The public doesn’t support restrictive voter ID laws, but many new ones will be in force in 2016
Defenders of photo ID laws regularly cite public opinion polls that show widespread support for their arguments. Yet these polls reveal no such support, and they prove nothing about this new restrictive legislation because the polls’ questions cover a far broader range of IDs than the actual laws accept as proof of identity. Many of the new laws do not accept a college student ID, for example, or an out-of-state driver’s license; but the polls drawing favorable responses encompass such IDs. As always, the devil is in the details.
When Republicans won full control of 21 states in 2010, they promptly adopted measures to restrict and deter voting by minorities, the poor and the young, all key components of the Democratic base. One of the most effective measures requires voters to show one of a restricted set of photo IDs issued by either a state or federal government. Government studies have shown that these laws can prevent or deter significant numbers of poor and minority voters from voting. By 2015, 13 states had adopted what the National Conference of State Legislatures considers a “strict” voter photo ID law, including seven Southern states formerly subject to federal oversight under the Voting Rights Act.
The Texas photo ID law and recent polls in Texas offer a telling example of the disparity between the laws’ actual content and what poll respondents can assume are in them. The only photo IDs that qualify in Texas are a specially issued Texas voter ID or personal ID card, a Texas driver’s license, a Texas gun license, a U.S. passport, a U.S. citizenship-naturalization certificate or a military ID. Texas does not accept a student photo ID or a photo ID from any other federal, public or private entity. Although it does allow a religious accommodation and a disability exemption — almost all states do — the Texas law does not exempt voters who are elderly, indigent or in a nursing home, as do other states.
In October 2014, a federal trial court ruled that the law violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The ruling was upheld on appeal in August, but has yet to be enforced, pending further proceedings.
Texas public opinion polls on voter IDs are not as narrowly focused as the law. In 2011 and 2012, they asked only about a nonspecific “government-issued photo identification,” and in 2014, about “Texas’ voter identification law which requires people to present state-approved photo identification in order to vote.” Under the 2011 and 2012 polls’ description, a photo ID from any federal, state, county, city or other government entity could qualify. The 2014 question seemed even broader. It appeared to include any photo ID that Texas has approved, whether the ID is from Texas or elsewhere, and even if it was issued by a private organization, like a college or professional association.
Though some poll respondents may have known that the Texas law is restrictive, it is unlikely they knew just how few the number of acceptable photo IDs there are in what the district court called the “limited universe of qualified photo IDs.” It was also not made clear that an estimated 600,000 minority and other voters would not be able to obtain the required form of ID “without overcoming substantial burdens.”
The trial court also concluded that Texas has the most restrictive of the 13 photo ID laws considered “strict” by the National Conference of State Legislatures. But the other strict states — all Republican — have voter ID requirements that are almost as restrictive. The Tennessee law, for example, is almost identical to Texas’, except that the state also accepts any Tennessee or federal-employee photo ID. Wisconsin’s law is even more stringent than Texas’ in some respects: it does not accept a veteran’s photo ID or a gun license. But the state does accept a Wisconsin University or college photo ID, with time limitations. And before a recent ambiguous modification, the North Carolina “universe” of acceptable IDs was even narrower than Texas’ because gun licenses do not qualify. Otherwise, it was similar. The law is currently in litigation, as is the Wisconsin law. And though all these states provide a religious accommodation, only a few provide any of three nonreligious exemptions.
The generality of the questions in the three Texas polls is also not unusual. To determine the kinds of voter ID laws that poll respondents were asked about elsewhere, I examined 34 other national and state polls conducted between 2006 and 2014 by 20 organizations; most were taken from 2013 to 2015. Because a polling organization usually asks the same question in its successive polls — 10 times by a Wisconsin pollster — the polls mentioned only about 12 different kinds of ID. Although 37 polls do not constitute a large sample, they include 15 national and five state polling organizations, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, Fox, NBC, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Pew Research Center, the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institution, Rasmussen and the University of Texas. Most were conducted in the past four years.
