Expert Commentary

Voter ID laws and the evidence: A report from the Government Accountability Office

2014 review of research on U.S. voter ID laws, with a focus on a new study from the GAO that estimates their impact on voter turnout in two states that changed their laws between the 2008 and 2012 elections.

The 2012 election cycle was full of contentious voting rights disputes, few of which seemed to have dimmed in the 2014 election cycle. In recent months, there has been a flurry of court-related action relating to voter ID laws, with the U.S. Supreme Court preventing Wisconsin’s law from going into effect for the 2014 election, a federal judge striking down a Texas law — a decision which was then quickly reversed by a federal appeals court and upheld at least for this election cycle by the U.S. Supreme Court — and the Arkansas Supreme Court striking down that state’s law.

As of June 2014, some 33 states had laws in place requiring voters to provide some proof of identity in order to fill out a ballot. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), in 2014 seven states had “strict” laws requiring photo ID and three had strict non-photo ID laws; in both cases voters without ID are required to vote on provisional ballots and then follow up after voting day with proof of identification in order to make the vote count.

The long history of voting rights issues in the United States haunts this debate, with one side focused on preventing voter suppression and the other focused on preventing elections from being “stolen.” Frequently, memories are invoked of the extreme suppression of African-American voters in the Jim Crow South or of corrupt ward bosses in the Tammany Hall era, for example, stuffing ballot boxes and encouraging voting “early and often.”

At times, there is some confusion with absentee ballot fraud, whose remedies would necessarily be different than in-person fraud. And fraud accusations can take many forms — from allegations around “deceased” persons voting to voter fraud by non-citizens or even by people registering under their pet’s name. In a contemporary context, the specific voter ID issue comes down to two empirical questions: First, is there any contemporary evidence of fraud that would necessitate such laws? Second, when voter ID laws are in place do they suppress turnout in a way that disadvantages certain classes of persons, such as the elderly or racial minorities?

Important investigative news projects, such as News21’s 2013 report, have found little evidence of in-person voter fraud. Perhaps the most comprehensive research review effort to date comes from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which was asked by Congress to review these laws in light of the 2012 election. The GAO’s 2014 report, “Issues Related to State Voter Identification Laws,” first examines data relating to ID ownership rates across various states and then looks at studies that correlate these statistics with turnout patterns. The report, more than 200 pages in length, then discusses a quasi-experimental research study, conducted by the GAO, analyzing the results of voting in Kansas and Tennessee. These two states changed their laws between the 2008 and 2012 elections; the results are then compared to outcomes in other parallel states — Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware and Maine — that did not “substantively amend” their voting laws over that period. (This comparison group was also selected because each state saw stable voting patterns and did not have confounding factors, such as ballot initiatives, that would skew comparisons.) The GAO researchers also examine issues of potential voter fraud.

The study’s findings fall into three rough categories:

ID rates:

  • Among 10 academic studies selected and reviewed because of their sound methodology and social science principles, “Nine of these studies of driver’s license and state ID ownership in selected states and the one nationwide survey showed that, depending upon the study, estimated ownership rates among registered voters ranged from 84% to 95%.”
  • On this issue, race often mattered: “According to seven of the studies, ID ownership among African-American registered voters was lower than among White registered voters in the population evaluated — nationwide, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina, Texas, Wisconsin statewide, and Milwaukee County in Wisconsin. The eighth study found similar rates of ID ownership statewide between African-Americans and Whites in Pennsylvania, and the ninth study did not estimate rates of ownership among these demographic groups in North Carolina. ID ownership rates among Hispanic registered voters were also estimated to be lower than those of White registered voters in seven of the studies.”

