The 2024 Election: Voting Laws, Trump's Legal Woes & Political Exhaustion

On August 23, at least 5 GOP hopefuls for the party’s presidential nomination will take to the stage in Milwaukee for their first primary debate. In other words, the 2024 election is about to get real.

In this episode, Dan Richards talks with Wendy Schiller, professor of political science at Brown University and director of the Watson Institute’s Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy, about where the race stands now, and what to expect in the coming months. They discuss why efforts to unseat Trump as the Republican frontrunner seem destined to backfire, and what it means for our country that a historically high percentage of American voters want neither Trump nor Biden to be president in 2024. 

In the second half of the show, Dan speaks with Othniel Harris, program manager of the Taubman Center, about a disturbing trend in U.S. politics that could have major implications for 2024 and beyond: the rash of restrictive voting laws passed in recent years in swing states around the country. 

Learn more about the Taubman Center research project “Democracy’s Price Tag”

Learn more about other podcasts from the Watson Institute


[THEME MUSIC] DAN RICHARDS: From the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Dan Richards. On August 23, the first debate in the Republican presidential primary for Twenty Twenty-Four will take place in Milwaukee. In other words, the Twenty Twenty-Four presidential election is about to get real. So in this episode, we wanted to take a look at where things stand now. What should we make of this crowded Republican field? Why does Donald Trump still have such a commanding lead in it? And what does it tell us about American politics right now that according to at least one recent poll, a historically large percentage of American voters want neither Donald Trump nor Joe Biden to be president in Twenty Twenty-Four.

To help answer these questions and many others, in the first half of this episode, I spoke with Wendy Schiller. Wendy is a professor of political science at Brown and director of the Watson Institute's Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy. In the second part of the show, we'll turn to another facet of the Twenty Twenty-Four election which is arguably even more important than the candidates themselves and that is the alarming increase in restrictive voting laws that we're seeing enacted in states across the country. We'll hear from the Taubman centers program manager Neil Harris about a new research project at the Taubman Center charting the effects of these voting laws on voter turnout in America. But to start, here is my conversation with Wendy Schiller.


Wendy Schiller, thank you so much again for coming on to Trending Globally.

WENDY SCHILLER: Good morning, Dan. It's great to be here.

DAN RICHARDS: So I wanted to start with a New York Times Siena Poll that recently came out that looked at the Republican primary field right now. And it showed Trump with a significant lead, almost 40 percentage points ahead of his second competitor Ron DeSantis. How is a twice-impeached, one-term president this clear frontrunner at the moment in the Republican field?

WENDY SCHILLER: Well, the conventional political science wisdom about primary voters is that they tend to be more ideological. They are more active. They are more likely to vote not just in the primary but in the general election. The problem for political parties is that the primary voters tend to be a little bit more extreme on both sides, the left and the right. And so they don't reflect the middle and the very big bulge of voters that turn out for the general election. So parties can nominate somebody who's got a lot of enthusiasm within a smaller portion of the overall electorate, and then they lose the general election.

And that has not been disproven by history yet. These Republican voters want a fighter. They want someone who fights as hard and breaks all the rules as Donald Trump does. And none of the other candidates have been willing to take Trump on directly except for Chris Christie. And Ron DeSantis missed a huge opportunity, I would argue, even going back to the last fall. Right after he won re-election by a huge margin, Trump was going after him, but he was not going after Trump directly.

And this is what these primary voters want to see. If you want to replace the guy at the top, you have to be as aggressive. And none of them are willing to take him on, so why should these Trump voters switch their allegiance? There's just nobody's giving them a good enough reason to do that yet.

DAN RICHARDS: But it's not just Trump's aggressiveness that attracts voters and accounts for his unshakable base. As Wendy put it--

WENDY SCHILLER: The most recent New York Times Siena Poll really revealed the nature of the support for Donald Trump. You know, Republican core voters who supported the former president. They view him as the incumbent. They don't view him as a new challenger. They view him as somebody who was the President of the United States and deserves the respect of being nominated again by the party.

But I think the Trump base believes he should be in the White House. He's perpetuated that with misinformation about the outcome of the Twenty Twenty election, which he lost. But even acknowledging that he lost, I think Trump base supporters believe that he in the Republican Party is deserving of the nomination, and so they are loyal to him personally. And they feel that because he ran, he won, he ran again, that he deserves a second chance at the nomination in terms of running as an incumbent president.

