Home / Dave Brockington / The Effect of Voter ID Laws on Turnout

The Effect of Voter ID Laws on Turnout


The NYT has a short piece on this new wave of reformist legislation that, save for one state, has been universally passed by Republican legislatures and signed into law by Republican governors.  The NYT piece summarized a new study released yesterday by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU that suggests around 5 million potential voters would face additional burdens because of the new legislation.  In the spirit of balance, the NYT briefly mentions a Heritage Foundation report, recently (August 2011) authored by Hans von Spakovsky & Alex Ingram, itself a direct critique of a previous (2006) Brennan Center publication entitled Citizens Without Proof.  I’ve read both, and while the Brennan Center report is not perfect, it’s largely compelling, and certainly more rigorous than the hack job released in the name of the Heritage Foundation.  It is here where one can mine pure comic gold.

Such genius begins with the opening sentence.

The primary argument against voter identification requirements—that many Americans lack proper identification and would therefore be prevented from voting—is not supported by credible studies of voter turnout rates.

This, simply stated, is untrue.  To at once paraphrase and directly quote the Heritage piece, their “study suffers from sloppy—or perhaps purposefully misrepresented—” knowledge and / or understanding of the extant political science literature.  A quick lit review came up with several citations, including empirical articles by Alvarez et al. (2007), Barreto et al. (2007), Vercellotti and Anderson (2006); a review of the extant literature by Hershey (2009) (published in PS, of course), and an interesting piece by Robert S. Erikson and Lorraine C. Minnite (2009) published in the Election Law Journal, which is a solid consideration of the practicalities and limitations that we social scientists face in observing marginal effects within the limits of data availability and research design.  (Indeed, I’ll be using this article in my methods class this year).  Of these cites, all agree that theoretically, whenever the costs of voting are increased, additional burdens to participation will result, and this should decrease the probability that any given individual casts a ballot.  It would be foolish to argue otherwise (although the Heritage piece certainly attempts to do so, albeit with an argumentative logic that wouldn’t pass muster on a high school debating team).

Not surprisingly, empirical results are mixed, but only to the extent that a handful of null results coexist with findings supportive of the hypothesis that voter ID laws indeed reduce turnout.  That theory suggests a certain outcome does not mean we will be able to observe that outcome, especially when the effect is at the margins.  The best explanation for this can be found in the Erikson & Minnite article:

Yet we see the existing science regarding vote suppression as incomplete and inconclusive. This is not because of any reason to doubt the suppression effect but rather because the data that have been analyzed to date do not allow a conclusive test.  What can be done to boost the empirical analysis of the problem? Additional elections and additional states enforcing strict voter ID laws will provide more and better data.

Thankfully, a bunch of states are now happy to supply us social scientists with the “more and better data” we crave.

Alvarez et al. find no effect with aggregate data, but using CPS data, do “find that registered voters with low levels of educational attainment or lower levels of income of all racial/ethnic groups are less likely to vote the more restrictive the voter identification regime.”  This is broadly consistent with both the Barreto et al. paper and the Vercellotti & Anderson paper.  Indeed, the only (unpublished) paper I’ve found that argues the opposite is Milyo 2007, but it suffers from two fatal methodological limitations.  First, it’s a comparison of county-level turnout rates in the 2002 and 2006 Congressional elections in Indiana; the method employed is limited to bi-variate cross tabs which use an interactive term (ethnicity or partisanship multiplied by the presence or absence of the voter ID law, itself effective from only 2006).  By my read, it’s not possible to move beyond estimating variance in turnout across the counties between 2002 and 2006; any independent effect of the voter ID law is impossible to isolate with this design.  However, the author over-reaches in attributing a rise in minority turnout as resulting from Voter ID laws based on county-level aggregate data.  In other words, a classic ecological fallacy, a fact pointed out by Alvarez et al.  (who, it should be noted in fairness, also have a strong methodological critique against Vercellotti & Anderson, though the findings of the former ultimately confirmed those of the latter). Of course, this doesn’t stop von Spakovsky from suggesting that as A) turnout in Indiana 2006 was 2% higher than Indiana 2002, B) 2006 featured the voter ID law, ergo C) the voter ID law clearly serves to increase turnout.

Finally, the extant literature goes deeper than testing the simple hypothesis and finds “systematic biases in the application of the identification statute across racial lines.”  (Atkeson et al. 2010).  In other words, if your skin is brown, you’re more likely to get carded when trying to cast a ballot.

The authors of the older (2006)  Brennan Center report swiftly replied to the Heritage hack job, but I add a few points here.  von Spakovsky writes:

Election turnout data also reveal that significant numbers of Americans who may be eligible still do not vote for various personal reasons that have nothing to do with registration or voting rules and regulations. In fact, the largest group of nonvoters “are more affluent, better educated, and more involved in their communities or volunteer groups” than voters. They are just not interested in voting.


