Voter ID Laws Don’t Have Much Effect, But They’re Indefensible Anyway

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

Tyler Cowen points us this morning to a new paper by Enrich Cantoni that uses county-level administrative data from 1992 to 2014 to estimate the effect of voter ID laws. Here’s the nut of it:

In other words, voter ID laws of all kinds have almost no effect on voter turnout and almost no effect on Democratic vote share:

The estimated average effects on turnout are fairly precise zeros. The implementation of an ID law of any type is associated, on average, with an insignificant .4 percentage point increase in voter turnout. Likewise, strict-photo ID laws induce an insignificant .5 percentage point decrease in county-level voter participation .

This tracks pretty well with previous research, which suggests that photo ID laws have a very modest effect. But why? Is it because they’re just ineffective, or because they piss off Democrats, who then mount an extra strong GOTV push? I don’t think anyone knows.

It’s worth pointing out that although reduced participation—even 0.5 percentage points—is a good reason to oppose strict photo ID laws, it’s never been the main reason. The main reason is that these laws are aimed very precisely at African-American and Hispanic voters. Is this because of crude racism? Or are blacks and Hispanics just collateral damage in an effort to hurt Democrats? It doesn’t matter. For reasons that should be too obvious to need pointing out, any voting law that has an outsized impact on black voters—accidental or not—deserves the very strictest scrutiny. If there were a truly pressing justification for photo ID laws, maybe you’d allow it. But voter fraud is virtually nonexistent, and reducing the Democratic vote is obviously not a very pressing justification. No court should allow this kind of thing.


Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend