How many voters actually deterred by new Republican voting laws?

Regular readers of this blog know that I believe that Republican claims of a serious problem with voter impersonation fraud (used to justify voter identification laws) are bogus. As I explain in the Fraudulent Fraud Squad sneak preview of my forthcoming book, The Voting Wars, many Republican legislators and political operatives support voter i.d. laws for two purposes: first, to depress Democratic turnout, and second to gin up the base.  On this second point, consider this quote (included in Fraudulent Fraud Squad) from a Republican operative in New Mexico to U.S. Attorney David Iglesias urging an indictment of an ACORN employee before the next election:

I believe the [voter] ID issue should be used (now) at all levels—federal, state legislative races and Heather [Wilson]’s race. . . . You are not going to find a better wedge issue. . . . I’ve got to believe the [voter] ID issue would do Heather more good than another ad talking about how much federal taxpayer money she has put into the (state) education system and social security. . . . This is the single best wedge issue, ever in NM. We will not have this opportunity again. . . . Today, we expect to file a new Public Records lawsuit, by 3 Republican legislators, demanding the Bernalillo county clerk locate and produce (before Oct 15) ALL of the registrations signed by the ACORN employee.

Iglesias did not bring that indictment as was sacked for his failure to pursue bogus voter fraud claims.

But there’s another side to the issue of voter identification laws, and more broadly to claims on the left of “voter suppression.” Democrats/those on the left sometimes inflate the potential negative effect of voter identification and other laws on voter turnout, especially among poor and minority voters.  Even though it is clear that some Republicans are motivated to pass these laws in an effort to suppress likely Democratic turnout, some of those efforts are counterproductive and even when such efforts work the effects seem likely to be small.  Further, just as Republicans use the scare of voter id laws as a wedge issue to boost Republican turnout, Democrats use the scare of voter suppression to boost Democratic turnout. Check out the Donna Brazile fundraising letter excerpted in my chapter.

In my recent chair lecture based on the forthcoming book, I include is a set of slides showing how the Brennan Center’s press release about its report on new GOP-backed voter laws was transformed by those on the left.  The press release was headlined “Study: New Voting Restrictions May Affect More than 5 Million.”  The release and the report are cautious in saying “may” and “could” about the 5 million figure but the left ran with the study as evidence of voter suppression and the GOP “War on Voting.” For example, a Daily Kos diarist had a headline: “5 Million Voters Have Been Targeted by GOP School of Election Electioneering” and Rolling Stone had a headline: “GOP War on Voting: New Laws Could Block 5 Million from Polls.”

But it seems that social science has a lot of work to  do now to track whether voting laws passed by Republican legislatures actually depress much turnout.  There’s been some work on voter id laws, the best of which shows likely a very small effect, but very hard to measure.  There’s too much work like a recent NPR report (not done by the excellent Pam Fessler) which casually extrapolated from the number of voters currently lacking identification in states with new id laws to conclusions about how the new laws would ultimately affect voter turnout.

My book will give illustrations of other examples where the effects had to be minuscule, as in the New Hampshire phone jamming case. But some of the other areas are ripe for study.  For example, from the Brennan Center report’s executive summary explaining how they got to their 5 million person figure:

5. One to two million voters who voted in 2008 on days eliminated under new laws rolling back early voting. The early voting period was cut by half or more in three states (Florida, Georgia and Ohio). In 2008, nearly 8 million Americans voted early in these states. An estimated 1 to 2 million voted on days eliminated by these new laws.

Many of these voters who voted on days eliminated by the new laws will simply vote on a different early voting day, vote by absentee (if allowed), or vote on election day.  It would be nice to have a handle on how turnout actually is affected by these new voting laws It is likely that far fewer than one to two million people who voted on election day in 2008 won’t vote in 2012 because of the elimination of some early voting days.  Turnout may go down in this election, especially if Democrats are not as enthused to vote in 2012 as they were in 2008, but that will have nothing to do with the elimination of early voting days.  So it is important to be careful when drawing conclusions about turnout and election laws (just as when then Indiana- SOS Rokita made the completely unsubstantiated claim that the state’s new voter id laws caused turnout to go up in 2008.).

In short, we need to be honest about what we know, and what we don’t know, about the effects of these new laws on voter turnout.  And we don’t know a lot.

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