“Election turnout data” reveal no such thing; in fact this is precisely contrary to one of the core tenets underlying our understanding of turnout.  von Spakovsky couldn’t be further from the truth even if he were explicitly trying.  The source cited for the passage above is a book by two Northwestern journalism professors, Jack C. Doppelt, Ellen Shearer, entitled Nonvoters: America’s No-Shows, published by Sage in 1999.  The authors use a survey of >3000 to identify around 1000 “likely non-voters” who are then asked 64 questions.  A further 30 are selected for the sort of in-depth, qualitative interviews that while illustrative, are quite uncommon in the turnout literature.  This wasn’t an examination of the determinants of turnout; rather it was an attempt to understand and classify those who don’t vote.

Wait!  There’s more:

legitimate studies of voter turnout rates in states with identification requirements demonstrate that such laws do not disenfranchise voters; indeed, Americans overwhelmingly support such requirements that increase the reliability and trustworthiness of our election system.

The presence or absence of support for such laws is irrelevant in trying to determine whether or not they create an additional burden on the act of voting.  Fallacious reasoning such as this is common throughout the von Spakovsky reports; in fact this is one of the less egregious examples.  The list of  “legitimate studies” is footnoted as being available in an earlier Heritage report (itself comical as the August report critiques the Brennan Center for including “Buried Footnotes . . . The study is further undermined by several footnotes buried in the report.”)  In this earlier report, von Spakovsky does provide something of a humble lit review.  In considering this literature search, we must remember that he is on record in his August report as valuing an unbiased approach to evidence gathering (e.g. he critiques Citizens Without Proof for “ignoring evidence”).  Hence, I can only conclude that in compiling his exhaustive list of “legitimate studies”, all of which coincidentally supports his policy preference, he remains ignorant of the broader body of political science literature on the subject, much if not most of which disagrees with him.

Ironically, the very Brennan Center he assails as having a selectivity bias regarding the inclusion of evidence maintains an exhaustive literature review on the effect of voter ID, including several that von Spakovsky includes in his own (e.g. Lott 2006, Milyo 2007, Mycoff et al. 2009).

Ultimately, von Spakovsky argues that “by eschewing many of the traditional scientific methods of data collection and analysis, the authors of the Brennan Center study appear to have pursued results that advance a particular political agenda rather than the truth about voter identification.”  While I would never dare suggest that the Heritage Foundation exists to “advance a particular political agenda”, it’s clear to me that at least this one author has only the fuzziest notion of what constitutes “traditional scientific methods of data collection and analysis”, let alone logical rigor in reasoned argumentation.

My recommendation?  Get a better unpaid intern, preferably one who knows about and understands these things.

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  • rea

    (1) The ostentisble problem these voter ID laws are aimed to correct is bunches of people voting who aren’t really eligible to vote. If that problem actually exists, then a law adressing that problem in anything resembling an efective manner would reduce turnout. If, as the right claims, the law doesn’t really reduce turnout, then what is the point of the law?

    (2) It is hard to envision a mechanism by which these voter ID laws increase turnout, which is the claim being made for them. What, “I got this spiffy new ID card, so I just couldn’t resist trying it out by voting”?

    • Kurzleg

      Your first isn’t quite correct. The idea is that there’s massive voter fraud occurring because people can vote multiple times because nobody’s checking IDs. It’s not that ineligible voters per se are voting, it’s that perfectly eligible voters are engaging in fraud by impersonating others and voting.

      • rea

        Makes no difference. If people are voting multiple times under diffferent names without getting caught, that would raise apparent turnout, and getting rid of the opportunities for multiple voting would lower apparent turnout.

      • cpinva

        no, that isn’t the claim at all. the claim is that inelible voters (see: illegal immigrants, non-citizens) are voting (worse, voting democratic), and the voter ID laws are designed to stop this massive fraud, by requiring proof of eligibility before the election, to obtain a voter ID.

        of course, the fact that no massive voter fraud has ever been proven to exist negates the whole ostensible purpose of these laws, which merely make it more difficult for those eligible voters of modest means to actually exercise the franchise. which is the whole point of these laws in the first place.

  • Bill Murray

    I’m pretty sure that, to von Spakovsky, legitimate means supporting his position

    • Yep, this is exactly it. He doesn’t care about being right or wrong– he cares about supporting the interests of the Party. Now he has a report that he and other apparatchiks can cite. It could be 20 percent bullshit, or 80 percent, or 100 percent. It doesn’t matter. On the off chance that CNN pauses from conjecturing about Chris Christie and Kim Kardashian’s waistlines long enough to report on this issue at the intersection of law and policy, Wolf Blitzer will give equal time to truth and falsehood, then “leave it there” without any effort at a fact check.

      We know, from the past ten-plus years of US history, that Republicans don’t have any interest in policy whatsoever. They have a side, and they like being in power.

      They think that voting restrictions will help them keep power. (Obviously, there isn’t an issue that they’re trying to address, given that there is roughly zero evidence that voter fraud has happened anywhere ever). So they will say things that give cover to their efforts to restrict voting, and they will try to restrict voting. Full stop, the end, nothing else at all behind the efforts of von Spakovsky and his colleagues at Heritage, AEI, the RNC, and similar Republican institutions.

  • So, according to the GOP, the tiniest bit of business regulation or tax will result in profound drops in economic activity….

    …but making voting more onerous, by increased regulation or “poll taxes” (costs/fees for mandatory IDs) will have no effect?

