For more than a decade, Republicans and Democrats have argued over the value of voter ID laws, but there’s no conclusive evidence on whether the requirement curtails voter fraud, and the level of election misconduct largely depends on who you ask.
Conservatives say widespread fraud hasn’t been detected because there hasn’t been a thorough study comparing states with voter ID laws against states that lack them.
“The challenge is we are in the position of trying to prove a negative, which is a theoretical impossibility,” said Ken Cuccinelli, chair of the Election Transparency Initiative who served as ICE director during the Trump administration.
Mr. Cuccinelli said there are studies that show voter ID laws do not suppress the vote, an argument made by Democrats who oppose voter ID laws. Liberals claim the requirements deter voters from participating in democracy.
But a study published in 2019 by scholars Enrico Cantoni of the University of Bologna and Vincent Pons of Harvard Business School found that voter ID laws did not, in fact, decrease turnout on any group of voters — including people of color.
The same analysis also found that voter ID laws have no effect on fraud.
Jason Snead, executive director of the nonpartisan Honest Elections Project, said there’s some level of fraud that takes place during an election, but it can be hard to detect to produce a detailed report on whether states with voter ID laws do a better job of preventing it.
“You’re left with anecdotal evidence,” he said.
The conservative Heritage Foundation maintains a searchable election fraud database. The group said the level of election fraud is unknown, but strengthening the system could only help.
“The big problem is that nobody really knows the extent of election fraud, including us,” Heritage said. “While we are not making any definitive claims about the extent of election fraud in our country, we are confident in saying that there are far too many vulnerabilities in our current system.”
“It is hard to detect fraud if you don’t have the tools in place to do that such as a voter ID law,” said Hans von Spakovsky, a former member of the Federal Election Commission and director of Heritage’s Election Law Reform Initiative.
Mr. Snead said fraud is typically more prevalent with absentee ballots, pointing to Paterson, New Jersey, where two councilmen have been indicted for allegedly engaging in election fraud through mail-in ballots in an election in May 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic.
The ballots were missing important identifying information, which Mr. Snead said could have been discovered with a voter ID requirement, instead of relying on mismatched signatures on absentee ballots. New Jersey does not require ID to vote, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“Signature matching alone has some significant issues with it,” he said. “This is a way to streamline the process.”
Of course, former President Donald Trump has alleged that expanded use of mail-in ballots last year led to widespread fraud and his election loss in key states such as Georgia and Pennsylvania. He has called for more safeguards against fraud, including voter ID and signature verification.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 36 states require voters to show ID. The laws have become increasingly strict, with more than a dozen states requiring a photo ID to cast a ballot.
Indiana was the first state to implement a photo ID requirement, which was ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court. In 2008, the conservative majority ruled that Indiana’s photo ID requirement was legal because there’s no evidence it would disenfranchise any particular class of voters.
States that require IDs also provide free identification for voters who cannot afford a driver’s license.
But critics of voter ID laws said election fraud is isolated, and that’s why there’s no data to support states requiring them.
“It’s pretty rare — especially the kind of fraud that would be addressed by an ID requirement,” said Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Democrats have largely argued that voter ID laws should be struck down because they target people of color, asserting that they often are not able to obtain IDs as easily as White voters.
A 2016 Survey of the Performance of American Elections revealed that poll workers demanded to see photo identification from Black voters more often than they requested ID from White voters.
The Brennan Center, a left-of-center organization, cites a 2017 article on its website from The Journal of Politics that found strict ID requirements have a negative impact on turnout among people of color.
The group’s website also cites a poll showing that 25% of Black voters do not have a current government ID, while only 8% of White voters don’t have one. Scholars from the Brennan Center did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
“That’s always been the attack and it’s been the attack for well over a decade,” Mr. Snead said of reported disparities among racial groups’ access to government ID.
Mr. Cuccinelli said the goal of voter ID laws is to not only have a good system, but also accountability and to give voters confidence in the process.
But Mr. Burden disputed that claim, saying polling shows there’s no increase in voter confidence in results from states with strict ID requirements. A 2016 Stanford Law Review article said there is “no empirical evidence that the presence of photo ID laws has a salutary effect on voter confidence.”
“If anything, the evidence we present here suggests that the rise of these laws has coincided with a politicization of opinions about election administration, leading to a slight increase in voter beliefs about the prevalence of fraud,” the study said.
Mr. Burden said, “They seem to have no effect.”
Still, a Rasmussen Reports survey published last month found that 75% of likely voters support voter ID laws.
According to the results, 89% of GOP voters and 60% of Democrats back the requirement.