Voter Identification Laws and the Suppression of Minority Votes

June 27, 2017

In May 2017, President Donald Trump established a commission to investigate voter fraud. According to Trump, “millions” of illegal votes were cast during the 2016 presidential election. While this claim has been disputed by a number of political scientists and commentators, Trump and other Republican politicians continue to cite voter fraud as a reason to tighten voting restrictions such as voter identification laws. Currently 34 states in the U.S. have some type of voter identification requirement in place.

A new study published in the Journal of Politics by RSF grantee Zoltan Hajnal (University of California, San Diego), Nazita Lajevardi (University of California, San Diego), and Lindsay Nielson (Bucknell University) examines the effects of these voter identification laws on the turnout of different groups. Many advocates and policymakers have argued that such laws disproportionately suppress voter turnout among minorities. On the other hand, proponents of voter ID laws have argued that they reduce fraud without decreasing the participation of legal voters. Hajnal and coauthors note, “Unfortunately, despite all of the partisan and political debate, we have relatively little empirical data on the consequences of these laws.”

In their study, Hajnal and coauthors attempt to move beyond the partisan rhetoric to construct a more definitive test of the effects of voter ID laws. They analyze validated voting data from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study for primary and general elections between 2006 and 2014 and compare turnout by race in strict voter ID states (those that require photo identification to vote) with turnout by race in states without without strict voter ID laws. After controlling for a range of state-level electoral laws, campaign dynamics, and other characteristics, the authors find “strong signs that strict identification laws decrease turnout for Latinos, blacks, and Asian Americans, and some indications that they also do so for multiracial Americans.” They also find that strict voter ID laws decrease Democratic turnout, particularly in primary elections. As the authors note, these findings have serious implications for democracy in the U.S., especially as more and more state legislatures attempt to pass voter identification laws. They conclude, “The effects of voter ID laws that we see here are in some ways similar to the impact of measures like poll taxes, literacy tests, residency requirements, and at-large elections that were used by the white majority decades and centuries ago to help deny blacks many basic rights.”

Read the report in full from the Journal of Politics.

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