Four Reasons Racist Voter ID Laws Matter


In the last year, I’ve seen several people posting suggesting that voter ID laws shouldn’t worry Democrats much (the most prominent were these two posts by Nate Cohn).

But despite a disproportionate impact on Democratic-leaning groups, the electoral consequences of voter ID seem relatively marginal. [...] Obama’s share of the vote in North Carolina might have dropped from 48.3 to 48 percent, expanding Romney’s margin of victory from 92,000 to about 120,000 votes. 25,000 to 30,000 votes could flip a very close election, but nothing more. In 2012, no state was so close.

I’d argue that, despite the statistically small difference voter ID laws have made so far, they’re still a matter of legitimate concern.

1) Just as a matter of Democratic principle, it’s wrong to allow Republicans to rob 25,000 to 30,000 North Carolina voters of their vote. (Ditto for other states, of course.)

2) Those 25,000 to 30,000 lost votes came in the context of a high level of concern about voter ID laws. The correct belief that Republicans are attempting to reduce Democratic voter turnout with laws that disproportionately harm Latin@, Black, elderly and poor voters caused backlash, and caused many targeted voters to be more determined to vote than they would otherwise have been. If Democrats been less concerned about the impact of voter ID laws, voter ID laws might have had a larger impact.

3) Voter ID laws are not stand-alone laws; they are part of a larger system of anti-voting laws intended to keep Blacks, Latin@s, the elderly, poor people and young people from voting. As well as voter ID laws, there’s a large variety of laws intended to make it harder to vote early, to register, or to vote at all (for instance, by reducing voting hours). The oldest anti-voting laws still on the books, felony disenfranchisement laws, may be the most damaging – and the most racist.

According to Jean Chung, author of a Sentencing Project report on felony disenfranchisement, one in every 13 African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised, a rate more than four times greater than the rest of the adult population. And in certain states the statistics are alarmingly high: in Florida, 23 percent of Black voters are disenfranchised; in Kentucky, 22 percent; and in Virginia, 20 percent – that’s more than one in five Black adults who cannot vote.

4) Republicans have only begun attacking voting rights. After the Supreme Court eviscerated the Voting Rights Act in June’s Shelby v. Holder decision, Republican-controlled legislatures rushed to enact whatever voter ID laws they already had written.

In time, new and more extreme laws will inevitably be written to take advantage of the freedom Shelby has given states to reduce voting rights. And the conservatives on the Supreme Court may further reduce voting rights in future decisions. The worse damages of current voter ID laws are not the worst we’ll see.

How bad things will get depends, to some extent, on how hard Democrats fight back against these laws. Deciding not to be concerned will lead to more restrictive anti-voting laws than we’ll see otherwise.

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6 Responses to Four Reasons Racist Voter ID Laws Matter

  1. 1
    RonF says:

    Vote fraud – at least, the potential of it – is a legitimate issue. Here is an example:

    New York City’s Department of Investigation (DOI) has just shown how easy it is to commit voter fraud that is almost undetectable. Its undercover agents were able to obtain ballots for city elections a total of 61 times — 39 times using the names of dead people, 14 times using the names of incarcerated felons, and eight times using the names of non-residents. On only two occasions, or about 3 percent of the time, were the agents stopped by polling-place officials. In one of the two cases, an investigator was stopped only because the felon he was trying to vote in the name of was the son of the election official he was dealing with.

    Numerous other examples are given. By the way, the response of the New York board of elections was to call for the prosecution of the investigators.

  2. 2
    Ampersand says:

    Ron, no one doubts that it’s POSSIBLE to commit voter fraud in some areas. But there’s no evidence that’s it’s actually happening to any significant degree.

    In New York, the problem is that the Board of Elections is not effectively updating the voter rolls within a two-year window, so people who have recently died (been imprisoned, etc) aren’t struck from the rolls in time for the next election. The solution to that is better management (and possibly modernizing the data systems) at the BOE. Voter ID laws won’t address the problem, since the DOI investigators could just as easily have obtained absentee ballots for people who died six months before an election.

