Debunking Misinformation on Photo ID

June 9, 2011

The Wall Street Journal recently published an op-ed (“The Case for Voter ID”) by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.  In the piece, Kobach touts restrictive voter ID bills, including the Kansas “Secure and Fair Elections Act,” which he drafted and Governor Sam Brownback signed into law a few weeks ago.  Kobach argues that (1) voter ID laws will not actually prevent any eligible citizens from voting; and (2) they will prevent in-person voter fraud, which he claims is a substantial problem.  But his arguments are built on inaccuracies, unsupported allegations, and flawed reasoning.  Because Kobach takes direct aim at the Brennan Center in this op-ed, we thought a thorough review of his claims was in order. We sent a letter to the editors at the Journal rebutting some of his claims, but the paper did not publish it.

Claim 1: Kobach wrongly takes issue with a 2006 Brennan Center study showing 11% of American citizens do not possess government issued photo ID.

In 2006, the Brennan Center published the results of a telephone survey conducted by the Opinion Research Corporation (ORC), an independent market research firm, on the number of voting-age Americans who have government-issued photo ID and proof of citizenship.  11% of all respondents to that survey did not have ready access to government-issued photo ID; the percentages of those without ID were even higher for certain demographic groups.  Kobach summarily dismisses the hard numbers without offering any reason to doubt the Brennan Center and ORC findings, other than that he finds them “implausible.” ORC is a respected, global provider of market research, providing polling and research to  CNN, among many other partners and clients. Mr. Kobach’s intuition is not a substitute for sound research. 

What is more, Kobach fails to note that the Brennan Center’s findings are consistent with every independent study we have identified before and since:

  • The 2001 Carter-Ford Commission on Election Reform found that between 6-11 percent of voting-age citizens lack driver’s license or alternate state-issued photo ID.  
  • A 2007 Indiana survey found that roughly 13 percent of registered Indiana voters lack an Indiana driver’s license or an alternate Indiana-issued photo ID. 
  • In a 2009 study in Indiana, Professors Matt Barreto, Stephen Nuño, and Gabriel Sanchez found that election restrictions like voter ID laws have the greatest impact on the elderly, racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, those with less educational attainment and lower incomes.  The professors found that of the citizen adult population, 81.4% of all white eligible adults had access to a driver’s license, whereas only 55.2% of black eligible adults had the same access.   Indeed, study after study has similarly concluded that burdens to voting have a large and disparate impact on individuals with fewer resources, less education, smaller social networks, and those who are institutionally isolated.   
  • The 2007 study, Voter ID Requirements and the Disenfranchisement of Latino, Black, and Asian Voters, based on exit polls from the 2006 elections in California, New Mexico, and Washington State, found that minority voters are less likely than whites to be able to present photo identification.  
  • Many citizens who believe they have valid and sufficient photo IDs often do not.  A national survey conducted after the November 2008 election found that 95% of respondents claimed to have a driver’s license, but 16% of those respondents lacked a license that was both current and valid.  So of the of Americans who possess a photo ID, many lack proper identification that would enable to them to vote in elections under the new laws passed in Wisconsin, Kansas, Texas, South Carolina, and under legislation pending in many more states.  
  • Additional studies and research findings on voter ID are collected here.

Claim 2: Kobach wrongly denies the fact that there are tens of thousands of voters in Kansas (and any other state) without photo IDs.  

In an attempt to demonstrate that it is a myth that thousands of voting-age citizens in his state lack state-issued photo IDs, Kobach compares the size of the Kansas voting-age population (2,126,179 persons) with the number of driver’s licenses or non-driver ID issued in Kansas (2,156,446).  With these figures, he notes that there are more photo IDs in circulation than there are eligible voters.   But this conclusion is flawed for a number of reasons. 

First, the Kansas driver’s license database is very likely outdated.  Kansas only purges its driver’s license and photo ID lists on a five-year cycle for persons who have moved out-of-state or who are deceased.[1]  In fact, in 2010, more households moved out of Kansas than moved in. Consequently, the figure he cites is inflated and does not reflect the accurate number of persons with driver’s licenses in the state. 

The comparison is irrelevant for other reasons:

  • The number of persons with a driver’s license or non-driver ID presumably includes permanent residents or other non-citizens who are unable to vote, so comparing the figure to the voting-age population does not make sense.
  • Persons who are not of voting-age (younger than 18) can apply and receive a driver’s license and/or non-driver ID.
  • Kobach does not note if all the driver’s licenses or non-driver ID are current.  Many of the licenses on the list may have expired and are therefore no longer valid for voting purposes.

The insufficiency of Kobach’s underlying data cannot lead to any statistically meaningful conclusions about how many Kansas citizens—or citizens in any other state—have photo ID.  Given that all independent studies using accepted statistical methods for analyzing this subject indicate that, in fact, many citizens do not have valid ID, and that Kobach has not provided any reason for us to believe that Kansas is radically different than other states in the United States, it seems likely that the restrictions in Kansas will also disenfranchise voters.

