Republican lawmakers have proposed more than 300 voter restrictions in 40 statehouses since last November, but those measures to limit Democratic turnout may ultimately backfire, a Duke University political scientist says.

The premise that expanding voting access helps Democrats and restricting access helps Republicans is “a fundamental mistake,” D. Sunshine Hillygus, a Sanford School of Public Policy professor specializing in voting behavior, said during a virtual media briefing this week.

“The assumption seems to be that if you make voting easier, it’s going to inevitably benefit Democrats. That simply isn’t always the case,” Hillygus said. “When you make registration and voting easier, what you tend to do is expand the pool to reach people who are somewhat less partisan, somewhat less activist. The lower-propensity voter. They are far more difficult to predict how they are going to vote and far more likely to be the type to change their partisan leanings, their voting, from one election to the next.”

There’s also the possibility that restrictive laws will backfire by mobilizing voters who feel targeted by what they view as voter suppression.   

“This should be of concern to Republicans, the extent to which these actions really help to put the fire under folks like Stacey Abrams and others, and serves as a bit of a rallying cry,” she said.

The proposed voter restriction laws in statehouses across the country follow a presidential election cycle that witnessed one of the largest voter turnouts in American history, with people of color and young voters providing decisive margins that turned Donald Trump into a one-term occupant of the White House and awarded U.S. Senate seats to Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in what was once reliably red Georgia.

The fuel for the proposed voter restrictions is the GOP’s response to the former White House occupant’s Big Lie—that he was robbed of a second term because of voter fraud.

Hillygus said it’s pretty clear that people of color will be most affected by voting laws such as requiring voter IDs and curbing early voting on Sundays, which is supported by a significant number of Black church congregations. But she also pointed to the last election cycle in which pundits wrongly assumed that all Hispanics would vote the same way.

“I think what we will see is that absolutely communities of color are disproportionately affected,” she said. “But the impact on the partisan advantage or disadvantage—because other groups are also impacted—is far less clear.”

Hillygus also thinks young voters are among the groups most likely to be impacted by roadblocks to voter participation.

In response to GOP attempts to curtail ballot access, congressional Democrats have pushed for passage of H.R.1, or the so-called “For the People Act,” an expansive overhaul to election laws, redistricting, campaign finance and ethics rules. Provisions include expanding voter registration through automatic and same-day registration, providing greater voting access through vote-by-mail and early voting, and requiring states to establish independent redistricting commissions.

Senate Republicans, however, blocked a vote on the bill this week with a filibuster that effectively kills the legislation. 

Hillygus said short of federal intervention, the voter restriction measures passing in statehouses should give pause to all Americans. 

“It’s very hard for the U.S. to claim that we have a stable and healthy democracy in light of this wave of efforts to change the rules of voting.”

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle. 

Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to