Are voter ID laws racially biased or completely benign and necessary for the enhancement of our democracy?
On July 13th, a federal trial began in Winston-Salem over the 2013 North Carolina law (H.B. 589) that repealed a series of voting access measures—such as same-day voter registration, early voting, pre-registration for eligible high school students and out-of-precinct voting—that were enacted over the last two decades. The law also required a voter ID, or photographic identification, for everyone voting in person. As The New York Times recently reported:
Lawmakers claimed that H.B. 589, which was approved in a sneaky last-minute maneuver that insulated it from any real debate, would reduce fraud and inefficiency in elections. In truth, it is a pile of blatantly discriminatory measures that lawmakers knew would make voting harder, if not impossible, for many lower-income citizens — who are disproportionately black and Latino, and many of whom tend to vote Democratic. The election-law scholar Richard Hasen has called it “the most sweeping anti-voter law in at least decades.”
Challengers of the law include the Justice Department, the NAACP and the League of Women Voters. The allegation is that the law discriminates against minority voters and therefore violates their constitutional rights. Specifically, the NAACP’s brief states that without the repeal of H.B. 589, the current voter ID law “will disproportionately injure African-American voters, who are less likely than other members of the electorate to possess the required forms of identification and also face disproportionately greater burdens in obtaining such identification.”
Perhaps. But then again, perhaps not. The allegation is that the voter ID law will disproportionately injure. The first question must therefore be:
Have voter ID laws caused disproportionate harm in the past or in other instances? It appears that real, objective, scientific data say no.
The second question is: Why would any state repeal laws (e.g., early voting and pre-registration for eligible high school students) that common sense tells us makes it easier for all people to vote? After all, we live in a presupposed democracy, the cornerstone of which is the right to vote. Shouldn’t the overall impetus, then, be to encourage as many people as possible to vote and to eliminate barriers that prevent them from voting?
In an ideal world, voting should be ridiculously easy. It should be as easy as sending an email or “liking” something. If it takes almost no effort to express your support for a picture or a comment online, why would voting for the next president, senator, congressperson or local official be any harder? Moreover, if you’re concerned about voter fraud, recent research shows that repeat or fraudulent ballot casting and vote buying are extremely rare phenomena.
There is also research that suggests that voter ID laws do not affect turnout of minority voters. Accordingly, even if laws such as H.B. 589 were made with malevolent intent, such intent would not produce its desired results. A 2013 study by Rene Rocha and Tetsuya Matsubayashi looked at how voter ID laws changed voter turnout. Over the course of 30 years (1980 to 2010) in 49 states, they compared election results before and after voter ID law changes took effect. Their conclusion:
Our primary explanatory variables, photo ID and nonphoto ID laws, have no statistically discernible relationship with the probability that whites, blacks, and Latinos voted in the general elections between 1980 and 2010 except that the nonphoto ID law has a positive and significant relationship with Latino turnout.
The bottom line, at least according to this study: Voter ID requirements do not affect global voter turnout—a fact that applies to all racial and ethnic groups. The pair also mentioned that “universal mail voting, no-excuse absentee voting, and early in-person voting, have no systematic effect on turnout when racial and ethnic groups are analyzed separately.”
In contrast, a 2015 study from the University of San Diego determined that stricter voter ID laws do change the probability that people will vote in primary elections—turnout rates for all races go down, not just select populations. The same study also found that such laws have no effect in general elections, and they do not have any wealth bias as such laws affect all income brackets the same.
Interestingly, what the data from select research reveal is that voter ID laws have a negligible effect either way when it comes to voting: They do not suppress fraud because fraud is already negligible, and they do not have racial bias in deterring groups from coming out to the polls. Hence, whatever the justification might be for the passage of stricter voter ID laws, it appears that such justification is grounded in subjectivity, not reality.
Common sense tells us that if politicians are working for the people, then they should pass laws that make the smooth operation of democracy—and therefore voting—as easy as possible. Instead, they have involved themselves in a game of barrier-raising to the detriment of those people whom they serve. The issue of voter ID, then, has little to do with race and much to do with the representative agents of democracy working against the people living in that democracy.
Voter ID laws are neither biased nor necessary. They simply give politicians ammunition for a war that they themselves have waged against the people.
Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal