Voter Turnout in the United States: An Interview with Emily Rong Zhang

Emily Rong Zhang

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.

Podcast Transcript


Woman’s Voice: The Matrix Podcast is a production of Social Science Matrix, an interdisciplinary Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

Jennie Barker: Hello and welcome to The Matrix Podcast. I’m Jennie Barker, your host coming to you from the Ethnic Studies Changemaker Studio, our recording partner on UC Berkeley’s campus. Our topic today is on voter turnout in the United States. Voter turnout has been a hot topic in the news.

Voter turnout has soared to highs not seen in decades in 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 across a number of states. And this has led to alarm that these laws would significantly suppress voter turnout.

To help us think through the different impacts on voter turnout and how we should understand this concept today, we have Emily Rong Zhang, an Assistant Professor at UC Berkeley Law School. She 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. So welcome Emily, and thank you to coming to the podcast.

Emily Rong Zhang: Thanks so much for having me. It’s a delight to be here.

Barker: So to get started today, let’s talk a bit about why voter turnout has become such a focus for social science and legal research in recent years. So we’ve seen a number of states implement more restrictive voting laws and we’ve also seen social scientists and lawyers become really interested in this topic for their research and in their litigation. So help us understand why this is happening?

Zhang: Yeah. So for political science, there’s always been an interest in voter turnout. That’s kind of the dependent variable of interest, whether people vote or not. But historically, that interest has been much more at the personal level explaining differences in why person A votes and person B doesn’t and looking at the effects that various socioeconomic factors have had, for instance, age, other demographic features, education, and the like.

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 is the preclearance regime which subjected certain localities to the regime. These localities were chosen based on historical rates of racial discrimination in voting. And if you were one of these locations that had historical racial discrimination in voting, you would have to subject changes in your voting laws to the Department of Justice in DC for preclearance before they can be implemented.

That prevented a lot of the kind of state laws that we’re currently worried about from being implemented. But because the Supreme Court decided in 2013 [in Shelby County v. Holder] that the way we put localities under preclearance was invalid, it basically nullified preclearance. After preclearance went away, folks were very concerned about what would happen to various localities and the kind of laws they choose to implement, voter ID laws being only one among many other possibilities. The other ones include things like changing polling locations without a lot of prior notice or other things like removing early voting opportunities, removing opportunities to vote and register to vote on the same day, and the like.

Barker: So in your work and in your recently published paper, you focused specifically on voter ID laws. So you examine the effects of voter ID laws on voter turnout. So can you tell us a little bit about why you’ve examined voter ID laws specifically? And how people have thought about voter ID laws and why they might affect voter turnout?

Zhang: Yeah. So voter ID laws actually predate the removal of preclearance. You can think of them as kind of the OG voter suppression law. It gained notoriety way before 2013. It was very controversial in the passage of the Help America Vote Act.

But so the point is that it’s been around for a long time and there’s a very large academic literature assessing its effects. And I think it’s maybe more accurate to characterize my paper as a paper about the studies of voter ID. And basically, the studies find that these laws have had no effect on voter turnout, which is a surprising finding from everyone’s perspective.

Surprising finding from the perspectives of the researchers who did these studies in the first place. And of course, a surprising finding to those of us who may be concerned about the costs that voting laws can impose on voting. And that’s sort of what prompted the paper.

Barker: And I think in this paper you look at the, I would say, standard approaches to studying voter suppression or studying vote suppression in the social sciences. And your research takes a different approach to understanding this topic. So explain a little bit about what the standard approaches to understanding vote suppression are and how does your research differ from those?

Zhang: Yeah. At the very heart of most of the social science studies, they’re trying to estimate the number of marginal voters. That is, the number of people who would have voted but for the law. And that I characterize 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.

And 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 cost 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 doesn’t begin to capture the kind of costs that they’ve incurred.

There’s a second group of folks that I’m even more worried about and these are people who wouldn’t have voted even if the law had not been in place. And the reason I’m worried about these folks is that I think 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, I think it may be still 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: So the distinction I think that you make in your work is that there’s a difference between focusing on vote suppression and then voter suppression. So what is this concept of voter suppression and how does it differ– I mean, you’ve talked about this a little bit already. But thinking about why these other groups of people who you’re worried about, why they kind of get missed when people are only focusing on the broader vote?

