Election Laws, Mobilization, and Turnout: The Unanticipated Consequences of Election Reform


  • The larger project to which this article is connected is supported with funding from the Pew Charitable Trusts, which bears no responsibility for the findings or interpretations. We thank Leticia Bode, Hannah Goble, Matt Holleque, Jacob Neiheisel, David Nelson, Sarah Niebler, and especially Stéphane Lavertu for research assistance, Charles Franklin for polling data, and Alex Tahk for computing assistance. John Aldrich, Gary King, Michael Hanmer, Benjamin Highton, Michael McDonald, and Marc Ratkovic provided helpful comments, as did participants at the 2010 Chicago Area Behavior Workshop, 2008 presidential election conference at Ohio State, 2009 American Political Science Association meeting, and workshops at the University of Missouri, University of Texas, University of Wisconsin, and Yale University. Authors are listed alphabetically. Replication data and supplemental information may be accessed at electionadmin.wisc.edu and the AJPS Data Archive.


State governments have experimented with a variety of election laws to make voting more convenient and increase turnout. The impacts of these reforms vary in surprising ways, providing insight into the mechanisms by which states can encourage or reduce turnout. Our theory focuses on mobilization and distinguishes between the direct and indirect effects of election laws. We conduct both aggregate and individual-level statistical analyses of voter turnout in the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections. The results show that Election Day registration has a consistently positive effect on turnout, whereas the most popular reform—early voting—is actually associated with lower turnout when it is implemented by itself. We propose that early voting has created negative unanticipated consequences by reducing the civic significance of elections for individuals and altering the incentives for political campaigns to invest in mobilization.