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ID at the polls: Assessing the impact of recent state voter ID laws on voter turnout

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Seventeen states have implemented controversial legislation requiring a photo ID in order to vote, including six states that enacted such laws in the wake of the 2010 elections. Opponents of voter ID requirements assert that photo ID requirements tend to disenfranchise the poor, younger, elderly, minority, urban and highly mobile voters. Proponents of such laws, typically Republicans, cite the ubiquity of photo IDs in modern society and the need to protect the integrity of the voting process.

A 2011 paper in the Harvard Law and Policy Review, “ID at the Polls: Assessing the Impact of Recent State Voter ID Laws on Voter Turnout” (PDF), compares changes in voter turnout between 2002 and 2006 as related to three voting requirement categories: photo ID needed, non-photo ID needed and no identification needed.

Key study findings include:

  • “Non-photo ID laws [are] associated with a 2.2% point decline in turnout, and photo ID laws are correlated with a 1.6% point decline.” In a related analysis, the author found a 1.1% decline in turnout in states with strengthened photo ID laws between 2002 and 2006.
  • In 2002, prior to the widespread adoption of photo ID poll requirements, more than 40% of eligible voters in states with no voting ID requirements and more than 35% of voters in states with minimal ID requirements turned out at the polls. By 2006, the percentage of voting-age citizens who turned out in states with no ID requirement or a non-photo ID requirement increased to 42% and 38%, respectively. States requiring a photo voter ID saw the lowest percentage of voter turnout, approximately 37%.
  • Counties with older populations saw an increase in turnout of 1.5%. However, counties with higher Hispanic and Asian-American populations saw a small negative effect on voter turnout as ID laws were tightened. Greater household income positively correlated with voter turnout.
  • Possible variables impacting overall voter turnout include Election Day registration (associated with increases), the presence of an incumbent (a small increase) or a controversial ballot initiative (a 4.6% point increase in voter turnout).

The author notes that, in cases after 2006, states that adopted voter ID laws “did not experience a decline in turnout. I posit that news coverage and state-sponsored public outreach reminded voters to go to the polls on Election Day with proper ID. However, when these efforts fade, the disenfranchising effects of voter ID laws remain. States may be able to counter the effects of ID laws with additional outreach.”

Tags: poverty, civil rights

    Writer: | Last updated: September 28, 2011

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    Analysis assignments

    Read the Harvard Law and Policy Review study "ID at the Polls: Assessing the Impact of Recent State Voter ID Laws on Voter Turnout."

    1. Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
    2. Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
    3. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)

    Read the issue-related St. Petersburg Times article "Election Pranks not Equal to Fraud."

    1. What are the main points that the article makes about voter fraud? How do those observations fit with the findings of the study?

    Newswriting assignments

    1. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
    4. Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.