Voter ID and the Myth of the 2 Million Disenfranchised Non-Voters

An argument making the rounds against voter ID laws is that they disenfranchise voters. In other words, they create a barrier for people who want to vote. The argument goes that a lot of people would vote if only they did not have to show photo ID. What is the biggest evidence for this? It is a survey of voters and non-voters in the 2008 election conducted by R. Michael Alvarez of Caltech, Stephen Ansolabehere of Harvard University and The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Adam Berinsky, Gabriel Lenz, & Charles Stewart III of The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Thad Hall of the University of Utah.
The most cited number is that 2.2 million registered voters did not vote because they did not have the correct ID. That comes from the top of page 59 in the report. This number is calculated from knowing that there were 154.6 million people registered to vote in 2008 but only 131.4 million actually did. That leaves 23.2 million registered voters who did not vote. The survey indicated that 9.3% of non-voters indicated that they did not do so because they lacked the proper ID. All those numbers certainly add up, but the story becomes shakier if you dig into some of the details.

Part of the argument goes that requiring photo ID’s hits the elderly particularly hard. They don’t drive as much and so don’t need driver’s licenses as much. It is harder for them to go to a place to get a free non-driver’s license ID. Photo ID’s are just downright mean to Grandpa and Grandma. But what does the survey say? Interestingly enough, the researchers broke down the numbers on those who cited the lack of proper ID. On page 61 of the report, we see that for those voters older than 61 years, the percent who reported not voting because of improper ID as 0.0%. That is a big fat zero. That does not mean you can’t find any older voters who have a problem, but the ones the media are trotting out are not representative of the problem. That is like having a press conference with Tyrone Bogues in order to claim that NBA players average 5’ 3” in height. In fact, voters in the youngest age bracket, 18-30, are more likely to indicate they had the wrong ID.

Even if the elderly are not disenfranchised by photo ID’s, what about all those young and middle aged voters who make up that 2.2 million cohort? Even that number is not what is seems. One problem with it is that it is a national number but voting laws are not even over the nation. At the time of the 2008 election, 23 states required photo or non-photo ID’s for only first time voters. There were 18 states that required ID’s for all voters, but they accepted non-photo ID’s. Only 3 states (FL, GA, and IN) required all voters to have photo ID’s. For Florida, there were 5.6% of non-voters who cited lack of ID as the reason for not voting (and remember none of those were over 61 years old). In Georgia 8.3% indicated wrong ID as the reason for not voting. And Indiana? Despite having one of the strictest voting ID laws in the nation, no one in the survey choose wrong ID as a problem, no one. Here is another big fat zero.

Besides these three states, everyone else in the country did not need a photo ID to vote. There were some who needed other ID’s and could have used photo ID’s, but photo ID’s were not required. How many in the 3 states didn’t vote because of lack of photo ID’s? Florida had a turnout of 7.95 million people out of a registration of 8.77 million leaving 820,000 non-voters and only 46,000 because of photo ID. (That last number is extrapolated from the survey.) Georgia had a turnout of 4.18 million people out of 4.62 million registered leaving 440,000 non-voters of whom only 36,000 did not vote because of photo ID. Adding these numbers up shows a real total of 82,000, a far cry from 2.2 million. Remember also that these are people who said they didn’t have photo ID’s at the time of voting. They did not say that they could not get photo ID’s. The survey did not delve into this important distinction. This also is a far cry from disenfranchisement.

It is also interesting to look at the state with the highest number of non-voters who cited lack of ID. That would be New York where 52% of non-voters say that ID was the problem. The strange thing is that NY voting laws in 2008 were very lax. They were one of the 23 states that only required ID for first time voters and even then they accepted non-photo ID’s. I highly doubt that those 52% were first time voters or even the first time voters in that group could not have come up with non-photo ID’s as allowed by NY’s very liberal voting policy. Again, it is hard to call this disenfranchisement, at least not state government provided disenfranchisement.

Requiring photo ID’s to vote is not the boogeyman that liberals make out this policy to be. In fact, out of 14 choices the researchers gave to non-voters, wrong ID ranked 12th in the list just beating out such excuses as “forgot” and “weather”. In 2008 there were not 2.2 million people prevented from voting because of photo ID requirements. Not even those 82,000 people were prevented. Almost of them never even tried. On page 27 we learn that “Less than one-quarter of one percent of respondents (only 9 people) reported that they were prevented from voting at the polls as a result of voter identification requests…”.


2008 Survey of the Performance of American Elections

2008 Census data on voter turnout by state