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The silver lining of voter ID laws: they aren’t effective at suppressing the vote

That doesn’t make these laws less racist.

Voting booths in Florida. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

There is little doubt at this point that voter ID laws are discriminatory. Many Republicans, who have pushed these laws in recent years, have admitted as much. Studies show the laws have a disproportionate impact on black and brown voters. And there is a very long history of voter suppression against black voters in the US. All of this adds up to what’s fairly described as a constitutional crisis depriving people of their most fundamental democratic right.

But there’s some good news: Despite Republican legislators’ best attempts to suppress minority voters, study after study has found that voter ID laws have little to no effect on voter turnout. At worst, the effect is small — barely detectable even in studies that employ multiple controls. At best, there’s no effect at all or even an increase.

That doesn’t, of course, mean that the laws are okay. The intent behind the laws is still clearly abhorrent — with some Republicans admitting that they are meant to suppress minority voters. The good news is that so far the intent, no matter how bad, hasn’t led to the effect Republican lawmakers apparently desire.

The research suggests voter ID laws have a tiny effect on elections

Frederic Brown/AFP via Getty Images

Studies on voter ID laws are surprisingly consistent: No matter what, the effect seems to be fairly small.

That might be surprising, considering all the headlines about voter ID laws in the past few years. A 2012 analysis, for example, found that as many as 758,000 registered voters in Pennsylvania don’t have a photo ID issued by the state’s Transportation Department — meaning that up to 9.2 percent of Pennsylvania voters may have been disenfranchised by a strict photo ID law.

But as Nate Cohn explained in a review of the evidence for the New York Times, figures like Pennsylvania’s are highly misleading, citing a study for the North Carolina Board of Elections:

To begin with, the true number of registered voters without photo identification is usually much lower than the statistics on registered voters without identification suggest. The number of voters without photo identification is calculated by matching voter registration files with state ID databases. But perfect matching is impossible, and the effect is to overestimate the number of voters without identification. …

People without ID are less likely to vote than other registered voters. The North Carolina study found that 43 percent of the unmatched voters — registered voters who could not be matched with a driver’s license — participated in 2012, compared with more than 70 percent of matched voters.

Essentially, the number of voters who don’t actually have an eligible ID is very inflated by estimates like Pennsylvania’s. And assuming that these people will vote in the first place is a big mistake — they’re less likely to vote, with or without a voter ID law.

Cohn added:

There’s no question that voter ID has a disparate impact on Democratic-leaning groups — those young, nonwhite, poor, immobile or elderly voters. The unmatched North Carolina voters were registered as Democrats by a 37-point margin, compared with the 12-point Democratic margin statewide. They were 46 percent nonwhite, compared with 29 percent of all registered voters.

But 22 percent of these voters were registered Republicans. The voters without an identification might be breaking something more like 70/30 for Democrats than 95/5.

As Cohn writes, a 70-30 skew is still a big loss for Democrats. But when taking into account that many of these people are unlikely to vote in the first place, the total count of lost voters is much smaller than one would think.

Studies looking into voter ID laws’ effect on voter turnout back this up. The research, including multiple studies conducted over several years, has generally found that voter ID laws have a small to no impact on voter turnout, even when looking at specific racial groups.

One study of nationwide data from the past decade, widely reported by outlets like the Washington Post and ThinkProgress, tried to suggest the previous research was wrong. The study, released by three researchers at the University of California San Diego earlier this year, was very high on the rhetoric, warning that “voter ID laws skew democracy toward those on the political right.”

But when you looked at the study’s numbers more closely, the effect of voter ID laws was tiny. In fact, the study actually found that black voter turnout increased in general elections where strict voter ID laws were in place. The increase wasn’t statistically significant, but the finding means that voter ID laws have essentially no effect on black voter turnout in general elections.

The researchers don’t ever explain why this is the case for black voters but not Latino voters, who do see statistically significant turnout drop in general elections.