The 37 polls covered the following 12 IDs:
|Photo ID||Non-Photo ID|
|“A driver’s license or other photo ID”||“A form of government-issued ID”|
|“An official or government-issued photo ID”||“A valid state- or federally issued ID”|
|“A valid photo ID”||“A birth certificate”|
|“A photo ID”||“ID”|
|“A state-issued photo ID”||“Proof of identity”|
|“A state-approved photo ID”|
|“A photo identification or Social Security card to prove U.S. citizenship . . . to register to vote.”|
The most commonly asked question was about a government or official photo ID – at least 21 times (including the Wisconsin 10). Questions about other types of ID were used only once or occasionally twice.
The poll questions did not reveal that the ID laws under fire accept a “limited universe” of photo IDs. In fact, many of the questions applied to an almost “unlimited universe.” (Emphasis added) The 2014 McClatchy, 2012 New York Times and 2012 Rasmussen polls didn’t even ask about a photo ID, just about some form of non-photo ID, and none of the strict states accepts a voter’s Social Security card for registration.
Because the questions covered so many kinds of ID, poll respondents must have wondered what the fights over IDs are all about, especially if, like most Americans, they knew little about the voter ID laws and other voting requirements, as is true of most Americans. They were not likely to know, for example, that strict voter ID laws deter and prevent people from voting. The polls’ failure to mention their adverse impact on more than 600,000 Texans was among the reasons that led the Veasey trial and appellate courts to give no weight to the Texas polls.
Surveys show that respondents who believed that photo ID laws make it harder for some people to vote are less supportive of these laws. Yet none of the 37 polls examined for this article included information about the effects of the law on minorities and others.
The public’s apparent support for strict voter ID laws is based not only on a lack of knowledge, but also on the continual use of a Big Lie: the contention that fraud at the polls is a serious threat to the integrity of the U.S. electoral system. This claim has long been a key element in the GOP’s electoral strategy. However, studies have shown that the likelihood of in-person fraud at the polls — the only fraud the voter ID laws can prevent — is smaller than the chance of being hit by lightning. Yet as many as 40 percent of the respondents in one survey, and 25 percent in another, believed that the U.S. election system is plagued by voter fraud or vote theft.
One reason for this belief is that Republican fraud-mongers – such as Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, John Fund of the Wall Street Journal, and the Heritage Foundation’s Hans von Spakovsky — continue to spread stories of alleged in-person fraud, even though virtually all their examples have proven to be bogus or irrelevant. For example, in 2013, Kobach claimed that “about 50 votes [were] illegally cast by citizens of Somalia in Kansas City, Missouri, in a “stolen” state-representative election that was decided by one vote. A court subsequently found that there had been “no voter fraud with regard to this election.”
Last year, Kobach asserted that he’d sent fraud cases to the U.S. attorney for prosecution, but no prosecution took place. When challenged, he admitted he had not referred any cases but changed his story to charge that his “predecessor had alerted the federal prosecutor to two relevant cases, and [the prosecutor] ignored those referrals.” That wasn’t true, either. Federal investigators had examined the allegations and found no fraud.
John Fund told Lou Dobbs (then with CNN) on Oct. 24, 2014, that eight of the 19 9/11 terrorists had registered to vote in the United States. He offered no evidence because it’s not true.
In 2008, von Spakovsky reported “in 1984, a district attorney (a Democrat) in Brooklyn, New York, released the findings of a grand jury that reported extensive registration and impersonation fraud between 1968 and 1982.” It appears that the grand jury actually reported that whatever fraud existed, including the occasional impersonation fraud, involved insiders and was successfully prosecuted.
The few cases of in-person “fraud” at the polls that do exist are often the result of mistakes. These include voters voting in two states, or counties, because they think they may; ex-felons who believe they can vote when they can’t; persons who send in absentee ballots and then vote in person because they aren’t sure their ballots arrived on time, or a husband voting for his wife. In all these cases, voters used their own names and no impersonation was involved, which is the only kind of fraud affected by photo ID laws.
Nonetheless, many Americans continue to believe that U.S. elections are rife with dishonesty, including in-person fraud. Voter ID polls thus do demonstrate something: Big Lies work.