    As a matter of common sense and maintaining appearances, I don’t think prosecuting the investigators is a good idea.

    However, as a matter not of this specific case, but of general legal principle, do you really think it’s a good idea for police to feel free to commit felonies during an investigation without any sort of oversight from any other branch of government?

  3. 3
    Nancy Lebovitz says:

    Any theories about the geographical distribution of the states with restrictive voting laws? I expected them to be more clustered in the south.

  4. 4
    RonF says:

    “But there’s no evidence that’s it’s actually happening to any significant degree.”

    My thought there is that the matter is rarely investigated and so there’s insufficient evidence to make a conclusion either way on the matter. Here in Illinois election corruption is legend – but then corruption overall is rife in Illinois.

    “Voter ID laws won’t address the problem, since the DOI investigators could just as easily have obtained absentee ballots for people who died six months before an election.”

    An excellent argument to limit the availability of absentee balloting, which is pretty problematical anyway, since unlike regular voting there is no way to ensure that the person casting the vote is not being influenced by someone else – or even if the person casting the vote is the person who obtained/requested the ballot.

    I would say that it is definitely NOT good public policy for the police to commit felonies without oversight from another branch of government int he course of an investigation. However, it would at least have been nice to see the Board of Elections acknowledge that they had a problem.

  5. 5
    Harlequin says:

    My thought there is that the matter is rarely investigated and so there’s insufficient evidence to make a conclusion either way on the matter.

    18-month, $150,000 investigation in Iowa (led by the Republican Secretary of State) reveals 16 cases of voter fraud, most of them simple confusion (eg felons who thought their voting rights had been restored, which would have been true prior to 2011). Another 9 felons were charged a few days ago.

    Hamilton County, OH charged 6 people and referred 42 to the Secretary of State out of 564,000 registered voters. Earlier that year, the Ohio Secretary of State charged 17 non-citizens (Fox News in that article calls him “a Republican who has aggressively tried to investigate voter fraud cases in his state”). In comparison, hundreds of Ohio ballots each year are thrown out because absentee voters didn’t seal the inner envelope, among around 10,000 ballots tossed for bureaucratic problems.

    Colorado Secretary of State finds 155 possibly illegal voters out of a voting population of over 3 million. 0/17 were fraudulent in Boulder; 4/41 were charged in Arapahoe County. He also sent 4,000 letters to people a preliminary investigation suggested weren’t US citizens, which resulted in 16 people withdrawing from the rolls.

    Wisconsin task force charges 20.

    Florida probe charges 1, with 6 investigations still outstanding.

    That’s 5 state-level investigations in swing states, all finding voter fraud at the 0.0015% level or less. (Well, if ALL of the other Colorado ballots were found to be fraudulent, that’s 0.0035%.)

    Here in Illinois election corruption is legend – but then corruption overall is rife in Illinois.

    Agreed on both counts (I lived in Chicago for six years). But if our perception is true…is it the kind of fraud that voter ID laws would correct?

  6. 6
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    I don’t see vote fraud as being especially sensible.

    The penalties are high if you get caught. And sure, you’re unlikely to get caught, but still….

    WTF is it actually designed to accomplish? Or more precisely, what would it do that is actually worthwhile? Unless you’re talking about large scale fraud then you’re taking all that risk for a single vote or two, which (a) generally has no effect whatsoever; and (b) has delayed payback (you can’t tell until the polls close) which makes it worth even less because the chances of “wasted effort” are vastly increased. (Hopefully we can all agree on the incentives: desire to commit vote fraud is highly reliant on the dual assumptions that the candidate WILL win if you commit fraud and WON’T win if you refrain.)

    If you reeeeeeally wanted another vote for Candidate A in your town, would you seriously commit a federal crime instead of just promising to drive your friends to the polls and buy pizza afterwards?

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