DAN RICHARDS: Amidst all of Trump's mounting legal issues, he doesn't seem to be paying a huge political price for them at least in the primaries. What do you make of that, and do you see that potentially changing as he ends up facing, I don't know, how many different sort of civil and criminal cases in the next 12 months.

WENDY SCHILLER: The interesting thing Dan that you bring up is what do we mean by paying a political price? In the end of the day, the only time you really pay a political price is when you lose an election, and that requires the election to be held. So we start voting in the Iowa caucuses in the middle of January. That price can be paid when people have a chance to exact the punishment, but there's no chance to do that now. Polls are not punishment. They are simply a reflection of where people are right now.

It's clear that Trump really commands the loyalty of about anywhere from 28% to 38% of the Republican Party and they're not budging from him unless they have a really good reason. But the problem that is so far below what they need to win the general election. And in some ways I think the Trump voters having lost the election in Twenty Twenty, don't seem to care about the overall fate of the Republican Party.

DAN RICHARDS: Well, and speaking of the Republican Party more broadly, you already mentioned how thus far in the primary no one's really seemed to take Trump head on. Do you expect that to change, and more generally, do you see a potential path for any other Republican candidates in this primary to unseat Trump as the front runner?

WENDY SCHILLER: So it's really tricky. I think the answer is to say this man breeds chaos. That he basically wherever he goes there's chaos. And was your life honestly better under Donald Trump as president of the United States or will it be better under me? Here's what I did for Florida, Ron DeSantis can say, and here's what Donald Trump did for the country. Life will be worse. He's chaotic. He's not a competent president. He hasn't done a good enough job. If you're a Republican, you really want to make sure that we can win the White House and get us back on the right track.

And the argument that Trump can't defeat Biden is now undercut by these polls. Mostly The New York Times poll but another poll as well. I think the Reuters poll shows them really tied because we're so polarized, but 14% are undecided. And that's a big chunk of voters that are undecided. And in the last three elections, people undecided at the last minute have veered towards the Democrats. They either haven't voted or they voted Democratic. They have not voted for the Republicans or Donald Trump. That's of real concern for the Republicans. So that's the conundrum right now facing the candidates that are opposing him.

DAN RICHARDS: Something that came out recently too in this summer of interesting polls was that in theoretical head-to-head match-ups of Biden and Trump, there was a historically high number of voters who said they wanted neither person to become president in Twenty Twenty-Four. What do you think that speaks to the weaknesses of our current president, President Biden, or is it just a statement of our sort of collective exhaustion with our politics right now?

WENDY SCHILLER: Dan, I think collective exhaustion with our politics is a really good way of putting it. You talk to people and they go, oh, wait, we don't want the election to come yet. And the first Republican primary debate will be held August 23, so it's coming up. Donald Trump he's got a lead now. He might take a Rose Garden strategy and not engage and not get attacked, which is I deserve the nomination. I won it before. You should give it to me again. I don't have to debate you, challengers.

But I also I think Biden's age and Trump's age, Trump's record and Biden's age, I think every president has issues. I do think the president's son, Hunter Biden, and the difficulties that he's facing, the behavior that he engaged in, the plea deal that seemed kind of unfair to a lot of people, I think those are problems for Joe Biden. He has a really successful record as president. He got a lot of things done and things are much better. When I say things, I mean inflation is down, gas prices are down. The economy seems to be steady. Unemployment is historically low. These are all things for which he should be rewarded. So the issue for the Democrats is how to claim credit for the things that Biden has produced and move away from Biden himself as what you're voting for. You're voting for stability, rule of law, and a good economy. Not Joe Biden personally.

DAN RICHARDS: Another aspect that's going to be incredibly important in the Twenty Twenty-Four election is access to voting. And this is something that has been contested at the state level in a lot of realms over the last few years, and it's something that the Taubman Center at the Watson Institute is also looking to investigate and get a deeper sense of. But before we get into all that, I wanted to start with what has led to this rash of new voting legislation, often restrictive voting legislation?

WENDY SCHILLER: Well, what we've seen is ever since the Shelby v Holder Supreme Court decision in Twenty Thirteen, which basically undid a portion of the Voting Rights Act which was enacted under President Lyndon Johnson in Nineteen Sixty-Five, 6 out of the traditional 13 states no longer had to review changes to voting laws, meaning poll times and registration, purging of the rolls with the Federal Justice Department in order to make them be able to be law. You saw at the same time a big shift in Twenty Ten in the control of state legislatures.

