When the Tribune reached out to Elections Project director Michael McDonald for some insight into the impact of voting restriction laws on the recent 2014 midterm elections, the University of Florida political scientist was bluntly cautious.
“I don’t think we have enough data to answer your question, yet,” McDonald said.
It’s evolving into, perhaps, one of the most loaded questions in the post-mortem analysis: What exactly did voter suppression laws do? Of course, as the old Philly newspaper ad jingle goes “inquiring minds want to know.”
Yet, despite all the seemingly copious exit polling, estimates and day-after breakdowns, we won’t know for some time. The specific extent of election disenfranchisement in 2014 is still shrouded a bit in mystery, the data victims of two opposing parties offering competing narratives (or conveniently opting not to) and the need for patience as researchers will need to carefully sift through reams of spreadsheets.
But what we can see is rather disturbing. What can be gleaned from available analysis is troubling commentary on the state of democracy, perhaps as troubling as the persistent problem of low voter turnout.
“Did voter ID laws — particularly the sort of laws which prevent eligible voters without a particular card from voting a valid ballot — have an impact?” Loyola law school professor Justin Levitt posed back at the Tribune. “Of course.”
Levitt cites the case of a 93-year-old veteran in Texas who was turned away at the polls.
“There was absolutely no doubt about his identity, but he did not have the kind of ID that Texas requires: the ‘right kind’ of ID,” Levitt said. “And so he was told that his ballot would not be counted. There will be more stories and more numbers in the days ahead.”
Levitt would know. In 2008 he commenced a painstaking and exhaustive study of every voter fraud allegation brought before the Wisconsin Supreme Court in a voter ID case. That analysis, combined with his ongoing research into voter fraud reports across the country, have turned up only 31 incidents between 2000 through 2014, a time period in which over 1 billion ballots have been cast.
Other experts are convinced something was not quite right on election day, with slowly mounting evidence that key races in certain heavily contested states such as North Carolina, Virginia, Kansas and Florida may have been much tighter than expected due to the implementation of stringent voting restrictions. This doesn’t even count the 6 million age-eligible felons who could vote if disenfranchisement laws for their situation weren’t in place.
In North Carolina, the Republican challenger Thom Tillis beat incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) by just 48,000 votes in a state that eliminated early voting, instituted voter ID and cut same-day registration — all process advantages that had once allowed easier access for more than 1 million voters state wide.
In Virginia, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) suddenly found himself in a tight race that wasn’t completely called until two days later. That was also a state where nearly 200,000 voters discovered unacceptable identification courtesy of freshly baked voter ID laws
It should be noted that turnout for the 2010 midterms was already low at just over 40 percent of the voting eligible population. Yet, in the 2014 midterms, it was noticeably lower, by four whole percentage points. That’s leading many observers to wonder if several years of a constant Republican-led push on various restrictions in voting access, eligibility and registration had something to do with that.
Ifeoma Ike, co-founder and national campaign director of Black and Brown People Vote, tells the Tribune she could see it on the horizon a few years ago as a staffer serving on the House Judiciary Committee in tandem with the Congressional Voting Rights Working Group. Back then, observers were concerned that recently enacted voter suppression laws would fundamentally alter how citizens could vote, with the most disproportionate impact on young students, minorities and the elderly.
Ike, who picked through election results while plugged into a network of voting rights advocates throughout the country, saw it all.
“Missing registration cards in Georgia. Purged rolls in Ohio. Proof of citizenship requirements in Kansas. Closed polling sites in North Carolina,” Ike rattled off to the Tribune. “Add the financial burden on those trying to remedy the ID handicap and you’ve got a perfect storm. But, if we were honest, historically, voting has never been a ‘right.’”
A basic comparison between states with restrictive voter ID laws and states without such laws shows the latter experienced, on average, nearly 3 percentage points higher voter turnout. Before the election, the Government Accountability Office had already conducted its own study which showed an average of 2 to 3 percentage point decreases in turnout in states such as Kansas and Tennessee.
Interestingly enough, most states showing voter suppression discrepancies on Election Day are those housing large proportions of African Americans. Most of them North Carolina’s Black population is 23 percent of the state’s population; Georgia is 32 percent; Florida is 18 percent; Kansas is 8 percent; Ohio is 14 percent. In Tennessee, where there was no major race, the African Americans are 18 percent of the population. These are states where Black voter turnout typically determines the margin of victory in hotly contested statewide races for the U.S. Senate or Governor. The problem for Republicans is that their voting habits largely lean Democratic, something that’s been nagging the right since party allegiances flipped dramatically nearly 80 years ago. Since then, Black voting for Republicans dropped from nearly 30 percent in 1936 to just 10 percent in 2014. Critics of voter restrictions charge that such laws are merely strategic smoke and mirrors engineered to suppress an electoral advantage for Democrats since President Franklin Roosevelt.
That’s now led to confusion and a string of reports that many were either discouraged from voting on Election Day due to endless bureaucratic snags getting an ID or because they were turned away.
“It wasn’t limited to Texas,” Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, manager of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law’s Legal Mobilization & Strategic Campaigns project told the Tribune. “Many callers to our election protection hotline reported being asked to show ID in states without restrictive voter ID laws or poll workers not accepting valid ID. Who knows how many eligible voters in states with new voting restrictions did not show up on Election Day because of unnecessary barriers to the ballot box.”
“The cumulative effect of sweeping changes to voter identification and early voting standards across the country — well intentioned or not — is confusion,” said IMPACT Director Brandon Andrews. “State led efforts to communicate changes and appropriate resources to equip citizens vary.”
And without any federal uniformity in the administration of federal elections, voting restrictions have created a jigsaw puzzle piece mess of scattered laws that also make it expensive to secure eligible identification. Harvard University researcher Richard Sobel discovered in a June 2014 analysis that claims by voter ID states of “free IDs” were, in fact, specious.
“The expenses for documentation, travel, and waiting time are significant — especially for minority group and low-income voters — typically ranging from about $75 to $175,” Sobel noted. “When legal fees are added to these numbers, the costs range as high as $1,500. Even when adjusted for inflation, these figures represent substantially greater costs than the $1.50 poll tax outlawed by the 24th amendment in 1964.”
“When aggregating the overall costs to individuals for ‘free’ IDs in all voter ID states, plus the costs to state government for providing ‘free’ IDs, the expenses can accumulate into the tens of millions per state and into the hundreds of millions nationwide.”
Levitt suggests that asking about the impact of voter ID laws is not the right questions, warning that it implies certain votes don’t matter unless new ID rules changed the results of any particular race. He argues that “we should be asking whether the Texas law created a meaningful burden for people like this gentleman, and if so, whether Texas had a good enough reason to send him home without accommodation.”
The Urban Institute’s Chief Methodologist Robert Santos agrees, just as he agrees that voting restrictions dampen voter turnout.
“It is better to ask whether the Voter ID laws unnecessarily restrict certain groups of people,” Santos tells the Tribune. “Given that 41 states require no ID for absentee ballot voting, and some states with voter ID laws include exceptions, arguments could be made both ways on this issue.”
“It is unfortunate, though, that states with higher fractions of minority registered voters — such as Texas, Mississippi, Georgia and Virginia — appear to have the strictest Voter ID laws in place. From my perspective, that does not pass the smell test.”