Voter turnout effects:

  • The GAO researchers reviewed 10 rigorous academic studies that looked at how voter ID laws affected voting patterns, concluding that there were mixed results: “Of the 10 studies we reviewed, 5 found that state voter ID requirements had no statistically significant effects on voter turnout nationwide, and 5 studies found that changes in voter ID requirements had statistically significant effects on voter turnout. Among the 5 studies that showed statistically significant effects, 1 of the studies found an increase in voter turnout nationwide of 1.8 percentage points. The other 4 studies that showed statistically significant effects found that voter ID requirements decreased voter turnout, and the estimated decreases ranged from 1.5 to 3.9 percentage points.”
  • In terms of the original quasi-experimental analysis, the GAO researchers concluded that “voter turnout decreased in Kansas and Tennessee from the 2008 to the 2012 general elections to a greater extent than turnout decreased in selected comparison states Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware and Maine. Our analysis suggests that the turnout decreases in Kansas and Tennessee beyond decreases in comparison states were attributable to changes in the two states’ voter ID requirements.”
  • Further, although “turnout declined in all six of the states we analyzed between 2008 and 2012 … it declined by a larger amount in Kansas and Tennessee than in the four comparison states. Compared with changes in turnout in all the comparison states combined, we estimate that turnout for eligible voters declined by an additional 3.0 percentage points in Kansas and by an additional 2.7 percentage points in Tennessee.”
  • The researchers also note that “turnout was reduced among African-American registrants by 3.7 percentage points more than among Whites in Kansas and 1.5 percentage points more than among Whites in Tennessee.” By contrast, there were not “consistent reductions in turnout among Asian-American or Hispanic registrants compared to White registrants, thus suggesting that the laws did not have larger effects among these subgroups.”

Voter fraud:

  • The GAO researchers note that because there is no central data source for reporting fraud, valid conclusions about fraud rates are difficult. However, they did review five academic studies, five investigative reports by states and information from the U.S. Department of Justice.
  • The GAO does note that the Department of Justice has stated in a recent court filing that, after a review of its databases and other records, there were “no apparent cases of in-person voter impersonation charged by DOJ’s Criminal Division or by U.S. Attorney’s offices anywhere in the United States, from 2004 through July 3, 2014.”
  • One study, from South Carolina officials, looked at allegations that 200 ballots were cast by deceased persons in 2010. However, state officials ultimately “determined that all but five of the questioned votes could be attributed to errors by state or local officials — including clerical errors, data matching errors, errors in scanning voter registration forms, and the issuance of absentee ballots in the wrong name — or to applications for absentee ballots by voters who died before the election.”

GAO researchers note that, after reviewing the results, Kansas and Tennessee officials disagreed with the conclusions. But the GAO “believes its methodology was robust and valid as, among other things, GAO’s selection of treatment and comparison states controlled for factors that could significantly affect voter turnout, and GAO used three data sources it determined to be reliable to assess turnout effects.”

Related research: A 2014 study published in The Journal of Politics, “Who Asks For Voter Identification? Explaining Poll-Worker Discretion,” explores an additional issue in this debate: That street-level poll workers do not necessarily implement laws uniformly. The authors — Lonna Rae Atkeson of University of New Mexico, Yann P. Kerevel of Lewis University, R. Michael Alvarez of the California Institute of Technology and Thad E. Hall of the University of Utah — analyze results from a survey of a random sample of poll workers in four New Mexico counties. They conclude that “it seems when poll workers are given substantial discretion in the application of voter identification requirements, they tend to rely on their own attitudes and beliefs rather than the law and their training.” At least in this context, there was “little evidence that race, training, or partisanship matters” in terms of enforcement of voter ID standards. Further, a 2014 study in the Social Science Quarterly, “Balancing Fraud Prevention and Electoral Participation: Attitudes Toward Voter Identification,” examines survey data and draws conclusions about the power of various rhetorical frames around these laws.

Key legal background: See the 2013 majority opinion in the 5-4 Shelby County v. Holder case, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, who said that a provision of the Voting Rights Act should no longer be enforced, opening the door for ID laws in some states; and a widely reported 2014 opinion by Judge Richard Posner, an influential appeals court jurist and scholar, who criticized the empirical basis for voter ID laws.


Keywords: campaign issue

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