Expert Commentary

Voter ID, voting rights and election 2012: Research roundup

2012 review of relevant studies, reports and media resources relating to voter disenfranchisement, fraud and other issues.

Heated claims over both voter fraud and disenfranchisement are a feature of most election seasons, and campaign 2012 is no exception. Take for example the topics that the fact-checking site Politifact has analyzed during this cycle: on the alleged equivalency between poll taxes and voter IDs; on Rhode Island’s voter ID law; on suppressing former felons’ votes in Florida; on allowing unauthorized immigrants to vote; and on “dead” voters in Texas.

Indeed, journalists would be well-served to be wary of, and fact-check, all assertions in this hotly contested election. As has been suggested by veteran political journalists, reporting about voting itself should be a greater area of focus and in-depth analysis on the politics beat.

Given that a series of restrictive voting laws — often involving ID requirements — have been implemented recently in many states, non-partisan observers have said that the 2012 campaign cycle does bear particular scrutiny. Legal controversy continues in numerous states, particularly in the South. In August, a federal court struck down a new Texas voter ID law on the grounds that it was an undue burden on poorer citizens. In October, a similar decision was made by a court in Pennsylvania.

Despite concerns over access to this basic democratic right, the American public continues to support voter ID laws in general. An October 2012 Pew Research Center survey found that “by 77% to 20%, voters favor a requirement that those voting be required to show photo ID. Opinion about this is little changed from six years ago, when 80% of voters supported voter photo ID requirements.”

In 2012, the News21 Voting Rights project compiled a database of voter fraud cases. The data indicate that such cases are quite rare, calling into question the original impetus for many states’ more restrictive voting laws. The project also provides an interactive graphic on voter profiles and demographics that can be of use to journalists.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division is active in a number of cases involving issues such as absentee ballots and violations of voter roll procedures. The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law has many resources on these issues; the Center tracks important state cases and writes reports on related issues, such as “The Challenge of Obtaining Voter Identification.” The League of Women Voters also has a wealth of resources and carefully monitors voting-related news.

How exactly voter ID requirements will impact voting in 2012 remains to be seen; but rigorous academic studies and reports (see below) and research-based media analysis — such as this post at the New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blog or this research review at “The Monkey Cage” political science blog — can anchor coverage and keep partisan claims in perspective. Studies generally conclude that such requirements do curb turnout, but context is everything: the types of voting requirements, including specific types of ID; their varying implementation; the percentage of traditionally vulnerable voting groups, such as African-Americans, in a given state or county; and whether claims over voter ID effects are estimated for registered voters or eligible voters.

The following are academic studies and reports that touch a variety of issues relating to voting rights and participation; some shed light on broader election issues such as negativity in the campaign and gender dynamics:



“United States Voting Law Changes in 2012”

Weiser, Wendy R.; Norden, Lawrence. Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law, 2011.

Findings: New laws passed in 2011 “could make it significantly harder for more than five million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012,” especially youth, minorities, low-income voters, and voters with disabilities or past criminal convictions. Seven states enacted strict voter ID laws, despite the fact that 11% of Americans (and a higher share of minorities and students) do not possess government-issued photo ID. Before this year, only two states had ever sought to require proof of citizenship at the polls, and only one had ever implemented such a provision. In contrast, this year 12 states introduced proof of citizenship legislation, and three of those states passed the requirement. While over the past several decades the norm has been to encourage voter registration to increase the United States’ relatively low voter turnout, this year 13 states introduced and four states passed legislation restricting voter registration efforts, which will primarily impact African American and Latino voters.


“The Disproportionate Impact of Voter-ID Requirements on the Electorate: New Evidence from Indiana”

Barreto, Matt A.; Nuño, Stephen A.; Sanchez, Gabriel R. PS: Political Science & Politics, 2009, Vol. 42, Issue 01, pp. 111-116. doi:

Findings: The study examines the basis for the Supreme Court’s decision in the 2008 case Crawford v. Marion County Election Board to allow voter ID laws in Indiana voting. The researchers conclude: “Among all registered voters, 84.2% of whites have the correct ID credential in Indiana compared to 78.0% of blacks, statistically significant at the 0.10 level. When we only focus on likely voters, those who consistently voted in 2002, 2004, and 2006, a 6-point gap between blacks and whites is still evident. Thus, if the Indiana law is applied strictly to the letter of the law, about 14% of likely white voters could be turned away from the polls and over 20% of likely black voters could be turned away…. We find that age, race, and income significantly impact the likelihood of having proper identification required to vote under the Indiana statute…. The results in Indiana are consistent with [our 2007 study that] also found that minority, low-income, and less-educated residents are less likely to have access to valid photo identification across three states [California, New Mexico, Washington]…. Similarly, middle-aged voters were more likely to have access than elderly voters, and higher-income voters were more likely to have driver’s licenses than lower-income voters. Thus, the new findings for Indiana are not an anomaly, but rather, quite consistent with the ID access rates in other diverse states across the U.S. This implies that the Indiana voting laws significantly reduce the opportunity to vote for these segments of the state electorate.”


