Voter ID laws have been a point of heavy contention over the last few years. Republicans think that Democrats are only winning because of massive voter fraud and want strict ID laws. Democrats think ID laws are a conspiracy to disenfranchise poor people, minorities and students. It sure would be nice to have some data to constrain their imaginations.
North Carolina is considering a strict new voter ID law, so North Carolina’s Secretary of State has conducted an analysis estimating how many voters have a state-issued photo ID. This isn’t necessarily new; states have done these sorts of analyses before. But North Carolina’s analysis overcomes many of the limitations that reduced the usefulness of previous assessments, like Pennsylvania’s. Other efforts required an exact match between voter registration and DMV databases; North Carolina expanded their matching criteria to allow for slight variations in names and data entry errors. North Carolina didn’t just look at how many registered voters didn’t have voter ID, they also looked at how many voters from the 2012 general election didn’t have voter ID. That’s very important, since it’s easy to imagine that voters without a car, or the elderly and the young would be especially likely to stay home on Election Day. And since North Carolina tracks voter registration by race and party, we have a pretty clear idea of how they would have voted.
The long and short is this. About 300,000 eligible voters don’t have ID. And about 138,000 people who voted in North Carolina in 2012 didn’t have ID. Of the voters without ID about half were non-white (compared to 30% generally) and 58% were Democrat (compared to 43%). So the impact was stronger on traditionally Democratic voters. However, even if all the people who didn’t have ID were denied the ability to vote — and in actual voter ID situation, that number would have been far less than 138,000 — the impact would have been minimal:
As a result, Obama’s share of the vote in North Carolina might have dropped from 48.3 to 48 percent, expanding Romney’s margin of victory from 92,000 to about 120,000 votes. 25,000 to 30,000 votes could flip a very close election, but nothing more. In 2012, no state was so close.
That’s Nate Cohn at the New Republic, by the way, who opposes voter ID laws and thinks they are a conspiracy to disenfranchise Democrats and steal elections. But even he is forced to acknowledge that impact would be minimal even in a state that has a large minority population and lots of students. Moreover, no voter ID law was being enforced. If it were, the number of ID-less voters would have been lower as the state and the parties made pushes to get IDs for eligible voters.
The wild claims of stolen elections were always a bit ridiculous. If massive vote fraud were occurring, we would expect participation rates to be much higher in inner cities instead of much lower. But so were the hysterical claims that elections were being stolen by Republicans. The simple fact is that 95% of the population has some form of acceptable identification.
Now I oppose the idea of 138,000 people being denied the right to vote if they are entitled to it. I think any voter ID laws needs to come with provisions to make it easy for legitimate voters to obtain ID and exercise their rights. But this study indicates we can back away from the abyss and move the debate and the law to more reasonable terms. In my opinion, those reasonable terms are requiring ID while making it easy for voting citizens to get them (including provisional ballots for those who forget or lose their ID). It may not swing many elections. But it will diffuse an issues that has dragged on for far too long.