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National Issues

High Court to Ponder Question Plaguing Voters: "Got ID?" PDF  | Print |  Email
By Tova Andrea Wang, The Century Foundation   
October 26, 2007

This article was posted at The Century Foundation and is reposted here with permission of the author.


The United States Supreme Court recently agreed to hear a case regarding the constitutionality of Indiana’s strictest-in-the-nation voter identification law. Indiana currently requires every voter to present government-issued photo identification at the polls or be barred from voting. One of the main arguments made by the defenders of the law, in this case and in other identification litigation, is that there is a lack of data showing that voter identification requirements suppress voting or disproportionately impact particular groups.

Memo to Supreme Court: that’s not true anymore.

Over the past few years, several studies have demonstrated that minorities, the poor, young people, voters with disabilities, and older people are much less likely to have the necessary identification. For some courts and voter identification proponents, this has not been deemed sufficient.


In just the past few weeks, however, some of the more respected political scientists in this field have issued reports using established social science methodologies demonstrating that identification laws do impact turnout negatively, and disproportionately impact already-marginalized groups. First, a report by Michael Alvarez, Delia Bailey, and Jonathan Katz and released by the California Institute of Technology finds definitively that strict voter identification laws have a “negative impact on the participation of registered voters” relative to other methods of verifying identity, such as a signature match. Indeed, they find the negative impact to be “significant.” Moreover, the study finds that poorer and less-educated voters are substantially more likely to be deterred from voting by strict voter identification than the rest of the electorate.

Though the Caltech researchers found no data to show a disproportionate affect on minorities, the fact that lower-income and less-educated Americans are more likely to be minorities suggests that this is a likely outcome. Moreover, another very recently released study by Matt Barreto and colleagues at the University of Washington, using a different methodology, concludes quite convincingly that immigrant and minority voters are much less likely to have the identification that those states with strict laws require.

In the University of Washington study, researchers conducted exit polls with 4,346 actual voters in the 2006 election in California, New Mexico, and Washington (states that do not have the strictest identification requirements). They asked these voters—voting in a midterm election, when only the most politically active citizens tend to participate—whether they would be able to produce any of six forms of identification commonly required by identification laws if they were required to do so. “Immigrant and minority voters were consistently less likely to have each form of identification.” The authors of the report conclude that “It is clear that imposing stricter voter identification requirements would disproportionately impact Latino, Black, Asian and Immigrant voters.”

Finally, a study just released demonstrates how identification laws lend themselves to potential discriminatory implementation. After the 2006 election, there was a tremendous amount of anecdotal evidence that people around the country were being improperly asked for identification and that poll workers were demanding particular forms of identification that were not required and turning voters away from the polls. Now this type of behavior has been studied and statistically quantified. Michael Alvarez and Lonna Rae Atkeseon from the University of New Mexico, and Thad Hall from the University of Utah, oversaw a project in which they sent teams of poll observers to polling sites throughout New Mexico for the 2006 election. For this election, identification should not have been requested from any voter except someone who was voting for the first time and had registered by mail. Yet 38 percent of poll workers asked voters to present identification all of the time, every single voter. Moreover, requests for identification were repeated across the state, although they varied from county to county. Some poll workers said they asked for identification “some of the time”—but it was often for reasons other than that the person was a first-time voter who had registered by mail, such as “to prevent fraud” or “because they did not recognize the voter.”

The purported basis for identification laws—fraud—has already been widely discredited. Now the notion that identification does not negatively impact voters has been debunked too. Hopefully, the nine members of the Supreme Court take this research and the research that has come before it to strike down Indiana’s unconstitutional, unnecessary, and disenfranchising identification law.

Tova Andrea Wang is a Democracy Fellow at The Century Foundation.

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