Voter ID Laws: Terrible Public Policy, But Probably Pretty Feeble


Republican-led voter-ID laws may be pernicious, but Nate Cohn says there are three reasons to think their actual electoral impact is overstated:

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.

….There’s no question that voter ID has a disparate impact on Democratic-leaning groups….[But] voters without an identification might be breaking something more like 70/30 for Democrats than 95/5. A 70/30 margin is a big deal, and, again, it’s fully consistent with Democratic concerns about voter suppression. But when we’re down to the subset of unmatched voters who don’t have any identification and still vote, a 70/30 margin probably isn’t generating enough votes to decide anything but an extremely close election.

When I looked into this a couple of years ago, I basically came to the same conclusion. Only a few studies were available at the time, but they suggested that the real-world impact of voter ID laws was fairly small. I haven’t seen anything since then to suggest otherwise.

None of this justifies the cynical Republican effort to suppress voting via ID laws. For one thing, they still matter in close elections. For another, the simple fact that they deliberately target minority voters is noxious—and this is very much not ameliorated by the common Republican defense that the real reason they’re targeted isn’t race related. It’s because they vote for Democrats. If anything, that makes it worse. Republicans are knowingly making it harder for blacks and Hispanics to vote because they vote for the wrong people. I’m not sure how much more noxious a voter suppression effort can be.

These laws should be stricken from the books, lock, stock and extremely smoking barrel. They don’t prevent voter fraud and they have no purpose except to suppress the votes of targeted groups. The evidence on this point is now clear enough that the Supreme Court should revisit its 2008 decision in Crawford v. Marion that upheld strict voter ID laws. They have no place in a decent society.

At the same time, if you’re wondering how much actual effect they have, the answer is probably not much. We still don’t have any definitive academic studies on this point, I think, but Cohn makes a pretty good case. It’s possible that Kay Hagan might have lost her Senate race this year thanks to voter ID laws, but she’s probably the only one.