“An Empirical Bayes Approach to Estimating Ordinal Treatment Effects”

Alvarez, Michael R.; Bailey, Delia; Katz, Jonathan N. Political Analysis, 2011, 19:20–31. doi:10.1093/pan/mpq033

Findings: The study uses Current Population Survey data over four national elections, from 2000-06, and employs new, sophisticated statistical modeling to account for the different kinds of voter ID requirements — including signature matching, non-photo ID, and photo ID — as well as regional variation in implementing such laws and the limited data available that allows for truly scientific analysis. With this new model — which improves upon a simple “linear” model of the variables — the researchers conclude: “[W]e see that the requirements for signature matching, requiring an identification card and requiring a photo identification card have a more negative effect on participation than suggested by the simple linear model. [But only] requesting identification cards and requesting photo identification cards is less strict than suggested by the linear trend. These estimates first indicate that indeed, voter identification requirements do not have a simple linear effect on the likelihood that a voter participates. In addition, we see that the stricter requirements — requirements more than merely presenting a nonphoto identification card — are significant negative burdens on voters, relative to a weaker requirement, such as merely signing a poll book.”


“Voter IDs are Not the Problem”

Pastor, Robert; et al. Center for Democracy and Election Management, American University, 2008.

Findings: “The issue of showing a photo ID as a requirement of voting does not appear to be a serious problem in any of the three states surveyed [Indiana, Maryland, Mississippi]. Almost all registered voters have an acceptable form of photo ID (e.g., driver’s license, passport, military ID or some combination of these documents). About 1.2 percent of registered voters do not have photo ID, but half of those have documents proving citizenship, and most of the states have provisional or absentee ballots or other exceptions that could permit people to vote without IDs…. More than 97 percent of all registered voters in the three states surveyed could produce proof of citizenship documentation — either a birth certificate, a passport, or naturalization papers…. While the number of registered voters without valid photo IDs is quite small, and therefore not statistically significant, those numbers suggest a disproportionate effect on women, Democrats, and African-Americans…. In brief, requiring voters to show a photo ID is unlikely to have a serious, if any, effect on reducing voter participation. Indeed, it could provide additional confidence in an electoral system where confidence is already embarrassingly low. The problem of voter participation is not due to ID requirements; it is due to many other problems, one of which is that registration is often a difficult exercise, and the state plays only a passive role, waiting for voters to come to them. To solve that problem, states ought to play a more affirmative role in reaching out to those people — the poor, minorities, elderly — who are not registered and provide free photo IDs.”


“Impact of Race and Ethnicity, Immigration and Political Context on Participation in American Electoral Politics”

Logan, John R.; Darrah, Jennifer; Oh, Sookhee. Social Forces, 2012.

Findings: “Voter identification requirements have a substantially negative impact on the voting of all groups except for Asians (though there is no significant impact for registration on any group). Particularly strong negative effects are seen for blacks and Hispanics: a decrease in voting by 18% and 22% respectively. Even whites show dampened turnout associated with voter ID policies. Yet for Asians, strikingly, voter ID has the opposite effect, boosting turnout by nearly 30%.… The effect of having more than five co-ethnic public officials in the metropolitan area is positive and very strong for blacks, resulting in an increase of more than 30% in registration and more than 40% in voting.… More liberal absentee voting policies increase the odds of voting for whites, Latinos and Asians, although there is no effect for blacks.… Greater immigrant access to a social service safety net is the other state-level predictor that has some significant effects. These are positive for white, Latino and Asian voting. There are also strong positive effects shown for Asian registration: an increase in the odds of registering by almost 30%. There is no significant effect on registration for any other group and no significant effects at all for blacks.”


“Political Norms and the Private Act of Voting”

Karpowitz, Christopher F.; et al. Public Opinion Quarterly, 2011, 75 (4), 659-685. doi: 10.1093/poq/nfr024.

Findings: Voters whose political opinions were not aligned with the predominant norms of their community were less likely to trust the privacy of the ballot booth: Only 65% of voters in the political minority said they were very confident that their ballot would be counted accurately; by comparison, 86% of voters in the political majority felt the same way. Voters who perceived themselves as being outside the political majority also doubted the fairness of the electoral process: “Minority voters scored 27 percentage points lower than majority voters on a measure of whether they were very confident in the fairness of the election process.” When asked what they valued most when they came to vote, 43% of voters included privacy as one of their two most important values. A field experiment revealed that, if no special measures were taken to increase privacy in a traditional voting setting, “fully one-quarter of political minority voters expressed concern that a poll worker could observe their choices, and more than a fifth of minority voters worried about other voters being able to see their ballot.”