Twenty Ten was the best year for Republicans at the state level. They won thousands of state legislative seats, and they've maintained that majority of state legislative control since then. And so they got control, and they decided that they could change the laws to diminish the opportunity for people who were lower income, people of color, notably African-American voters who had high rates of loyalty to the Democratic party and high rates of turnout under the Obama administration. And they figured out ways of purging or making it harder for people who voted Democratic to vote. And that's exactly what they've done as Republicans over the last few years, particularly in the South.

Places like Georgia. Places like North Carolina, Arizona out West. And you've seen Texas do the same thing. Texas is a little more complicated. They have been more strategic. They've expanded some voting as has Georgia, but then curtailed a lot of other voting, particularly 24 hour voting. Mail drop boxes have become a really big thing that Republican legislators have done away with or really curtailed. That's what we're really looking to at the Taubman Institute to figure out really the impact on voting.

DAN RICHARDS: Why is this becoming such a fixation of, first off, the Republican Party generally, and then in the last few years of former President Trump?

WENDY SCHILLER: Well, it's because the Republicans realize that demographically the country is really changing. We keep diminishing the percentage of the total voting population that is white. So it's gone from 78% to 74% to 72%, and it's expected possibly to be as low as 68% in Twenty Twenty-Four. And the majority of Latinx voters and super majority of African-American voters vote for the Democratic party. So every vote that you can suppress in those communities is a vote that likely either doesn't help them or that you don't have to compete for.

DAN RICHARDS: And Donald Trump, of course, perpetuated this himself by saying how rigged all of the voting was in Twenty Twenty. And like you said, that he's the rightful winner and that we need to crack down on this massive conspiracy of voter fraud because as you're describing, they can't just say that they want to make it harder for people to vote who are likely to vote against them.

WENDY SCHILLER: Exactly. And Dan, study after study after study-- we have somebody in the state of Rhode Island, Ken Block, who was commissioned to study this in a number of states who identifies as a Republican independent and not a Democrat. And he found almost no voter fraud anywhere. And the idea that the members of Congress and the Republican Party, I have always had an issue with this, claim voter fraud at the presidential level when the same exact ballot was used to elect them-- So somebody cast a ballot in the state of Georgia and elected a Republican Congressman or Senator, but then said, for some reason, the counting of the presidential ballot was incorrect, makes no sense at all. They were illegitimate ballots. They were the same exact piece of paper. I never bought that argument, and I think a lot of people in America didn't buy that argument, particularly independents.

But this is really crucially important. The right to vote is something that should be and is sacrosanct, although it is not a right in the Constitution of the United States. It's not guaranteed. And the procedures that govern voting are left to the states in the Constitution, which I think was a mistake. The federal government can pass voting laws that supersede state laws, but essentially, the mechanisms, how you pay for it, where you can vote, how many hours of the day you can vote, that is all left to the states. And it's really become an opportunity for people who want to suppress voting.

DAN RICHARDS: While it is going to be a 15, 14 months full of conversations about these politicians and voting and voting access and how it might all affect us in the coming election. But thank you so much Wendy for coming in and helping us set the stage for what we're probably going to see a lot more of in the coming months.

WENDY SCHILLER: Thanks for having me, Dan. And I would urge all voters to check the Secretary of State's website in their state, make sure that they are registered to vote. Check with your local board of elections. We have a special election for congressional seat CD1 coming up, a primary and an election. Confirm your voting registration. Confirm your polling place. And make sure that you can have your voice represented on election day in '24.


DAN RICHARDS: As Wendy described, over the last few years, state legislatures have been making it harder and harder for many Americans to cast their ballots. To understand the effects of all this legislation, Wendy and her team at the Taubman Center recently launched a project called Democracy's Price Tag which catalogs and studies these laws and examines their effects on voter turnout.

In the project, Brown's students worked under Wendy and the Taubman Center's program manager, Othniel Harris, to identify all recent voting related legislation in some of the country's most pivotal swing states. They then used state and countywide voter turnout data to see if there was a correlation between certain types of restrictive voting legislation and lower rates of voting in recent elections. To learn more about the project, I spoke with the Taubman's program coordinator Othniel Harris. Othniel Harris, thank you so much for coming on to Trending Globally.

OTHNIEL HARRIS: Thank you. I'm happy to be here.