Zhang: Yeah. And I think what it reflects is a kind of difference in your perspective and what you care about. I can see why if you’re a political campaign, certainly if you’re working on behalf of a candidate, what you’re interested in is what votes am I going to lose for my candidate given the imposition of the law.

I think the perspective I’m advocating for is a much more of a, let’s assess what the voting landscape looks like for voters and think about the role that these laws play for individuals, especially those who are not historically– are folks who are not have historically participated in very high rates.

They already face an immense amount of obstacles, we know this from various other parts of the literature. And for voting laws to play an additional role in preventing them from voting I think is something that’s really worth worrying about. And so I think it’s a matter of asking the question from all perspectives as opposed to only from the aggregate how has this affected our results perspective to how has this affected the consumer, ground level experience of voting perspective.

Barker: And I mean, I think it also to me seems like when we’re in the social science literature taking a very narrow view on what democracy is. It’s like the people turning out to vote, exercising their opinions, but not so much thinking about the broader experience of what it means to have barriers when you are trying to vote or to have maybe unequal access in exercising your voice in the country. So I think that that’s also a really interesting distinction that you’re getting out with your work.

Zhang: I appreciate that. You put that better than I would have put myself.

Barker: [CHUCKLES] Well, I’m glad that I could try. I’m also in political science so I am steeped in a lot of these questions. And I think something that in your paper that you discussed is that there has been of surprising, if worrying development that now you’re seeing state and federal courts. So you’re seeing justices who are also beginning to focus on just the numbers, just the vote. Sort of the vote suppression rather than voter suppression.

And as someone who’s always thinking about how can social scientists bridge the gap to the policy world, I think actually you might be seeing the perhaps negative side effects of this. And so why do you think that this focus on vote suppression has transcended from social science studies who are really interested in studying causal effects to now you’re seeing even justices engaging in citing this research, thinking about this in their opinions? So why do you think you’ve seen this focus in recent years?

Zhang: My concern with courts– I have two primary concern about courts and the way they engage with social science evidence with the general view that there’s a lot of interest from the judiciary of 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, I would say, inferences that can often be made by judges that are social science-y but not terribly rigorous. So let me give you the prime example is, judges are always interested in what happens to voter turnout after the voter suppression law in question has been put into effect.

And that is a very incorrect inference to make. There are lots of other causal 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 the 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. And that’s something that judges are sometimes to do in their 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 it’s 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. And this is especially true in the context of voter ID laws. Now the literature has found no effect. But that is not a null effect that’s very well estimated. So it is still consistent with, for instance, I think in the best study that I cite in the paper, it’s still consistent with almost a negative 2% to 2% increase in voter turnout. And simply reading the headline findings of the paper finding null effect is not actually going to peel back that particular precision issue and lead to necessarily the right inferences by courts.

And so I think those issues specifically are the ones that I’d really worry about as we begin to see more thirst for social science evidence from the courts, is to make sure that they’re interpreting that evidence in the right way and relying on it for the right things.

Barker: I mean and I think another– or a consequence of this, and this is the title of your paper, which I really like, which is “Questioning The Questions.” I think it seems– or I mean, maybe this is not a correct interpretation. But it seems that maybe justices are also not asking these bigger questions that you have brought up already and that you’re concerned with in your work, which is instead of being like, well, are these laws affecting turnout, thinking about why are these laws happening.

What are they actually– what is the purpose behind these laws and actually interrogating that, which I would imagine we’d hope that the judiciary is interested in those questions as well. So I don’t know if you’ve seen in your work the maybe neglect or maybe not as careful study of these questions.

Zhang: No, you’re absolutely right. So 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 in imposing this particular restriction. Because we do lots of things in election administration that impose lots of costs on voters that we accept because it’s 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. It allows for the state to ensure that they’re not disenfranchised if the state has a disenfranchisement law and the like.

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. And with voter ID laws in particular, I think that it’s a real shame because in-person voter fraud, which is the type of voter fraud that voter ID laws prevent, that is showing up to a polling location and claiming to be someone else, that’s the type of fraud it’s meant to address and the incidence of that is just exceedingly rare. So you might ask why the court doesn’t spend more time in interrogating the empirical evidence behind that. And I think that would be a very fair question. [CHUCKLES]

Barker: So so far we’ve sort of talked a little bit about or I would say talked a lot maybe about how studies and how courts tend to focus on how various policies, as you said just now, affect registered voters and not these states’ rationale or even thinking about these populations that you mentioned being really worried about or the non-voting eligible citizens. So people who could vote but don’t or people who do vote but really 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 that they have to overcome.

