A Texas law, which closely resembles similar laws erecting obstacles to the franchise in other states, does far more to keep voters from casting a ballot than previously thought, according to a study conducted by researchers at Rice University and the University of Houston.
Typically, analysts examining how voter ID laws affect turnout have honed in on voters who lack ID as the obvious victims of such a law. The Rice/Houston study, however, reveals that these laws reach far beyond the universe of people without IDs. “[T]he most significant impact of the Texas voter photo ID law on voter participation,” at least within the congressional district examined by the study, “was to discourage turnout among registered voters who did indeed possess an approved form of photo ID, but through some combination of misunderstanding, doubt or lack of knowledge, believed that they did not possess the necessary photo identification.”
The study surveyed 400 registered voters who did not cast a ballot in the November 2014 election. All of these non-voters reside in Texas’s 23rd Congressional District — a district the researchers describe as “the only one of the state’s 36 U.S. House districts where both the Democratic Party and Republican Party candidates have a realistic chance of victory in November.” In 2014, Republican Will Hurd narrowly defeated Democratic incumbent Rep. Pete Gallego in the 23rd district.
Altogether, 12.8 percent of the non-voters surveyed in the study said that lack of identification was a reason why they did not vote in the 2014 election, and 5.8 percent said that this was the principal reason why they did not vote. Yet, despite the relatively high numbers of voters who cited lack of ID when asked why they did not cast a ballot, the researchers determined that only “2.7% of the respondents did not possess any of the seven valid forms of photo identification” and “only 1.0% did not possess a photo ID and agreed that a lack of this photo ID was a reason why they did not vote.”
At best, this suggests that more than half of the voters who did not cast a ballot because they believed they lacked the identification required to do so actually did have a valid form of ID.
The study also confirms many of Democrats’ worst fears about the potential impact of voter ID. According to the study, “five times as many non-voters who listed the photo ID law as the principal reason they did not participate would have voted for Gallego rather than for Hurd.” Though the researchers are unable to state with certainty whether the law changed the result of this election, they do conclude that the voter ID law “may have possibly cost [Gallego] the election.” Hurd defeated Gallego by just over 2,400 votes in 2014.
Voter ID laws are, at best, a solution in search of a problem. Though they are commonly justified as a shield against voter fraud at the poll, multiple studies conform that such fraud barely exists. Instead, laws requiring voters to show photo ID at the polls disproportionately disenfranchise groups such as low-income voters, young people and voters of color — all of whom tend to prefer Democratic candidates over Republicans. In 2012, former New York Times data analyst Nate Silver estimated that a voter ID law could “reduce President Obama’s margin against Mitt Romney by a net of 1.2 percentage points.”
Moreover, the Rice/Houston study only adds to the evidence that Texas’s voter ID law kept voters from the polls. In 2014, more than one in five voters who called an election protection hotline expressed concerns related to voter ID.
Although the voter ID law was in place for the 2014 election, it may not stay in effect in 2016. A federal appeals court held that Texas’s law violates the Voting Rights Act last week — although this decision is likely to be reviewed by a Supreme Court that has shown a great deal of skepticism towards voting rights claims in the past.