March 30, 2007
Is The EAC Being Appropriately Cautious or Cowardly on Voter Identification Research?
Today the EAC issued a press release, "EAC to Launch Comprehensive Study of Voter ID Laws." The release begins: "The U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) has voted unanimously to launch a comprehensive study focused on voter identification laws after concluding that initial research it received in a report, which focused on only one election cycle, was not sufficient to draw any conclusions. The Commission declined to adopt the report, but is releasing all of the data to the public. The report and the research, conducted by Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, through its Eagleton Institute of Politics, are available at www.eac.gov. The Commission's statement regarding its decision is attached. 'After careful consideration of the initial research, the Commission decided this important issue deserves a more in-depth research approach, and that it should be examined beyond only one election cycle,' said EAC Chair Donetta Davidson. 'The Commission and our contractor agree that the research conducted for EAC raises more questions than provides answers.'"
The earlier report for the EAC got some extensive news coverage because it showed a decline in turnout, especially among minority voters, caused by voter identification laws.
There's nothing to quarrel with the EAC about concerning a need for additional research. But why did the EAC go so far as to disown the initial report? Project Vote accuses the EAC of playing politics.
What we can say here is that the EAC's actions follow a familiar and disturbing pattern. There are two unanswered sets of empirical questions on voter identification. One question involves the extent to which voter identification laws disenfranchise eligible voters. That's what at stake in these studies. The other involves the extent to which there is voter fraud that a voter id law could be said to prevent or deter. The EAC commissioned a report on vote fraud, too, and it disowned that report also, creating some controversy.
The EAC needs to remain a credible broker, and it can't be timid about what it finds. If the evidence happens to support one side of the debate over voter id laws over another, that should not be a reason to disown a report on start over. Release the reports and do additional research, that could confirm or reject the hypotheses of the earlier research---unless those reports are so flawed in their methodology that they have no probative value. That seems a hard argument to make with this research.
As I've argued, the moment for election reform is passing, and the chances for the EAC to be an honest broker that is above politics and that lets the chips fall where they may are fading.