And I know in some of your forthcoming work that you’ve been working on now, you focus specifically on voting turnout and voter turnout among system-impacted individuals. So people who have been impacted by the incarceration system in some way. So I’d like to talk a little bit about who these individuals are and why voting rates are still so low for them despite we’ve seen a spate of laws–

Even in California we’re seeing a law talked about right now that are restoring voting rights. So even of people who are currently in prison, I think that’s what’s happening in California. But in other states you’ve seen people who have felony convictions have their voting rights restored but even still, they’re voting– as you’ve documented, their voting rates are still pretty low. So why are there still– I think this connects a little bit as well with these barriers that people face that we might not see from a lot of the social science research that we have now.

Zhang: Yeah. No, felon disenfranchisement laws have been around a very, very long time. And it’s one of the remaining vestiges of Jim Crow Laws in the South. And they’ve been tremendously durable. And I’m thinking back to my days working with voting rights attorneys. If you chatted with them and asked them if there was one thing you could do to change the voting landscape in the country what would it be, and it would be– I think the answer– sorry. And the answer would be let’s get rid of the felon disenfranchisement laws because they disenfranchise large numbers of individuals just based on their bare application.

There has been tremendous amount of reform in this area, as you had– that you had suggested, especially in some of the toughest states. So Virginia, Florida, and a couple of others used to have lifetime disenfranchisement. You commit a crime and you lose your right to vote forever. And for a long time, it was thought that there was nothing much that anyone could do about it until 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 and the like, while you also got other reforms in other states making more individuals with convictions eligible to vote. In California, there was the proposition which passed giving the right to vote to folks on parole.

So there’s a whole spate of laws that are changing. And the legal landscape is rapidly shifting. And yet, even in states that have relatively liberal and liberal here I mean purely descriptively, liberal felon disenfranchisement laws, we know that participation rates are really low. And so the question is, will these reforms actually have any impact if folks don’t know about it, if it wouldn’t have any– if it wouldn’t have made a difference.

That is, if in California you had the right to vote following a criminal conviction but you didn’t vote anyway, why would we expect the change, for instance, in Florida to have any effect there, right? And so understanding more the experiences that system-impacted folks have with the election system seems vitally important in understanding the effect that these legal changes are going to have.

Barker: Yeah. It seems like very critical work to be doing. So in your research and I know you’ve done some focus groups and interviews, what have you found that some of these system-impacted individuals, how have they described their experience? If they have voted or if they haven’t?

Zhang: Yeah, the big thing that I’m walking away with from what we’ve done, and this is a joint project with Dr. Naomi Sugie at UC Irvine, and a fantastic set of graduate students at UCI, and one at Stanford, the thing that I’ve taken away from the project is we 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.

And when we think about felon disenfranchisement laws, we always think about the varieties. You’ve got some really strict states like the Floridas, and the Iowas, and the Virginias. And then you’ve got the more liberal states where even voting from prison, for instance or voting from jail is a part of the reform movement.

But my sense from the interview and the focus group data suggest to me that there is much less federalism going on in the lived experiences of folks than the laws would suggest. That there is actually a felon disenfranchisement law and the contours of that law are unspecified, very unclear, blurry to most folks at the retail level.

And so what you get 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. And that would have no implication for a Californian. But a Californian hears that and thinks, well, if she can’t vote then I can’t.

And that’s been a big realization of mine having thought of this stuff in relatively formalistic terms and what is the law in Texas and what is the law in California. And thinking much more there’s some amorphous force that people refer to and have some experience with. And that’s what they go by. Not by what the letter of the particular statute in the state is.

Barker: Yeah, I mean, I found that story that you told so impactful because like you said, I mean it seems that the way that a lot of researchers approach this is just focusing on the states and what’s happening. And [CHUCKLES] in social science, we’re always thinking about the unit of analysis. And we have our unit of analysis and we’re not really thinking about what’s going on outside of that.

And so in this experience, what has been the role of media coverage, right? Because I even I remember this story about the woman in Texas. And I think like hearing about– so you can hear about it in the news. And then why that isn’t counteracted by actual information saying, no, this isn’t actually what’s going on in the state in which you live? So why is there this sort of, I don’t know, gap? Or why is media filling in a lot of the space where you don’t see actual information that could help people?

