Voter ID laws don’t seem to suppress minority votes – despite what many claim

Strict voter ID laws require residents to possess a valid, state-approved identification in order to vote.

Support and opposition to these laws primarily fall along party lines. Proponents – mainly Republicans – argue they are needed to protect the integrity of the electoral process. Opponents, who tend to be Democrats, say they’re not necessary to reduce voter fraud.

Democrats have a point: In-person voting fraud is almost nonexistent. President Donald Trump’s now-defunct Voter Fraud Commission, which was supposed to investigate voter fraud during the 2016 election, was unable to unearth any significant evidence.

Critics claim Republicans don’t really care about electoral integrity – that voter ID laws are about suppressing the turnout of minority voters, since these voters are less likely to possess legal forms of identification. Democratic candidates and activists routinely evoke these laws as tools of voter suppression.

But a growing body of evidence – which includes a new study we just published – finds that strict voter ID laws do not appear to disproportionately suppress voter turnout among African Americans, Asian Americans or people of mixed races.

A partisan ploy

In 2005, Georgia and Indiana became the first two states to pass strict voter ID laws, although the statutes weren’t implemented until the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board. Since then, eight other states have adopted strict ID laws.

These laws appear to be partisan in nature. From 2006 to 2011, every law requiring a photo ID or proof of citizenship was passed by a Republican-controlled legislature.

Legislators who support voter ID laws claim they want to protect the country’s elections from in-person voter fraud. However, this type of fraud is extremely rare: Voter ID expert Justin Levitt estimates that from 2000 to 2012, there were just 31 credible instances of in-person voter fraud, out of more than 1 billion votes cast.

Most voting fraud claims turn out to be inadvertent errors by voters or polling officials. Even the conservative Heritage Foundation finds only 1,177 proven instances of overall election fraud since 1948.

A pile of government pamphlets explaining North Carolina’s controversial ‘Voter ID’ law sits on table at a polling station in 2016. Reuters/Chris Keane
Although it’s difficult to gauge the true motives of the legislation, research on the enactment of the laws suggests they are designed to restrict minority turnout for a partisan advantage. As the electorate continues to become more racially and ethnically diverse, Republicans stand to benefit politically from such laws since minority voters dependably support Democratic candidates.

It’s true that the readiness to produce identification varies by race. Studies have found that minorities are less likely to have the records needed to verify their identity. A 2013 national study found that 63 percent of African Americans and 73 percent of Hispanic Americans had valid driver’s licenses, the most common form of photo ID, compared with 84 percent of whites. Moreover, a 2017 study found that African Americans and Hispanic Americans in Texas were significantly less likely than white Americans to have proper ID to vote.

For those who lack an acceptable form of ID, the costs are clear – they need to spend time, energy and money to obtain the necessary ID or documents.

Analyzing the law’s effects

But the research on voter ID laws and minority voter turnout has found mixed results.

In 2014, the United States Government Accountability Office reviewed 10 early studies to determine the effects of voter ID laws. Five of the studies found that the laws had no effect on turnout, four noted decreases and one discovered an increase. Of the four studies that found decreases, estimates ranged from 1.5 to 3.9 percentage points.