Voter ID Dampens, Yes, But Does It Work?

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More research suggests that voter ID laws depress voter turnout among minority populations and the elderly, although the authors conclude in their study of Georgia's decade-old (but recently tweaked) law that social scientists really need to look at voter fraud and whether voter ID works.

M.V. Hood III and Charles S. Bullock III, political scientists at the University of Georgia, frame their paper in the July edition of American Politics Research as “the most extensive research yet conducted to assess the accuracy of claims concerning the impact of photo ID requirements. As becomes clear in the literature review that follows, previous research that has examined turnout rates and ID requirements has relied on official turnout statistics or exit poll data. These approaches, while valuable, include only those who have actually gone to the polls. Our approach focuses on the full set of potential voters and, thus, is a better test of who may be potentially deterred from voting by more stringent ID requirements.”

According to opponents of voter ID laws, the aggrieved parties were expected to be “African Americans, Hispanics, the elderly, the poor, and those living in rural areas.” While Hood and Bullock determine that, yes, “Registered voters are significantly less likely to possess a driver’s license if they are from minority groups, especially Black and Hispanic, and if they are older,” there is no evidence that the law discriminates against the poor (based on median income in ZIP codes) or those living in the sticks. “Whereas suburbanites were significantly more likely to have driver’s licenses than were rural residents,” the authors write, “rural residents were no worse off than were urban dwellers in these terms.”

And were those affected mostly Democrats, as the conventional wisdom says? The authors come up with a definitive “kinda” — or, in the words of the paper, “mixed support” for that contention.

They also write that genuine disenfranchisement is rare and that voter ID is ultimately one point along a spectrum of requirements for participating in the electoral process. The judge ruling in the inevitable court case over Georgia’s statute “emphasized that the plaintiffs had failed to produce a single individual who either did not already possess a photo ID or who testified that he or she could not obtain one. This opinion raises serious questions about claims that a photo ID requirement will prevent prospective voters from participating.”

Befitting the most ambitious study of the issue so far, Hood and Bullock looked at voting patterns among those without licenses and found a statistically more apathetic bunch. “Our research revealed a sizable turnout differential between Georgia registrants with and without driver’s licenses, even after controlling for a number of factors. This finding suggests that those registrants who lack driver’s licenses are generally less engaged politically and may be even less apt to participate if more ID restrictions are put in place.”

The pair also explored the chasm between those fearful of fraud and those fearful of disenfranchisement — a gap both they and our David Rosenfeld have highlighted as being as much partisan as conceptual.

To recap, Republicans would prevent fraud even if that meant some legitimate voters either might not get to vote or would have to jump through hoops to do so; Democrats would encourage widespread suffrage even if that meant some voting shenanigans might be made easier. (That’s the charitable CliffsNotes version; the less benign take is that the GOP knows that the discouraged voters are likely to cast Democratic ballots, while on the right the feeling is that those most likely to vote early and often are illegal immigrants primed to vote for Democrats.)

And while the authors acknowledge vote fraud occurs — George has a particularly illustrious tradition, it turns out — their work suggests more time should be spent sussing out real fraud and less on inconveniencing real voters. “Despite widespread suspicion among Americans that elections are vulnerable to fraud,” they write, “one report identifies only 24 convictions nationwide for voting fraud between 2002 and 2005.” Again, this is in keeping with earlier reports on that genuine fraud, at least of the in-person variety, is rare.

"For example," the authors conclude, "in the Georgia case, any registrant can request an absentee ballot by mail without providing photo ID. If research finds evidence of voter fraud and such fraud is primarily confined to the area of absentee voting by mail, the ability of voter ID requirements to curb this type of fraud would rightly be called into question."