Zhang: Yeah, that’s a great point. And I think it goes to there’s a huge information vacuum for this particular population. For some folks who’ve never voted before and for folks who are a part of the criminal legal system from a young age, there was no time between when they became eligible to vote and at the point of re-entry.

So a lack of a prior history with voting and any base level of knowledge, plus the lack of official sources to obtain this information. So this isn’t a part of what you’re told by anyone, typically in the process of re-entry. And even if you are told that, that information is coming to you at the time when you need it the very least. You are worried about making ends meet at that time.

The other piece of it I think is extreme risk aversion in this population even 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. And I think all of these forces combine to create an inclination to disbelieve that you’re eligible to vote when you actually are eligible to vote.

Barker: A bright spot that you discuss in the paper is that these individuals can, in fact, be brought successfully into the electorate. So can you speak a bit about what has helped these individuals access their right to vote?

Zhang: So the literature is very clear on this. If you tell people they are eligible to vote, some of them will vote. And it suggests that the problem people face is really one of misinformation. But that 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 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, I think in this area of work is what motivates people. Whether there’s anything in particular about being system impacted that may be particularly motivational for folks to participate. And that’s a very active area of work that our team and I’m sure others are working on.

Barker: And I think one of the groups or one of the types of groups that you’ve cited or that you worked with in this research are these community organizations. So what role can they play in helping overcome this very vast information gap that people are facing?

Zhang: I mean, at the very baseline level, something you mentioned already or referenced earlier is we know a ton about people who are registered to vote and regularly vote. And the reason is they are in a database provided by the state that in many states you can obtain through public information requests and that campaigns regularly do. That’s why you and I get text messages, emails, mailers, and the like because we’re known to participate.

And we’re 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 at higher rates. And 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 just because it is infinitely harder to know about their situation.

And there are many, many reasons to work with community organizations. But at the baseline level, we’re actually getting to hear from people you wouldn’t otherwise get to hear from. And that’s I think enormously important because it allows research to shed light on something that we don’t know that much about already.

Of course, there are other lots of incredible things the organization has done. We’re partnering with the Alliance for Safety and Justice. And they’re a tremendous community organization that provides all sorts of wraparound services for folks in re-entry and just come with a tremendous amount of expertise about the particular barriers folks face and the like. And yeah, we’ve just learned a tremendous amount from working with them.

Barker: Hearing you in that response, it’s really made me think a little bit about like, I’m currently a grad student. I totally know all of the trade-offs and finding you’re encouraged to do very innovative research but then you have limited time. You’ve got to have the data. And I wonder if in this sort of experience, like you said, you have this high quality data on people who do vote.

And I can see why people would want to. They’re like, well, it’s there. We can really– we can really mobilize this. And I can see also the start up costs of getting to these other populations like you have with reaching out to the community organizations that I can see why– I can understand at least. I mean, it’s not a great thing. But I can understand why there has been this tremendous focus on the information that we– high quality information that we do have.

But what are some of the– what are some of the ways that the information, I mean, besides finding out that the way people are thinking about disenfranchisement is very much like, I heard that this is happening to people who I relate to, even if they’re outside of the state? What are other benefits or really surprises that you’ve had from doing this research where you’ve been trying to bring or trying to establish or find information about people who aren’t otherwise normally– their stories don’t really make it into a lot of the research that we have?

Barker: Well, the first thing I’m always surprised by is the number of people who we talk to who learned something about the state’s felon disenfranchisement regime. There is almost always someone who says, oh, I didn’t know that, which reaffirms the kind of misinformation landscape that people are typically in.

The other thing that I’ve spent some time thinking about more recently is what is the mental transition people make as they go from a non-voter to a voter. What is the mental process that someone goes through.

And it’s interesting hearing the way people talk about this. So something that’s occurred to me in going through the data is people seem– in order to become a voter, people seem to see themselves as a constituent. They say something about how– it’s hard to– sorry, this is such early work.

But I was very struck by one person who said, I never voted before. I didn’t participate. But there are maggots coming out of the shower head 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.

And I think there is something that happens to people that causes that transformation at some point and that’s what motivates them to vote. And for me as someone who studies voting, trying to put my finger on that transformation has been a really interesting, fun part of the project. And as you can tell, I don’t have the way of describing it yet. But I do think there is something that occurs that puts it on people to see the role that they as an individual can play. And that’s what matters.

