New push for voter ID laws despite scant evidence of effectiveness

Voter ID.jpgWeeks after winning control of the North Carolina legislature, Republicans have unveiled pieces of their 2011 legislative agenda. While they may have campaigned on jobs and taxes, an entirely different issue tops the priority list of new House Speaker Rep. Thom Tillis: passing a voter ID law.

North Carolina isn't alone: This year, emboldened by their 2010 midterm victories, Republican lawmakers across the country have pledged to push for strict laws requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls. Voter ID laws were the first to be pre-filed by GOP legislators this week in Texas and South Carolina, and others states will likely follow suit.

With the struggling economy still the number one issue on most people's minds, why the fixation on voter ID? The reasons have to do more with politics than any real threat facing the integrity of elections.

First, pushing for voter ID gives Republicans a reason to talk about the alleged crisis of widespread voter fraud.

There's little evidence such fraud actually exists: A five-year investigation by President Bush's Department of Justice earlier this decade famously netted only 86 convictions out of thousands of cases. But since the 1960s, the mere accusation of fraud has been effective in rallying GOP voters.

Yet the prospect of a voter ID law should give little comfort to even the most die-hard believer in the anti-voter fraud crusade. As Adam Skaggs of the Brennan Center, a non-profit legal advocacy center, noted in testimony to the Texas legislature in 2009, voter ID laws only address one type -- and one type alone -- of alleged fraud: in-person impersonation of another registered voter.

All the other types of fraud -- people voting twice, Mickey Mouse trying to register, non-citizens voting, irregular absentee ballots -- would be completely unaffected by a voter ID law.

And there's no evidence that in-person voter impersonation is a widespread problem. As Skaggs argued in his testimony:
[T]he only problem that a voter ID requirement could possibly fix usually doesn't exist. Texans are struck and killed by lightning more often. And there are far, far more reports of UFOs every year than instances of impersonation at the polls.

When eager reporters or political operatives do claim to find evidence of voter impersonation, they rarely pan out after further investigation; clerical errors or mistakes in efforts to match voting records with other government databases end up being the culprit.

In 2008, the conservative media outfit Texas Watchdog claimed to have found 48 cases of dead people casting votes. But a follow-up investigation by the Dallas Morning News "concluded that none involved a fraudulently cast vote."

In 2007, North Carolina's Republican state auditor similarly claimed to have found evidence of thousands of such suspicious voter records, which were publicized on the eve of the legislature's vote on a voter registration bill. When the state board of elections issued a 10-page rejoinder questioning the report's methodology and findings, the auditor retracted his concerns.

There may be little evidence that voter ID laws solve any real election problems. But they may bring a heavy cost: lower voter participation. Up to 12% of U.S. citizens don't have the kind of government-issued photo ID that most voter ID laws require.

At least three studies (here, here and here) have concluded that voter ID laws, by throwing up an extra barrier to casting a ballot, lower voter turnout. One study found no effect; zero studies have shown a positive effect on voting.

Maybe it's time to get back to focusing on the economy.