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Do Voter Identification Laws Depress Turnout?

- December 5, 2007

Two recent studies have investigated this question:

1) Based on exit polls that ask voters about the forms of identification that they possess, Matt Barreto, Stephen Nuño, and Gabriel Sanchez find that:

bq. “…immigrant and minority voters are significantly less likely to be able to provide multiple forms of identification, such as a copy of their original birth certificate, or a recent bank statement. In full, we asked respondents about their ability to provide approximately six unique forms of identification, and immigrant and minority voters were consistently less likely to have each form of identification. Because our data reflects the identification trends of actual voters, not just adult citizens, the findings go far to suggest that voter identification laws could immediately disenfranchise many Latino, Asian and African American citizens.”

(The paper is here.)

2) Based on data from 2000-2006 Current Population Surveys, Mike Alvarez, Delia Bailey, and Jonathan Katz find that:

bq. “the strictest forms of voter identification requirements—presenting an identification card and positively matching one’s signature with a signature either on file or on the identification card, as well as requirements to show picture identification—have a negative impact on the participation of registered voters relative to the weakest requirement, stating one’s name. We also find evidence that the stricter voter identification requirements depress turnout to a greater extent for less educated and lower income populations, but no racial differences.

(The paper is here.)

Though there are some questions still to resolve—most importantly, the impact of voter identification laws on ethnic minorities—these two studies demonstrate that strict identification laws will likely reduce turnout, and will do so especially among populations that are already less likely to vote.

This evidence, combined with the general lack of evidence of voter fraud, suggests that restrictive voter identification laws do more harm than good.

[Addendum: See also Andrew Gelman’s thoughts on the Alvarez et al. paper.]