Voting rights, voting suppression: Can we see some ID before you read this?

Posted at 1:53 PM, Oct 24, 2014
and last updated 2014-10-25 10:34:13-04

News stories about voter ID laws are the broccoli of campaign coverage. You know you should read them, they are said to be very important to democracy, but they are boring.  And for all the huffing and puffing, it doesn’t seem like voter ID laws affect election outcomes very much.

The issue is overheated by our history.  We used so called voting rights laws to systematically deny African Americans the vote for generations. And corrupt urban political machines used vote fraud for just as long.

In modern days, voting rights and fraud were not high profile, partisan issues until the disputed 2000 presidential and the recount in Florida.  Since then, every state legislature has debated these issues and the focus has been almost exclusively on laws requiring voters to have identification, sometimes with a photo, sometimes not.

Many people feel ambivalent about voter ID laws.  They strike most Americans as sensible. Sure people should have to present some ID before you vote, what’s the big deal? Polls consistently show that Americans support voter ID laws.  But those polls are misleading or simplistic. Having to show an ID at the polling place makes sense at first blush.  But there are complicating facts, and complicated, hyperbolic rhetoric around those facts.

Advocates of voter ID laws, and they are almost universally Republicans, say they are necessary to prevent and reduce voter fraud. Opponents, and they are almost universally Democrats, say that voting fraud is a made up a problem. There isn’t even a nuisance level of voting fraud.

Opponents of voter ID laws argue they are burdensome and keep people away from the polls, especially minorities.  Supporters say fair is fair, tough luck.

All this is complicated a bit more because there isn’t very good empirical information about any of this -- not that facts should get in the way of a good argument.

If any institution in political America provides facts partisans’ trust – and that is a very big iif – it would be the federal watchdog, the Government Accountability Office. Early this month it released a comprehensive review of academic studies of the key issues around voter ID laws.

Some of the key findings are useful for those trying to get their head straight on this broccoli issue:

  • The vast majority of registered voters, between 84 and 95 percent, do have official, government issued identification.
  • Most studies the GAO looked at found slightly smaller percentages of Blacks and Hispanics have IDs than whites.
  • The GAO reviewed 10 studies of how voter ID laws affected voting behavior. The results were mixed and inconclusive:

“Of the 10 studies we reviewed, 5 found that state voter ID requirements had no statistically significant effects on voter turnout nationwide, and 5 studies found that changes in voter ID requirements had statistically significant effects on voter turnout. Among the 5 studies that showed statistically significant effects, 1 of the studies found an increase in voter turnout nationwide of 1.8 percentage points. The other 4 studies that showed statistically significant effects found that voter ID requirements decreased voter turnout, and the estimated decreases ranged from 1.5 to 3.9 percentage points.”

  • The GAO conducted its own study of voter turnout in two states, Kansas and Tennessee that adopted voter ID laws between the 2008 and 2012 elections and compared them to turnout in states with no changes. Turnout declined in all states, but slightly more in Kansas and Tennessee. Black voter turnout declined by 3.7 percentage points more than White in Kansas and 1.5 points more in Tennessee.
  • There were no federal cases of in-person voter fraud between 2004 and July, 2014. Though the data is imperfect, GAO found few allegations of fraud at the state level.


A brand new study came out last week that helps complete the picture by determining where the push for new and restrictive voter ID laws comes from. Basically, since the floodgate opened in 2000, most of the initiatives for restrictive voter ID laws come out of states with Republican legislatures and close elections.


Votes on voter ID laws in state legislatures are insanely polarized. The authors cite a separate study that looked at ten voter ID bills introduced by Republicans in state legislatures from 2005 to 2007; 95.3 percent of the Republicans supported the measures, 2.1 of the Democrats did.

The authors say the current voting rights battle “epitomizes the partisan battle for attaining an electoral advantage in contemporary American politics.”


In sum, most of what people think about the argument is right. One can safely come to a couple conclusions that aren’t partisan talking points with a good deal of confidence.

Voter fraud is extremely rare. There is no evidence of systematic fraud anywhere.

Republicans sponsor and vote for voter ID laws because they believe it will help them by suppressing turnout for groups that vote more heavily for Democrats. Their political calculations are probably right and probably relevant in very, close elections.

Democrats exaggerate the burden of providing official identification and the extent to which other ID laws discourage turnout.

Some people will reasonably conclude that even though the GOP argument about voter fraud is bogus, it is still fair and reasonable to demand voters have some official ID.  Others will feel ID laws are wholly unnecessary rule that sends a horrible signal about political participation and that can be abused to intimidate voters.

What gets lost in factoids and polemics is this: Is the very effort to use voting law to suppress the turnout of specific groups of voters itself unethical, immoral or offensive in the context of our history?

It is an important question but hard to get at it through the exaggerations and the wonky arguments about voter turnout.  It is a question worth thinking through, even if it reminds you of broccoli.