Requiring voters to show a photo ID at the polls does lower turnout, Congress’ nonpartisan watchdog concluded in a major report released Wednesday that said young, black and newly registered voters were most likely to stay home.
By contrast, Government Accountability Office analysts said they were not able to figure out how much voter fraud — the problem voter ID laws are meant to combat — is actually going on.
The study, coming less than a month before voters go to the polls, is boosting opponents of voter ID mandates who say it’s time to scrap laws that curtail the pool of voters.
“We must make it easier, not harder, for poor and working people to vote and to participate in the political process,” said Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent who requested the study along with four Democratic colleagues. “These state laws aren’t really intended to discourage fraud, they’re intended to discourage voting.”
The GAO’s extensive study looked at existing reports on voter turnout, which showed mixed results, but also did a new study of voter turnout in Kansas and Tennessee, both of which enacted voter ID laws before the 2012 election. Investigators said voter turnout in both of those states dropped off more than it did in other similar states that didn’t impose new ID requirements.
Voter ID laws have become a fiercely-debated political topic in recent years, with Wisconsin’s ID law currently facing a challenge in federal courts. The Supreme Court is considering whether to block the law.
In 2008, the justices upheld an Indiana photo ID law, finding that the state had a “valid interest” in deterring voter fraud and ensuring smooth elections, which outweighed opponents’ claim that minorities and elderly voters lacked identification at rates higher than the general population, and would be deterred from voting.
The new GAO study said its results should not be read to mean voter turnout would drop in states other than Kansas and Tennessee, nor does it apply to states that allow voters to show a non-photo ID or to sign an affidavit asserting their identity.
But at a time when both parties, facing a fairly evenly divided electorate, are increasingly seeking an advantage in controlling the size of the voter pool, the study is likely to give fuel to Democrats.
The GAO study said young adults were less likely to show up to vote in Tennessee and Kansas after the ID law, with 18-year-olds seeing a huge drop-off in Kansas.
Black voter turnout also dropped at a higher rate than white voters — though no similar effect was found for Asians or Hispanics, the study found, “thus suggesting that the laws did not have larger effects on these registrants.”
Kansas and Tennessee officials questioned the voter data the GAO used, and also challenged the other states investigators used for comparison — Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware and Maine — saying those states were too different.
Arkansas also objected, saying its 2008 and 2012 elections were too different to make a meaningful comparison.
But the investigators defended their methodology, saying they controlled for other factors that could affect voter turnout, including the differences in competitive congressional races.
While the GAO had firm conclusions on turnout, it said it was unable to draw conclusions about the dangers of in-person voter fraud.
Not only is there no centralized reporting location for cases of fraud, there’s no way of knowing how many cases go unreported, the investigators said.
“The studies we reviewed identified few instances of in-person voter fraud, and while they provide information on efforts to estimate in-person voter fraud, limitations in the populations studied and sources used make it difficult to use these studies to determine a complete estimate of the incidence of in-person voter fraud,” the investigators wrote.