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Where There's a Will (to Win), There's A Way: How Campaigns Adapt to Changes in Election Laws

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[Image courtesy of DCist]

One strain of the election policy debates currently underway focuses on the impact of election changes on campaigns' ability to turn out their voters. The prevailing sentiment - which appears most recently in this morning's Washington Post ("Republicans rewriting state election laws in ways that could hurt Democrats") - suggests that parties and campaigns are the ones most affected by election changes. The line of argument goes like this: "If [Policy X] were to be adopted, campaigns [of one or both parties] will lose the ability for their voters to make it to the polls."

This line does have a grain of truth. If we have learned nothing else in the last decade-plus since the controversial 2000 Presidential election, it's that "election reform" often creates new problems to replace the old problems it was intended to solve. Just about everyone involved - especially election officials and voters - must be prepared to navigate a new process and, inevitably, issues arise. These effects increase dramatically the closer the change occurs to Election Day, when time to adjust is scarce.

I do think, however, that the impact on campaigns is overstated. Political campaigns, by definition, have one tangible goal: deliver a sufficient number of voters to the polls to win. Because of that narrow focus, campaigns have a powerful interest in figuring out the rules of the game and maximizing their effectiveness accordingly. In this way, politics is like water in that it always finds its own level.

A recent story from Tucson's KVOA Channel 4 illustrates this nicely. There, the three candidates for mayor were all asked how their campaigns would be affected by the City's switch to all-mail balloting for this fall's election.

The answer? Not much. While some admitted they would start their voter contact and direct mail a little sooner, all three candidates - Republican, Democrat and Green alike - agreed that by and large they would stick to their messages and use what they were given to try to win in November.

That's worth keeping in mind as we discuss changes to early voting periods, registration rules - and yes, even voter ID laws. Campaigns aren't simply going to throw up their hands and quit when the rules change - they are going to find a way to adapt.

Over time, political campaigns have always remade or reoriented their operations to conform to the current election environment: party machines set up precinct and district operations to deliver voters to the polls, party committees seized on no-excuse absentee rules to bank votes from committed supporters, and presidential campaigns have used early voting to generate enthusiasm and favorable visuals as well as votes.

Nothing suggests that new election laws are going to do anything to change this. Therefore, while we should worry about the impact on voters and election offices when we change the rules, we need not weep for campaigns - they will always find a way.

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