Study Links Voter ID Rules to Non-Voting

A new study shows that tough new voter identification requirements appear to reduce the probability that someone will vote — and that the impact is greater on minorities. The study comes amid intense debate over whether ID requirements should be expanded.

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A new study suggests that voter ID laws can hurt voter turn out, especially among minorities. The findings were released today by the Federal Election Assistance Commission. But as NPR's Pam Fessler tells us, the panel declined to adopt the study, saying that more research is needed.

PAM FESSLER: There are few voting issues that are more controversial than the requirement that voters show ID at the polls. In the findings by researchers working for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission are certain to fuel that debate.

Tim Vercellotti of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University is one of the authors of the study. He says it showed a clear connection between ID requirements and voter turnout.

Mr. TIM VERCELLOTTI (Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University): In this way, as the requirements for identification became more stringent, the probability of voting declined.

FESSLER: In fact, he says the drop was almost three percent in states with the most stringent ID requirements. And he says…

Mr. VERCELLOTTI: The largest declines occurred among African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians.

FESSLER: For example, African-Americans in states that require some form of non-photo ID were almost six percent less likely to say they voted than those living in states where voters only have to give their names. For Hispanic voters, the decline in turnout was 10 percent. Vercellotti is the first to admit the study has its limitations.

Mr. VERCELLOTTI: While we stand by its findings and we're very confident in them, it's really just the beginning.

FESSLER: For example, the research looked only at the 2004 elections, when ID requirements weren't as stringent as they are today. It also relied on surveys that asked people whether or not they have voted, not on data showing whether they did vote. Vercellotti wasn't surprised, then, that the Election Assistance Commission declined to adopt the report, although he says it reflects what he calls a tremendous amount of caution.

Commissioner Rosemary Rodriguez says the panel decided that the ID study raised more question than it answered, and that more research is needed.

Ms. ROSEMARY RODRIGUEZ (Commissioner, Election Assistance Commission): The commission realized that we needed to go beyond one single election and look at an entire cycle, especially in light of the fact that many states have passed new ID laws since 2004.

FESSLER: In fact, about half of the states now require all voters to show some form of ID. Many of those laws are being challenged by groups that say they disproportionately hurt the poor, elderly and minorities. Wendy Weiser is with the Brennan Center for Justice in New York, which has been involved in some of the challenges. She says the new study reinforces earlier findings.

Ms. WENDY WEISER (Associate Counsel, Brennan Center for Justice): That millions of Americans don't have the kinds of ID asked for in voter ID laws. And I think that this will provide additional evidence that those laws do hurt voters when they're in place.

FESSLER: But those who promote ID laws say they are necessary protection against voter fraud, that they're needed to ensure that those who show up at the polls are who they say they are. They also note that voters who don't have ID can cast provisional ballots. But the debate over the extent of voter fraud is just as controversial as a voter ID debate. Again, Wendy Weiser.

Ms. WEISER: There is no evidence that voter ID requirements reduce fraud at all. You're more likely to be struck by lightning than to find somebody who's committed in-person voter fraud or the kinds that are targeted by voter ID laws.

FESSLER: But some people disagree, and the Election Assistance Commission has been studying the issue. It concluded in December that again more research is needed.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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