DAN RICHARDS: So listeners just heard from Wendy Schiller about the Twenty Twenty-Four election and the potential effects of restrictive voting laws on turnout in Twenty Twenty-Four. Now, this is something you and she are studying quite closely at the Taubman Center right now through your research project Democracy's Price Tag. So to start, what is this project and how did it come to be?

OTHNIEL HARRIS: When I first sat down with Professor Schiller, she was really passionate about doing a project that studied voter turnout, specifically in the midterm elections between the times of Twenty Eighteen and Twenty Twenty-Two. Now, between that time, we've had the Twenty Eighteen midterm elections which saw the Democrats take back the House during the Trump administration, and then in Twenty Twenty, we had the general election, presidential election between now President Biden and former President Donald Trump.

Now, that was a very contentious election in Twenty Twenty. President Biden won certain states like Arizona by only 10,000 votes. And in the aftermath of the Twenty Twenty election into the Twenty Twenty-Two midterms, we saw thousands upon thousands of laws that had to do with election administration, voting access being proposed and being passed in certain key states in terms of elections. And now we are basically analyzing the ramifications of the restrictive voting laws that were passed and the expansive voting laws that were passed according to different legal experts.

DAN RICHARDS: What states did you all decide to focus on, and why did you choose those states?

OTHNIEL HARRIS: Number one, we wanted to study what was in our own backyard, so Rhode Island. State of Rhode Island was key. Number two, Arizona, like I mentioned before, now President Biden only won Arizona by just over 10,000 votes, right, really razor-thin margin, and then we wanted to state of Texas. Texas is a state which is changing demographically in terms of its urban centers of Dallas and Houston. There's potential that Texas is of electoral importance to both parties, especially in the future possibly next year in Twenty Twenty-Four.

Then we wanted to study Georgia. Georgia has been a hotbed for voting rights issues since Twenty Eighteen with the race between Stacey Abrams and now Governor Brian Kemp. And then lastly, we wanted to study the state of Florida. Florida was seen as a swing state previously between Two-Thousand to Twenty Twelve. It seemed like it could go either way every year, but now it's turned more red. And we want to get into why it's becoming more red over the years.

DAN RICHARDS: Looking at all these states, what would you say were some of the major takeaways before we get into a few of the more detailed nuances?

OTHNIEL HARRIS: One of the key takeaways was that there are a lot of different ways that the Republican Party tries to disenfranchise whether it's the signature requirement. It's making restrictions to mail balloting. Mail balloting is key for immunocompromised people. It's key for older voters. It's key for voters who are college students. It's also restricting early voting times.

DAN RICHARDS: For example, in North Carolina where Othniel used to work for the State Democratic Party.

OTHNIEL HARRIS: We expanded the early voting period to 10 days in Twenty Twenty, but now they want to restrict that just down to 5. And making it so that there are less opportunities to vote and driving up that cost of voting in which we get into in the study to where it's an inconvenience to the person and their time and their livelihood. Because not everyone can take off work and go stand in line to vote for 2 hours, right? People need those options and that flexibility in order to take part in this American democracy.

DAN RICHARDS: So within these broader trends that we see across multiple states you study there's also a lot of nuance in terms of how these laws affect voter turn out, both as you said in restrictive and at times in expansive ways. It's a little more complicated than the story some people might think they know. Arizona and Texas, in particular, are two really interesting examples of this. Can you talk about what you found in those states?

OTHNIEL HARRIS: One of the interesting things that one of our research assistants for Texas specifically found was that Dropbox travel times specifically in Harris County where Houston is located, which is the most populous Democratic County in Texas, they had multiple dropboxes during the Twenty Twenty election all over Harris County, right? They changed it so in Twenty Twenty-Two they would only have one drop box.

DAN RICHARDS: Right, this was something that got a lot of attention in Twenty Twenty-Two.

OTHNIEL HARRIS: One drop box for the entire County.


OTHNIEL HARRIS: That was one of the things that I really wanted to look at. Like, how did that affect people? And our research assistant, who was studying Texas, found that it affected different voters in different ways in terms of travel times to that dropbox. So travel time for Black voters increased. Travel times for Asian voters increased. The group of people that were least affected were in fact, white voters, right?