Barker: Yeah, that’s super interesting. And I’m excited to see what you come up with. And I’m hearing our discussion today, it seems like a challenge in the field that you’re in is bridging the gap between focusing on the voter turnout. And there’s these campaigns that are really interested in this. There’s social scientists. There’s judges, as we’ve said, that are interested in this.

But also thinking about this question that you’ve just so eloquently discussed, which is how to bring new voters into the electorate. How to actually figure out why people make this transition. Why do they see themselves as having the ability to hold someone to account. So how do scholars, practitioners, or how can they bridge the gap between these two problems that seem to be talking past each other?

Zhang: Yeah, that’s such a good question and a question that so many people face beyond the world that we’re in with poli sci, and law, and policy. I’m still very much– for all of the fancy ways of learning we now have in the world, ChatGPT being only one of many changes, I still think talking to people is one of the best ways of learning about things that you don’t know as much about than someone else does and kind of facilitating that dialogue.

But I don’t mean to put this as an individual responsibility issue. I think that there are structural ways that academic and other institutions can implement to facilitate that dialogue. It shouldn’t be on individuals to seek out others. There should be institutional and structural incentives for that kind of dialogue to occur.

But I will say, that is also not without its challenges. People come to these conversations with their backgrounds, their trainings, with their particular way of seeing the world. If you’re a social scientist, you’re coming in– you’re looking for causal effects. That’s what you’re trained to do. I mean, we’re all trained to do our thing. If you’re a lawyer, you’re trained to bring a lawsuit. And it can be hard to get people to break out of their mold, whatever that might be.

And 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. I think it’s an ongoing struggle, ongoing problem to solve.

Barker: In your experience working with these community organizations, I know this is still early [CHUCKLES] but are there communities, I don’t know if that means counties, cities, states, where you’re seeing maybe this sort of dialogue happening in more successfully than in other places? Where you’re seeing maybe election administrators, lawyers really take a broader view of– and academics, I’ve got to put us in there. [CHUCKLES]

Where they’re really trying to, as you said, seek out these opportunities or seek out broader perspectives that might be missing? Are there places where you turn and say like, OK, here, you’re really seeing people who may not have ever voted before entering the electorate? Or is this something that’s still maybe not– maybe there’s still a lot of room for improvement? [CHUCKLES]

Zhang: I think much of that work has been on the convenience of voting side. For all of the gloom and doom about how hard it is to vote in certain parts of the country, that’s been paired with a phenomenon where it’s never been easier to vote in other places. And that work is maybe not as driven by work to bring people into the electorate.

Part of it is that it’s really, really hard and apart from election day registration and some other measures, we just don’t really know what’s good at doing that. But for making voting easier for folks who are already in the habit of participating, there has been a huge amount of reform on that, whether it’s vote by mail or other regimes.

So there is a ton that’s happening on the reform side as well that is evidence based. Although I think typically, social scientists don’t get involved until something gets implemented and then they’re in the position of evaluating it. I will give you another example, ranked choice voting has been 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.

Zhang: And I mean here, just with the COVID-19 experience or with voting by mail, I think there’s maybe the realm of opportunity that we couldn’t imagine maybe 5-10 ago has been opened in some places. So that’s really interesting. I think underlying a lot of our discussion today, I wanted to think a little bit more about maybe the broader impacts of these restrictive voting laws or in the case that we’ve just talked about, these more reform-minded provisions that you’ve seen.

So we know, for example, that a lot of these– including voter ID laws, that they may introduce additional burdens, right? So there’s this research thinking about– or at least your research is thinking about this. And we know also that felony disenfranchisement, as your research also shows, can have long lasting effects on access, right?

But I wonder if there– or how you think about the other ways that these restrictive voting laws can impact elections? So one of the things I’m really interested in is confidence. So confidence in election results and confidence in institutions. And how do you think or how have you seen or maybe speculate, I don’t know. How these voter ID laws or how these more reform-minded provisions like implement new opportunities for people with felonies to vote, how do you think that this is shaping people’s perception of how confident should I feel in these results?

Zhang: No, that’s an extremely important question and we know very, very little about it. There is the very important question of if some folks are less confident in the results of the election because we don’t have voter ID laws, who are these people and how does that interact with the countervailing potential that confidence is increased among other populations.

For voter ID laws, voter confidence was very much the reason that the court credited for implementing these laws, apart from the in-person voter fraud concern, which we had already talked about as being not a particularly strong reason for implementing these laws.

