The Supreme Court gave states a green light to enact voter ID laws in a fractured decision in 2008 that upheld an Indiana law adopted eight years earlier. Significantly, the Indiana law had been on hold pending the results of the legal challenge. So the court had no actual evidence on the impact of the law on individual voters or overall voter turnout.
Now come three political science researchers with an empirical study on the actual results from four biennial elections that indicate an impact not on overall turnout but in particular on “minorities and other disadvantaged groups.” As voting rights advocates press legal challenges to voter ID laws in several states, the study provides legal ammunition that the laws may violate the federal Voting Rights Act because of their disparate impact on racial and ethnic minorities.
The three researchers, who collaborated at the University of California-San Diego, guard their credibility with caution on some of the disputed points in the debate over voter ID laws. (Zoltan Hajnal is a professor of political science and Nazita Lajevardi a graduate student at UCSD; Lindsay Nielson is now a professor of political science at Bucknell University.) Most significantly for their bona fides, the three coauthors acknowledge the opposing studies on the incidence of voter fraud in elections and describe that debate as “ongoing and inconclusive.”
The researchers are anything but cautious, however, in seeing a racial and political impact from the voter ID laws. The title says it all: “Voter Identification Laws and the Suppression of Minority Votes.” Strict voter ID laws “have a differentially negative impact” on turnout of black, Hispanics, Asian American, and multiracial voters, the researchers write, and also “skew democracy toward those on the political right.”
Given the raging debate over the issue in the past 15 years, readers may be surprised by the reminder that before 2008 no state not one required identification from would-be voters. Today, 34 states have some form of voter ID law, with seven counted by the researchers as imposing “strict photo ID” requirements. Public opinion polls indicate broad support for voter ID requirements.
The stricter laws, however, might have less support if pollsters could take time to explain the details. In Texas, for example, a handgun permit satisfies the photo ID requirement, but not a student ID a distinction likely to have a differential political impact. A lower court judge and the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals have both found the Texas law to discriminate against blacks and Hispanics, but it is in effect pending a final ruling.
North Carolina’s law allows voters to use forms of photo ID disproportionately held by whites, such as passports, driver licenses, and veteran and military IDs. But the law does not allow use of student IDs, government employee IDs, and, most tellingly, public assistance IDs disproportionately held by African Americans. A federal judge has a legal challenge to the law under advisement after finishing a two-week trial last week.
The UCSD researchers used data to show the ID laws’ adverse impact on voter turnout for minorities, as explained in a story [Feb. 2] on the progressive news site TPM (Think Progress Memo). The researchers used validated state voter turnout figures instead of unreliable self-reporting by voters and teased out from the data a clear effect on minorities’ turnout and a measurable benefit for Republicans over Democrats. Scott Keyes’ story in TPM summarized the researchers’ findings, based on a revised version of the article updated from the version currently on the web.
In primary elections, “a strict ID law could be expected to depress Latino turnout by 9.3 points, black turnout by 8.6 points, and Asian American turnout by 12.5 points,” the researchers found. In general elections, the data indicate that strict ID laws increase the gap between turnout for minority as compared to white voters. For Latinos, the researchers say the predicted gap “more than doubles” from 4.9 points in states without strict ID laws to 13.5 points in states with such laws. The gap increased by 5 points for Asian Americans and 2.2 points for African Americans.
One more finding, especially significant given the partisan divide between Republicans who support strict voter ID laws and Democrats who oppose them: “Democratic turnout drops by an estimated 8.8 percentage points in general elections when strict photo identification laws are in place,” the researchers say, compared to just 3.6 percentage points for Republicans.
The coin-tossing used to award delegates in six precincts in the Iowa Democratic caucuses last week demonstrates that, in fact, every vote counts. Certainly, a few percentage points of votes count, as Hajnal suggested in his interview with TPM. “It’s fair to say that given the number of states that have these laws, there’s a very real possibility that in a very tight election, it could sway the contest one way or another,” Hajnal said.
The Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act by effectively nullifying the preclearance provision, which could have stopped the Texas and North Carolina laws in their tracks. But lower courts could find the evidence of minority vote suppression strong enough to strike the laws down under the act’s still-valid section 2, which prohibits any voting or election practice that denies a racial or ethnic minority equal opportunity to participate in the political process. Voter ID laws appear to do just that.