And so that's one of the things that voter suppression you can get into and see how it's tricky. it's not, in fact, saying that we don't want young people to vote. We don't want African-Americans to vote. We don't want Latinos to vote. You can't say that. But what you can do is if you know where a Democrat populous is in your state and you can try to change the rules just enough to decrease turnout, you can end up winning an election just from decreased turnout by 8,000 votes.

I'm going to mention again, now, President Biden only won Arizona by a little over 10,000 votes. And then we talk about Arizona who changed their permanent mail ballot list, which affected tens of thousands of voters. So if you can change the voting rolls, the permanent mail ballot voting rolls, and take 8,000 people off the list and have those 8,000 people try to re-register to get a mail ballot, or in another example in Arizona, they have people proving whether or not they're a citizen of the United States. This was a proposed bill, but it's something that could potentially affect the Twenty Twenty-Four election.

Now, if you have people trying to prove that they're a citizen of the United States and they're having to go to immigration offices in different bureaucratic government offices to get paperwork or to get documents, that would be an impediment and people get so frustrated, and they just throw their hands up and they say, you know what, this shouldn't be this hard. I'm not going to vote at all.

DAN RICHARDS: Did you find anything pointing to lower voter turnout in Houston? Like are there any results so far that these types of ballot measures, whether in Houston or not, these types of voting restrictions have a real negative impact on voting?

OTHNIEL HARRIS: Yeah, so in terms of the restrictive laws, voter turnout overall by registered voters did actually decrease in Texas and in Arizona for the Twenty Twenty-Two midterms compared to Twenty Eighteen.

DAN RICHARDS: Twenty Eighteen which was the last nonpresidential election.

OTHNIEL HARRIS: Exactly. Exactly. Especially compared to Twenty Twenty, I mean, in political science we don't really compare general election years to nongeneral election years just because voter turnout is always higher in a presidential year. But from midterm to midterm, we see that voter turnout did decrease. And specifically in Harris County, the turnout decreased in Harris County compared especially to Twenty Eighteen.

DAN RICHARDS: In the Twenty Twenty-Two midterms, Democrats ended up maybe doing slightly better than had been expected.


DAN RICHARDS: Is there any reason to believe that some of these laws could have caused any sort of backlash that could have helped, in fact, turn out more voters in the end?

OTHNIEL HARRIS: I don't want to say that these laws have produced a reverse effect where people are saying your vote is being taken away from you and now people are like energized to go and vote. I don't want to say that. What I do want to say is I believe that it's the candidate choice of the Republican Party, and a lot of the statements that they make sound irrational. Sometimes, I would even say insidious and ludicrous a lot of times to some voters. And I think one of the things that voters here and voters see is a lot of these lunatic candidates running for office, and they feel like they have no choice but to go and vote and make sure these people aren't representing them in Washington.

DAN RICHARDS: I think some of this is evident in what we've just been talking about, but why would you say that it is so important to be closely tracking these types of measures?

OTHNIEL HARRIS: You need to see between the lines and between the sheets of the legislation in order to understand how people are being suppressed and how many opportunities to vote are being taken away from you. You should have flexibility. You should have options in a modern democracy to vote whether it's by mail, whether you want to drop your ballot off in a ballot dropbox, or whether you want to vote in-person, or whether you need to vote early. People-- and your legislators and your states shouldn't be trying to take these options away from you. If anything, it's your right as a citizen to have that many options to vote in a democracy like ours. That's one of the reasons why people should care. And one of the main hallmarks of America that we love to champion is one person, one vote and that we are the longest serving democracy, and it's our job to make sure it stays that way. And it's upon all of us.


DAN RICHARDS: Well, Othniel Harris, thank you so much for coming on to Trending Globally, and thank you for continuing on with this project. I think a lot of people look forward to seeing more of the results.

OTHNIEL HARRIS: Thank you, Dan. It was a pleasure talking with you.


DAN RICHARDS: This episode of Trending Globally was produced by me, Dan Richards, and Zach Hirsch. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. Additional music by the Blue Dot Sessions. If you want to learn more about Democracy's Price Tag and other work being done at the Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy at the Watson Institute, we'll put links in the show notes. And if you like our show, please subscribe, rate, and give us a review wherever you listen to your podcasts. And better yet, tell a friend about us.

If you have any questions, comments, or ideas for guests or topics for the show, send us an email at trendingglobally@brown.edu. Again, that's all one word, trendingglobally@brown.edu. We're releasing episodes a little less frequently over the summer, but we'll be back in a few weeks with another episode of Trending Globally. Thanks for listening.


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