    Hypocrisy, thy name is ‘republican’.

  • The key thing is that there is no evidence that ineligible voters are (a) turning out or (b) having any effect whatsoever on actual elections.

    As we learned in 2000, it’s who does the counting that matters, not who shows up to be counted.

  • c u n d gulag

    “…von Spakovsky couldn’t be further from the truth even if he were explicitly trying.”

    And what would lead anyone to believe this Teutonic Twit isn’t trying?

    He’s lying same as he always has, and will.

    He’a propagandist – and that’s when he can’t get placed into a real position in government where he can do some very real and very serious harm to the rights of ‘the wrong kind of voter’s’ voting.

    Herr von Spackleface’s favorite voter would be:
    Over 21 (preferably over 51)

    And he’s doing everything he can to make that the law of the land.

  • DrDick

    To say that a Heritage Foundation report is hackery is redundant. I also have to agree with c u n d gulag about von Spakovsky lying out his ass. These laws were clearly formulated by Republicans with the deliberate attempt to suppress traditionally Democratic voters (there is, for instance, no concern about potential fraud with absentee ballots from military personnel). All of this in the name of preventing an abuse which has not been demonstrated to exist at any significant level except in the minds of conservatives, for many of whom “voter fraud” means voting while brown or poor.

    • Kurzleg

      Indeed. What I wonder about is how this fraud is supposed to be occurring. If the problem is so vast that it requires the legislative response they’ve made, then wouldn’t a whole bunch of people be getting turned away at the polls because someone already voted for them?

      I suppose one might register to vote under various names and cast multiple votes in multiple districts and polling places, but the sheer volume required for this tactic to have any impact would practically preclude the possibility.

      • Hogan

        Watch the first twenty minutes of The Great McGinty, and substitute ACORN for the city political machine.

  • It is here where one can mine pure comic gold.

    When someone gets their way by saying something blatantly silly, they’re not stupid or silly. They’re just getting the job done. They don’t care whether they win the argument or whether people think they’re stupid.

    Spakovsky’s goons have succeeded in about 10 state legislature, and this may turn the 1012 election. Not funny. Politics is not about being right and it’s not about winning arguments. The Heritage study did its job.

  • Dave in Northridge

    Excellent takedown, Dave. Never mind examining the trees, the forest is intact.

  • cpinva

    anytime i see the heritage foundation being the source of information, i just automatically assume (based on history) that it’s fraudulent. any reasonably intelligent person would.

  • Dave

    Gasp, how terrible it is to ask someone to prove who they are before they vote!

  • David Nieporent

    Citizens Without Proof bases its findings on the response to this utterly pointless question: “Do you have any of the following citizenship documents (U.S. birth certificate/U.S. passport/U.S. naturalization papers) in a place where you can quickly find it if you had to show it tomorrow?” Since few elections in the United States are called by surprise, such that one “has to show it tomorrow,” this question tells us absolutely nothing about whether people can obtain ID in order to vote.

    It also asks whether women have ID with their current name (as opposed to maiden name); however, it fails to ask how these women are registered to vote. Since what matters is whether their ID matches their registration, not whether their ID matches their current name, it’s asking the wrong question. And women who haven’t updated their IDs probably have not updated their voter registrations, either.

    Looking at the Spakovsky report, while I agree it has some weaknesses, I see he made the first point I did above, which the Brennan Center rebuttal fails to address (rather, it simply repeats the error without acknowledging that it is an error); he also made several other points for which the Brennan Center rebuttal is weak, including the big one: a comparison of the actual number of IDs to the actual number of voters. The plaintiffs in Crawford v. Marion County managed to find an expert who didn’t realize that it’s voter rolls that are most likely to be inflated, not drivers licenses. The Brennan Center people make a similar error.

    It stands to reason that any increased requirements for voting will reduce turnout somewhat; however, the requirements being imposed are so ridiculously easy to achieve that it also stands to reason that nobody who wants to vote is actually going to have trouble doing so.

    • Murc

      It stands to reason that any increased requirements for voting will reduce turnout somewhat;

      Which is why you keep requirements as low as possible absent a good reason to do otherwise. Voter ID laws address a nonexistent problem, which means that if they reduce turnout at all they’re a bad idea.

      however, the requirements being imposed are so ridiculously easy to achieve

      So easy that ten percent of eligible voters don’t currently meet them. Even if they COULD do so with enough advance notice (a point I absolutely do not concede), why should they be MADE to do so absent a compelling need?

      that it also stands to reason that nobody who wants to vote is actually going to have trouble doing so.

      So your explanation for these laws is that the people involved in pushing them are dumb, rather than simply malevolent? After all, if it these laws AREN’T going to depress turnout in a statistically meaningful way, the only possible reason they’d have for pushing them is the stated one; that they genuinely believe there’s enough voter impersonation and voter fraud going on to warrant them.

      Which makes them really shit stupid.

      • Holden Pattern

        But don’t you feel his burning libertarian outrage at the heavy hand of government regulation oppressing the ordinary voter?

        Amazing how “libertarians” hop right over into the pro-gummint camp the moment it helps their team.

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