“When Ballot Issues Matter: Social Issue Ballot Measures and Their Impact on Turnout”

Parry, Janine A.; et al. Political Behavior, 2012, Vol. 33, No. 1, 3-25. doi: 10.1007/s11109-010-9113-1.

Findings: “Stressing the importance of issue content, this study finds that social issue ballot measures have a significant impact on increasing the likelihood of turning out for all midterm and some presidential elections. In contrast, by looking at all propositions on the ballot, instead of just initiatives (as other studies have done), the results demonstrate that an increase in the total number of propositions is only rarely associated with an increase in turnout for midterm elections, and not at all for presidential elections. These empirical analyses confirm the theoretical expectations: while social issues are able to increase turnout because they are well known and of significant importance to some citizens, the average measure on the ballot, which does not meet either or both of these requirements, possesses little ability to raise turnout. These findings are not an endorsement of the placement of social issues on the ballot to facilitate turnout, given the tendency of citizens to restrict civil rights…. Instead, they point out that having a large number of measures on the ballot is not enough to get more citizens to the polls, and that the way we measure direct democracy is of crucial importance to understanding its true effect on turnout. As these findings contradict the dominant contention in the existing literature, they raise questions about our actual knowledge of the relationship between direct democracy and turnout.”


“A Negativity Gap? Voter Gender, Attack Politics and Participation in American Elections”

Brooks, Deborah Jordan. Politics & Gender, 2010, Vol. 6, Issue 03, 319-341. doi:

Findings: Men are more likely to be motivated to vote by a negative campaign message. Highly negative campaigns saw the “biggest gender differences: an 88% probability of voting for men and just a 77% probability of voting for women.” In contests with the least amount of negative campaigning, “women are slightly higher than men in terms of predicted probability of going to the polls.” There is a further distinction between “civil” versus “uncivil” (“inflammatory, gratuitous, and divisive”) negative messaging. Comparing men’s and women’s reactions along these lines reveals further gender gaps: “Men are disproportionately mobilized by uncivil negativity as compared to women [and] women appear to be slightly more likely than men to vote after viewing civil negative messages.” After viewing uncivil negative ads, only 9% of men said they would definitely not vote, while 21% of women said they would not. A breakdown by party affiliation shows few significant distinctions between women of either major party. However, “male independents and male Democrats are heavily mobilized by the most uncivil messages, while female independents may be slightly demobilized by incivility.”


“Do Voters Perceive Negative Campaigns as Informative Campaigns?”

Sides, John; Lipsitz, Keena; Grossman, Matthew. American Politics Research, 2010, Vol. 38, No. 3, 502-530. doi: 10.1177/1532673X09336832.

Findings: The data suggest that “citizens make distinctions between helpful and unhelpful negative campaigning,” the authors conclude. Some negative campaigns will turn voters off, and some negative campaigns will win voters’ interest: “Thus, it makes sense that negative campaigning does not consistently produce alienation or lower turnout, or, for that matter, enthusiasm or higher turnout.” Overall, the scholars write, “our results also advise against categorical judgments for or against negative campaigning. Citizens may often express grievances about negativity in campaigns but these off-the-cuff complaints conceal a more nuanced evaluation of campaign conduct.”


“I’m Not Voting for Her: Polling Discrepancies and Female Candidates”

Stout, Christopher T.; Kline, Reuben. Political Behavior, 2011, Vol. 33, No. 3, 479-503. doi: 10.1007/s11109-010-9137-6.

Findings: Sixty-six percent of pre-election polls under-predicted how well a female candidate would ultimately fare at the polls, compared to under-predicting only 43.3% of a male candidate’s performance. “When compared to [similar] white male candidates … female candidates performed significantly better in the final results than would be predicted by pre-election polls to the tune of about three and a half percentage points.” The age and gender of voters and the social context of the state accounted for approximately 25% of the gap between pre-election polling predictions and election outcomes. The more women working in a given state, the lower the chances are that pre-election polls will underestimate the support for a female candidate. In fact, pre-election polls for female candidates in states with a robust female labor force tended to overestimate public support by a small percentage. The researchers conclude that “voters — and especially those living in states with more traditional views — may want to appear less supportive of female candidates…. Pollsters and researchers should be concerned about the gender of the candidate as much or possibly even more than they are about race.”

Tags: elections, campaign issue, research roundup, privacy

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