Claim 3: There is no basis for Kobach’s assertion that photo ID laws do not affect minority voting rates. 

Kobach claims that photo ID laws do not adversely affect minority voting rates by noting that minority turnout in Georgia increased in both 2008 and 2010, following the implementation of that State’s photo ID law.   

However, as we have written before, a lot of variables impact turnout, including things as irrelevant to Voter ID requirements as the weather.  The fact is, the turnout figures he mentions don't tell us much at all about whether ID laws had an effect on turnout, because there were much bigger factors at work in both elections.  For example, in the 2008 presidential race, massive resources were poured into registering and mobilizing voters in Georgia, a state where far less effort was spent turning voters out in 2004.  Thus, turnout shot up.  Far less attention was spent in 2008 on Illinois and Mississippi.  Thus, turnout gains in those states were comparatively more modest.

Simple turnout figures don’t tell us if restrictive ID requirements kept some voters from voting.  But we already know that overly restrictive ID laws cause unnecessary problems for some eligible citizens.  That should be enough to give us pause about instituting such laws, particularly when it is unclear what problem such laws solve.

Claim 4: Kobach wrongly claims that voter fraud is well documented. 

Actually, voter fraud is not well documented, as numerous studies have shown.

Kobach mischaracterizes events to suggest the existence of voter fraud.  Those events, when fully examined, frequently demonstrate no malfeasance and certainly do not suggest any intentional act to steal votes or undermine the electoral process.  Kobach relies upon data about “reported” events and “allegations” of problems with no reference to actual prosecutions, arrests or actual findings of voter malfeasance.  In his op-ed, Kobach points to the 2010 J.J. Rizzo Missouri state representative race alleging that 50 non-citizens cast votes in that election.  In fact, that event was fully investigated and litigated.  There was no finding of illegal voting, no indictments and no prosecutions after a full review of the incident in question.  In a recent interview with National Public Radio, Kobach was unable to identify a single conviction or arrest when asked about the arrest, prosecution, and conviction rates of the 221 alleged incidents of voter fraud in Kansas referenced in his op-ed.

Kobach’s reliance on the 2011 Colorado Secretary of State report to support his specious allegations that immigrant populations are voting in large numbers is also unfounded.  The Colorado report is rife with similar problems, as documented in our recent blog post, Smoke and Mirrors: Alleged Non-Citizen Voting in NM and CO.  For example, although Colorado Secretary Scott Gessler identified 11,805 people who allegedly obtained driver’s licenses since 2006 while non-citizens, there is no basis to conclude that many – or even any – of those individuals were, in fact, not citizens at the time of the 2010 election.  During the same time period, 32,140 individuals became citizens in Colorado. It is certainly reasonable to assume that some, if not many, of the over 4,000 individuals who the report alleged were non-citizens when they voted in 2010 – were, in fact, citizens at the time of the election. 

Claim 5: Kobach minimizes the impact of the new Kansas law on Kansas voters.

Kobach does not adequately note the various burdensome provisions of the Kansas law and misleads readers about the impact the law will have on Kansas citizens.  Kobach claims that both birth certificates issued in Kansas and photo IDs will be free for those who require them for purposes of voting.  He fails to mention the costs of ID for those not born in Kansas or the broader impact of new restrictions on registration as well as in-person voting.   Kansas’ law requiring proof of citizenship at registration uses different ID requirements than for voting.  Moreover, if a citizen mails in a registration form that does not include proof of citizenship, she may not be notified if she is not registered – she could simply be forced to cast a provisional ballot on Election Day, regardless of her ability to prove their citizenship or identity.  That ballot would not count.  The legislation Kobach is so proud of will unnecessarily complicate voter registrations and Election Day access to the polls. 

Kris Kobach is correct that carrying a photo ID has become a part of American life—part of American life that many citizens are excluded from by operation of age, disability or poverty.  These same citizens should not be categorically barred from exercising their fundamental right to vote.   The provision of free IDs does not take away the burden of locating, purchasing and coordinating the acquisition of the underlying documentation to obtain that same ID.  For some of us it is a very simple matter of standing in line for a few hours or mailing a request for a certified birth certificate.  For others, it’s a complicated or nearly impossible process. 

Many of us have a fairly easy time navigating the bureaucratic jungle necessary to acquire and, when they’re lost, reacquire important identity documents like birth certificates. That may mean we find it relatively easy to do things like register for a driver’s license, or get a passport. But a broad range of research shows conclusively that there are hundreds of thousands of American citizens who have trouble acquiring or reacquiring the kind of specialized documents required by many of these voter ID laws. Voting is every citizen’s constitutional right – giving the government the power to block citizens from voting because they have more trouble jumping through a bureaucratic hoop is un-American.


[1] Telephone interview with a Kansas Division of Motor Vehicles official (May 27, 2011) (on file with the Brennan Center).