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Separating Fact from Fiction on Voter ID Statistics

A recent New York Times post understates the impact of restrictive voting laws. Here, we set the record straight and explain the detailed analyses behind voter ID numbers.

  • Jennifer L. Clark
November 25, 2014

In “Why Voter ID Laws Don’t Swing Many Elec­tions,” Nate Cohn under­states the impact of restrict­ive voting laws. Yes, it is likely rare for an elec­tion to be close enough for voter ID laws to swing the outcome. But Amer­ic­ans should indeed be concerned about laws that shut out thou­sands of eligible voters.

Cohn says “figures over­state the number of voters who truly lack iden­ti­fic­a­tion.” But the evid­ence under­ly­ing these figures is quite strong and detailed.

Consider Texas, where U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos relied on such figures to strike down the strict­est photo ID law in the coun­try. The trial court found approx­im­ately 608,470 registered Texas voters lack the ID neces­sary to vote. This number was based on the research of two lead­ing polit­ical scient­ists who compared Texas’s voter regis­tra­tion records to iden­ti­fic­a­tion data­base records: Stephen Ansol­abehere, PhD, a professor of govern­ment at Harvard Univer­sity, and Michael C. Herron, PhD, chair of the math and social science depart­ment and a professor of govern­ment at Dart­mouth College.

Cohn writes that if such an analysis were conduc­ted in his homet­own of Wash­ing­ton, D.C., he would erro­neously be included in a tally of voters lack­ing photo ID, because he has a U.S. pass­port, not a D.C.-issued ID. But experts in the Texas case expli­citly looked for these voters and excluded them from the count.

Under the Texas law, a voter must present one of seven forms of photo ID to vote: four are issued by Texas and three by the federal govern­ment. The Texas match­ing analysis reviewed state data­bases to determ­ine whether registered voters had a Texas-issued photo ID, and also compared the state’s list of registered voters to multiple federal data­bases to capture people who may have a pass­port, milit­ary ID, or citizen­ship certi­fic­ate instead. This means the approx­im­ately 608,470 registered Texans the court found lack ID don’t have any ID — state or federal — that can be used to vote.

The records-match­ing process in the Texas trial also took addi­tional meas­ures to ensure the accur­acy of the data. The analysis used 13 separ­ate iden­ti­fi­ers to match registered voters with all of the accept­able forms of ID, includ­ing data related to date of birth, gender, first, middle, and last names, social secur­ity number, and driver’s license number. The compar­is­ons were run multiple times using vari­ous combin­a­tions of these iden­ti­fi­ers, and if any one combin­a­tion resul­ted in a match between a voter regis­tra­tion record and an ID record, that person was assumed to own accep­ted photo ID.

Under this analysis, if Cohn were a Texas resid­ent who registered under “Nate” but had a qual­i­fy­ing govern­ment-issued photo ID with “Nathan,” he would not have been coun­ted among the 600,000-plus voters lack­ing ID. The match­ing proced­ure was designed to err on the side of over-match­ing, so as to provide a conser­vat­ive estim­ate of the number of voters lack­ing ID.

Two addi­tional experts at trial — Matt Barreto, PhD, professor at the Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton, and Gabriel Sanc­hez, PhD, professor at the Univer­sity of New Mexico — conduc­ted a detailed tele­phone survey of thou­sands of Texans to find out what forms of ID they possess. Unlike the match­ing proced­ure discussed above, the survey was not limited to registered voters, but was designed to determ­ine how many eligible voters lack any form of ID used to vote under the law. The results: Approx­im­ately 1.2 million eligible Texas voters lack accep­ted ID.

Although the case in Texas has an espe­cially detailed factual record, these stud­ies do not stand alone. Numbers from other states show similar impact. In Wiscon­sin, a federal court found approx­im­ately 300,000 registered voters lack photo ID. In reach­ing that number, the court considered indi­vidu­als who don’t possess a state-issued ID but may have another photo ID accep­ted for voting. In Pennsylvania, where the photo ID law was struck down this year, the state’s own witness estim­ated 320,000 to 400,000 registered voters lacked accep­ted ID. And a North Caro­lina analysis found more than 300,000 voters lack ID. More data will come to light when North Caro­lin­a’s law goes on trial in July 2015. In the mean­time, we should be care­ful not to conflate prelim­in­ary stud­ies with those that have been subject to judi­cial scru­tiny and formed the basis for court find­ings, such as those in Texas, Pennsylvania, and Wiscon­sin. These numbers are further suppor­ted by national survey data from multiple sources show­ing 11 percent of Amer­ic­ans lack the kind of govern­ment-issued photo ID required by strict ID laws.

In the face of mount­ing evid­ence of voter ID’s disen­fran­chising effects, Judge Richard Posner — a lead­ing conser­vat­ive jurist who wrote the pivotal appel­late court opin­ion uphold­ing Indi­ana’s strict photo ID law a decade ago — reversed course and come out against voter ID laws. In a book released last year, Posner wrote that ID laws are “widely regarded as a means of voter suppres­sion.”

Cohn also took issue with the argu­ment that voter ID laws affect turnout. He is correct that changes in turnout often result from a number of factors, and the impact of any one factor on voter parti­cip­a­tion in a given elec­tion is diffi­cult to assess. However, the Govern­ment Account­ab­il­ity Office, a respec­ted nonpar­tisan insti­tute, recently issued a study show­ing Kansas and Tenness­ee’s new photo ID laws decreased turnout in 2012 by 2 to 3 percent.

Voter ID laws present a threat to demo­cracy because they stop indi­vidu­als — like Ms. Sammie Louise Bates, Mr. Eulalio Mendez, Jr., Mr. Calvin Carrier, and many more — from exer­cising their right to vote. The numbers from the Texas photo ID case and other states illus­trate the extent of this threat — and why it is wrong to pass laws that block some eligible Amer­ic­ans from voting.