a more representative democracy. Moreover, direct democracy in which each citizen’s vote would count equally in presidential elections could soon be a reality. Sixteen states representing 205 electoral college votes have signed on to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, an agreement by member states to award their electors to the national majority vote winner, regardless of who wins a majority in each individual state. The compact would take effect once states representing 270 electoral college votes agree to join, overriding the Electoral College system. In our previous work, we found that for voters and nonvoters alike, the electoral college contributes to their distrust and disillusionment with the current political system because it dilutes their individual political agency. With democracy facing the twin threats of voter suppression and election denial, overhauling the Electoral College and giving each voter equal weight, regardless of where they live, could help revive citizens’ faith in democracy and accountability.
Analysis prepared by Carolyn Reyes, PhD.
Krishnarajan, S. (2023). Rationalizing Democracy: The Perceptual Bias and (Un)Democratic Behavior. American Political Science Review, 117(2), 474-496. doi:10.1017/S0003055422000806
Malka, A., Costello, T.H. (2022). Professed Democracy Support and Openness to Politically Congenial Authoritarian Actions. American Politics Research, 51(3). https://doi.org/10.1177/1532673X221109532
1 Poll taxes were eventually made unconstitutional by the 24th Amendment.
2 We fit a multinomial regression model predicting likelihood of voting for an election denier (1 = much/somewhat less likely, 2 = much/somewhat more likely, 3 = not sure) by support for a civic knowledge requirement in order to vote (1 = somewhat/strongly support, 2 = somewhat/strongly oppose, 3 = not sure). Being less likely to vote for an election denier is used as the base category for comparison. We control for political party and ideological affiliation, who they believe got more votes in 2020, how closely they follow politics, gender, age, race, education, religion, rurality and region.