Quit Blaming Low Turnout on Voter ID
Do voter identification laws suppress turnout? Liberals tend to say yes, arguing that not all citizens have the type of ID that many states now require at the polls. Conservatives tend to say no, arguing that identification is easy to obtain. Both sides point to studies that support their case.
To see if the recent election offers any evidence either way, I dug up voter turnout figures for the 21 states that had a competitive gubernatorial or Senate race, as rated by the Cook Political Report. (I excluded Colorado, where voters cast ballots mostly by mail.) Some results are still unofficial and may change slightly.
Fourteen of the 21 states had a voter ID requirement in place, while seven didn't. If ID laws affected turnout in these states, it didn’t show up in the numbers: The average turnout rate for each group was 51 percent. Does that settle the argument? Hardly, but it’s a good place to start.
Next, I looked at turnout in the South, where much of the debate on voter ID has focused, because many opponents argue that ID laws function as a modern day poll tax, hitting poor and minority voters hardest. (The Supreme Court will probably take up this question soon.)
Five states in the old Confederacy, and two that bordered it, had competitive statewide elections. The states with a voter ID requirement, including Louisiana and Florida, had the highest turnout rates; the two states where no ID is required -- Maryland and North Carolina -- had the lowest.
In North Carolina, a voting rights group has argued that changes to the state’s election laws -- such as ending Election Day registration and shortening the early voting period -- reduced turnout by up to 50,000 voters. There is good reason to be skeptical of that number, but even if it is accurate, it depressed turnout by less than 1 percent.
Another way to test the question of whether voter ID requirements suppress turnout is to examine states that adopted ID laws after 2010. Did turnout in those states go down? Only two states with new ID laws also had competitive elections in both 2010 and 2014: Kansas and New Hampshire. Turnout increased in both: by one point in Kansas, and by more than nine points in New Hampshire.
Looking across all 21 states with competitive elections, Maine had the highest turnout, with 63 percent. Maine has no ID requirement and allows voters to register on Election Day. But next up were states with ID laws: New Hampshire and Alaska -- though in Alaska, an election official can waive the requirement if he or she knows the voter.
None of this disproves the theory that voter ID laws suppress turnout, but nor does it lend any credence to it. It does suggest, however, that just as conservatives have oversold the need for ID laws by playing up fears of voter fraud (which is extremely rare), liberals may be overhyping the impact the laws are having on voter turnout.
There are many reasons that people don’t vote. In a recent poll by the Pew Research Center of nonvoters, 87 percent of respondents said they were too busy to do so, unhappy with their choices or otherwise indifferent. Ten percent cited a missed registration deadline, a recent move or a lack of transportation. Lack of ID did not register in the poll, probably because even registered voters without ID can cast provisional ballots, which are counted if the voters later establish that they were eligible to participate.
There is no doubt that partisan motivations are driving the Republican push for ID laws, which make voting harder than it needs to be for some. But it’s not at all clear that such laws are giving Republicans any meaningful advantage by suppressing turnout.
Democrats believe that the higher the turnout, the better their chances of winning elections. If they hope to increase turnout in future elections, they would do well to spend more time motivating voters and less time bemoaning ID laws.
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