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Pictures of black voters make whites more likely to support voter ID laws

Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty

A new academic study suggests that white people are more likely to support voter ID laws when they're shown a picture of a black voter than a picture of a white voter.

The study, which was conducted by two University of Delaware professors and a Pennsylvania high school student, was fairly straightforward. It asked people whether they supported or opposed laws that required people to show a form of government-issued ID at the polls.  Some respondents were shown a picture alongside the question, of either a white voter or a black voter, and others weren't shown a picture at all.

The researchers found that black and Hispanic respondents were about equally likely to support or oppose the laws regardless of who was featured in the picture. And white respondents were as likely to support the law when they saw a picture of a white voter as they were when they saw no picture at all. But when the picture alongside the question showed a black voter, more whites supported voter ID:

voter ID study white support

(University of Delaware)

The study isn't too surprising. Similar research has shown that whites are more likely to support harsh criminal justice policies, like stop-and-frisk, when they see images of or hear statistics about black prisoners. And voter ID is like stop-and-frisk in one important respect: it's a race-neutral policy in theory, but in practice it ends up disproportionately harming people of color.

A 2012 report by the Brennan Center for Justice found that African Americans and Hispanics were generally less likely to have ID than the average American, meaning that the burden of getting a new ID after a state law passed falls heavily on them. Compounding that, people of color are disproportionately unlikely to have easy access to state offices where they can obtain IDs:

1.2 million eligible black voters and 500,000 eligible Hispanic voters live more than 10 miles from their nearest ID-issuing office open more than two days a week. People of color are more likely to be disenfranchised by these laws since they are less likely to have photo ID than the general population...(In some of the states with strict voter-ID laws), many part-time ID-issuing offices are in the rural regions with the highest concentrations of people of color and people in poverty.

The good news for opponents of voter ID laws, though, is that in the short term, the future of voter ID isn't in the hands of the public. Instead, it's in the hands of the federal courts.

Voter-ID lawsuits are racing against the election clock

In the last few years, a wave of state legislatures — most of them dominated by Republicans — have passed new, restrictive voter ID laws. These laws have been challenged by voting-rights groups. Eight states are in the middle of court battles over whether their laws can go into effect. The status of those lawsuits, when the polls open in a few weeks, will shape who's able to go to the polls in those states — and might shape who gets elected from them.

Brennan Center legal challenges voter ID laws

(Brennan Center for Justice)

If the last week is any indication, voter ID opponents might be winning in the courts — at least in the long run.

Last week, a federal judge in Texas ruled against their voter ID law — saying that it "constitutes an unconstitutional poll tax" on black and Hispanic voters. Texas appealed, and an appeals court ruled on October 15th that the law will be allowed to go into effect. But the appeals court didn't necessarily disagree with or overrule the lower court's ruling — it just said that because the election is coming up so soon in Texas, it was better to keep the law in effect for now.

After the election, the appeals court will take up the question of what to do with the law for good. And according to Talking Points Memo, the ruling that struck the law down last week could serve another purpose, too. The earlier ruling helps make the case that Texas can't be trusted to make non-discriminatory voting laws on its own, and therefore needs to go back to getting preclearance — a permission slip, essentially — from the federal government before it can make any voting changes. (In 2013, the Supreme Court gutted the portion of the Voting Rights Act that mandated such a permission slip for certain states and counties, including Texas, with a history of discrimination.)

Another recent decision in federal court upheld Wisconsin's voter ID law, but the Supreme Court swiftly issued a ruling that the law still couldn't go into effect just yet. And in the long run, the ruling upholding the Wisconsin law might not be as notable, or as influential, as the dissent from Judge Richard Posner.

"If the Wisconsin legislature says witches are a problem, shall Wisconsin courts be permitted to conduct witch trials?"

Posner is a conservative, appointed by Ronald Reagan, and is partly responsible for the current wave of state voter ID laws — he wrote the first decision saying that they were constitutional, back in 2008. But Posner has recently acknowledged that as voter ID laws have gone into effect, they've had discriminatory impacts on nonwhite voters — and the evidence has persuaded him to change his mind on whether voter ID is permissible.

In this case, not only did Posner oppose the majority of his fellow judges who said the Wisconsin voter ID law was okay, but he wrote a furious dissent. Pointing to the evidence that in-person voter fraud, which voter ID laws are supposed to combat, is essentially nonexistent, he compared the Wisconsin legislature's fear of voter fraud to passing anti-witchcraft laws:

As there is no evidence that voter impersonation fraud is a problem, how can the fact that a legislature says it's a problem turn it into one? If the Wisconsin legislature says witches are a problem, shall Wisconsin courts be permitted to conduct witch trials? If the Supreme Court once thought that requiring photo identification increases public confidence in elections, and experience and academic study since shows that the Court was mistaken, do we do a favor to the Court — do we increase public confidence in elections — by making the mistake a premise of our decision?

In another passage, Posner sums up the paradox behind support for voter ID: it ignores, or tries to make excuses for, the real problem of discouraging people from voting legally, in service of trying to fix the imaginary problem of voter fraud.

The panel opinion states that "if photo ID is available to people willing to scrounge up a birth certificate and stand in line at the office that issues driver's licenses, then all we know from the fact that a particular person lacks a photo ID is that he was unwilling to invest the necessary time." But that ignores Sobel's study, discussed earlier, and the broader point that time is cost. The author of this dissenting opinion has never seen his birth certificate and does not know how he would go about "scrounging" it up. Nor does he enjoy waiting in line at motor vehicle bureaus. There is only one motivation for imposing burdens on voting that are ostensibly designed to discourage voter impersonation fraud, if there is no actual danger of such fraud, and that is to discourage voting by persons likely to vote against the party responsible for imposing the burdens.


UPDATE: This story was first posted before a federal appeals court ruled to let Texas use its voter ID law in the 2014 elections. It's been updated to reflect the most recent ruling.