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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Teixeira: Voter ID Laws and Turnout

The following article by Ruy Teixeira, author of The Optimistic Leftist and other works of political analysis, is cross-posted from his blog:

The story, as told by actual research, rather than the wishes of Republican operatives or the fears of Democratic activists, is simple: these laws just don’t have much effect. They don’t deter voter fraud, a minuscule problem to begin with, but they also don’t depress turnout, including among minority voters. This has been the great worry among Democrats, but it appears that, whatever the malign intent of GOP politicians–and it is certainly true that the drive for these laws has been highly partisan–depressed Democratic-leaning turnout has not been the result.

This means that if Republicans are attempting to shield themselves from the effects of demographic change and unpopular policies through voter ID laws, they are failing and will continue to fail. It also means that Democrats who blame election defeats on these laws are also probably kidding themselves. Their defeats, by and large, are due to other factors. If Democrats want to alter turnout patterns in their favor, it is likely far more important to concentrate on things like automatic voter registration than worrying about voter ID laws.

If you’re still skeptical, I invite you to read this lengthy piece on Vox that alludes to the latest study by Cantoni and Pons, as well as summarizes the previous literature. Vox, which tends to be exquisitely sensitive to issues around race, can hardly be accused of being predisposed to ignore racially-biased policy effects. In this case, to their credit, they have apparently decided that the data are the data.

“The study, from Enrico Cantoni at the University of Bologna and Vincent Pons at Harvard Business School, found that voter ID laws don’t decrease voter turnout, including that of minority voters. Nor do they have a detectable effect on voter fraud — which is extremely rare in the US, anyway.

The implication: Despite the legal and political battles over voter ID laws, they don’t really seem to do much of anything….[T]he findings join a growing body of research that suggests voter ID laws have a much smaller effect than critics feared and proponents hoped….

The researchers…looked at how the voter ID laws affected turnout and compared trends to states without voter ID laws from 2008 to 2016.

The results: Voter ID laws do not seem to decrease turnout, even when the data is broken down by race. This held when the data was analyzed in different ways, like evaluating only the effect of stricter laws that require an ID with a photo….

It’s good to be skeptical of single studies with surprising findings, but previous reviews of the research on voter ID laws are in line with what Cantoni and Pons’s study found.

In 2017, Benjamin Highton, a political scientist at UC Davis, conducted the most thorough review of the research yet on voter ID laws. He tried to filter out the studies with weaker methodologies, putting more emphasis on those that were more rigorous. His conclusion: The better studies “generally find modest, if any, turnout effects of voter identification laws.”

So, if you want higher turnout, including among poor and minority voters, get AVR passed and implemented in as many places as possible. Oh, and if you want Democrats to win, run smart, inspiring campaigns.

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