The study did find that the impact of voter ID laws was somewhat broader in primary elections, depressing black, Latino, and multiracial voter turnout in those races. And it found that Democrats were hit worse than Republicans by voter ID laws, although both saw decreased turnout.

But as Kevin Drum explained at Mother Jones, it only found this after employing a lot of statistical controls. That suggests that the researchers were looking for a marginal effect — after all, if voter ID laws had a big effect, you could probably see some of it without many, if any, statistical controls. As Drum put it, “The authors have applied so many controls that it’s hard to tell if there's any real data left by the time they’re done.”

This was the study that was supposed to show the big effect of voter ID laws — yet it found that black voter turnout was unaffected in general elections, while the impact on other groups was a few percentage points at most.

So while voter ID laws probably hit Democratic and minority voters a little harder than their Republican and white counterparts, we’re really talking about a small effect here. These laws could only swing the closest of elections, when basically everything matters.

In fact, none of the other voting restrictions enacted by states seem to have much of an effect on voting either. Researchers have found, for example, mixed effects on whether early voting increases turnout, with one recent study finding that it actually decreased turnout on net if voters couldn’t register to vote and cast their ballot on the same day.

No study has the final word, but the research is all inconclusive enough to suggest that practical barriers to voting have a fairly small effect on whether people actually vote.

What explains this? MIT political science professor Adam Berinsky offered one theory at the Stanford Social Innovation Review: “The more significant costs of participation are the cognitive costs of becoming involved with and informed about the political world. … Political interest and engagement, after all, determine to a large extent who votes and who does not.”

Now, easing barriers to voting might still be worthwhile. Even if the effect is small, the issue here is the most basic, fundamental right any citizen of a democracy or republic has. It’s worth making sure people can practice that right.

But it’s welcome news that failing at making voting easier or even making it harder, as some states have over the past few decades, won’t skew the system much, if at all.

The small effect doesn’t justify the vile history and bad motives that push Republicans to pass these laws

A voter registration flyer. Alex Wong/Getty Images

None of this research should let the people passing voting restrictions off the hook.

Over the past few years, it has become almost a cliché for Republicans to slip up and admit that voter ID laws and other voting restrictions aren’t really about combating voter fraud (an extremely rare phenomenon), but rather about making it harder for Democratic constituencies — mainly, black and brown voters — to vote. The New York Times has a good list of these Republican slip-ups.

Take how one longtime Republican consultant put it to William Wan at the Washington Post:

Longtime Republican consultant Carter Wrenn, a fixture in North Carolina politics, said the GOP’s voter fraud argument is nothing more than an excuse.

“Of course it’s political. Why else would you do it?” he said, explaining that Republicans, like any political party, want to protect their majority. While GOP lawmakers might have passed the law to suppress some voters, Wrenn said, that does not mean it was racist.

“Look, if African Americans voted overwhelmingly Republican, they would have kept early voting right where it was,” Wrenn said. “It wasn’t about discriminating against African Americans. They just ended up in the middle of it because they vote Democrat.”

This is simply deplorable. It’s a direct admission that voter restrictions are politically motivated attempts to disenfranchise black voters. People’s constitutional rights are being messed with for political gain. (It’s no wonder a federal judge struck down parts of North Carolina’s voter ID law, concluding it “target[ed] African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”)

The admission is made worse by America’s long history of attempting to suppress black voters. For civil rights groups, voter ID and other new restrictions call back to the days of poll taxes, literacy tests, and other rules that were imposed to block minorities from voting until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 effectively banned such laws. Like modern voting restrictions, the old laws didn’t appear to racially discriminate at face value — but due to selective enforcement and socioeconomic disparities, they disproportionately kept out black voters.

The ultimate impact of the new voting restrictions, particularly voter ID, may be small. But the long history here, coupled with some Republicans’ frank admissions, is enough to dislike these laws no matter how little they change the electorate.


Watch: Americans with disabilities frequently struggle to vote

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