But the court relied on its empirical assumption that these laws boost voter confidence. And there is some evidence on this question but not much [see here, here, and here]. And the evidence suggests that there isn’t. That is, people who are more confident– or sorry people who disagree with voter ID laws, I think, are no less confident or more confident. Actually, I can’t remember exactly what it found. But there is very little evidence on this question. And that’s research that is extremely important.

And there are concerns. For instance, vote by mail is the other big one. Whether vote by mail reduces confidence in the legitimacy of the result and that’s obviously a huge concern. And we just don’t know that much about it. And the question is, even if there are people whose confidence are reduced, what is the extent and the like.

Barker: So I think in hearing your response there, another layer to this is that even in– at least in what you’ve found in your research on felony disenfranchisement and franchisement that people are not just hearing about what’s going on in their states, right? Or people are not just hearing about what’s happening maybe even in their county. They’re hearing about the whole landscape. And so I think that’s another kind of complication.

Even in my experiences, people who are living in California, they’re thinking about because the vote– because there are these voter ID laws in, say, Georgia, how is that– I think that there’s even– in this sort of research, thinking about how people are even hearing about this information. And I think you’re getting at that. But I think it’s just another component and I don’t know if in your research on voter ID laws if this has also been something that you’ve seen, or heard, or are thinking about.

Zhang: No, it’s a nice connection though. I think that does lead me to think– in the voter ID literature, everyone is moving towards looking within states, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and the like, and looking at, for instance, leveraging the difference between people who don’t have ID and detecting various effects.

And that leads me to think– what I’m learning about the felon disenfranchisement world leads me to think that the state discrete way of thinking about these laws may not apply in the voter ID context as well. That is, do we expect people without ID, who currently don’t have it, to really be asking detailed questions about the particular voter ID regime in their state or do we expect them just to have the view that, oh, people like us aren’t allowed to vote.

That obviously hasn’t 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. Although, of course, there are lots of reasons to believe that wouldn’t be the case. So that’s why I think the testing would really tell us a lot.

Barker: Well, hopefully [CHUCKLES] you can help contribute to this. So we’re approaching the end of our time here. But I wanted to turn a little bit to your experience as a scholar. So this podcast is With The Matrix, which is an organization that’s intended to support this crossdisciplinary research across the social sciences.

And your research is very much doing this because you have a background as a political scientist, you’re also a practicing lawyer. You draw on both of these traditions. And you also examine where they’re speaking together and where they’re also speaking past each other.

So I wonder if you could talk a little bit in your own experience of the challenges and the benefits of doing this kind of work that’s really kind of bridging, different disciplines, different traditions, different methods, different understanding of what causes– just so many different sort of approaches that we have that I can imagine probably differ from me and your background as a lawyer.

Zhang: Yeah. So my view on this, as with almost my view on 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 we talk about our topic, my topic, and you can see how it all fits in.

I can be a little more explicit in thinking about the costs actually. And there is no free lunch. I don’t have any more hours in my day than you do. And so investing in two different sets of skills means a couple of possible– well, a few possible outcomes. You can invest mostly in doing one well and the other poorly. Or you can do both poorly.


So I think for that cost to make sense, one has to be working on something where it makes sense to take on those costs because the benefits ultimately outweigh it. And in many ways, I was very lucky. I happened upon election law despite having very little background in it. But it fit in both my professional, and personal, and temperamental ways that it worked out.

But I don’t 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, of course, it comes with immense benefits.

And the final thing I’ll say about what I like about having done both 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 found just personally and professionally somewhat satisfying. [CHUCKLES] And that I think is– yeah.

Barker: Well, I mean I think from our discussion, I think there are ways that you have been able to look at both the legal research and the social science research and say actually, are we missing something really important. And I think for this case of being able to vote in our democracy, I mean that’s such a critical question. So I’m glad that you’re doing that.

Zhang: Thanks so much. I really appreciate it.

Barker: So thank you for joining us today, and for your time, and for this very wide-ranging discussion on voter turnout, but also on just voting rights in general, and how we can think about our democracy, and who should be– or who can participate. And who isn’t participating and who should be able to participate.

So we are so lucky here, I mean, at the Matrix to have had this discussion, but also I think UC Berkeley is very lucky to have you thinking about these questions that are, as I said, so important to our democracy. So thanks again.

Zhang: Thanks so much, Jennie. Thanks so much for doing this.


Woman’s Voice: Thank you for listening. To learn more about Social Science Matrix, please visit matrix.berkeley.edu.

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