Politics & Policy

Wisconsin Voter-ID Study Has Statistical Flaws and Mistaken Assumptions

Voter at a polling place in Milwaukee, Wisc., on the state’s presidential primary, April 5, 2016. (Reuters photo: Kamil Krzaczynski)
Media and scholars push a narrative that is not supported by the survey data.

Earlier this week, professors at the University of Wisconsin–Madison made national news, including a story in the New York Times, with the claim that that nearly 17,000 potential Wisconsin voters had been “deterred” by the state’s voter-ID law. All the usual suspects responded on cue, repeating all the expected talking points, with the clerk of Milwaukee County suggesting that the survey shows that “Jim Crow laws are alive and well.”

Someone should have asked some hard questions, because the survey proves nothing of the sort.

Part of this is due to methodological flaws, such as sample selection bias. But the most egregious error is how the media and scholars are using this study to push a narrative that voter-ID laws suppressed turnout in the 2016 election. The study itself does not support this conclusion.

Here’s why: The survey — which was funded with tax dollars by an elected Democrat in left-of-liberal Madison — was mailed to 2,400 people in the Democratic strongholds of Dane and Milwaukee counties who were registered but did not vote. It asked respondents why they did not vote. Very few of the people who received the survey responded, and of those did respond, about 30 said it was because they thought they lacked a proper form of ID. This number was extrapolated into the larger number with the unstated claim that almost all of them would have voted for Hillary Clinton.

Among those who did respond, the main reason cited for not voting was that they were “unhappy with choice of candidates or issues” (33 percent chose this). After that, other reasons for not voting include being ill, out of town, not interested, otherwise occupied, or believing that their vote did not matter. Only 1.7 percent of respondents believed that they did not have an adequate photo ID, and 1.4 percent claimed to have actually been turned away at the polling place (which might have been related to ID). Put another way, the main reason for not voting cited by somewhere between 95 and 98 percent of the respondents was unrelated to the voter-ID law.

Yet the New York Times headline reads: “Wisconsin Strict ID law Discouraged Voters, Study Finds.” Well, yes, it may have discouraged a few. But Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton seemed to have discouraged many times more. When almost all non-voters had other reasons — “I was ill,” “I was gone,” “It doesn’t matter” — it is dangerous to assume that even those who cited voter ID as the “main reason” would have voted if not for the law.

But that is not even the most fundamental problem with the breathless claims of disenfranchisement. It appears that most of those who were deterred from voting actually could have voted. The first hint of a problem is in the professors’ use of the circumlocution “deterred” in describing the impact of the voter ID-law on voters. In a statement to the media, one of the study’s authors, Professor Kenneth Mayer, went further, saying that persons who are eligible but “cannot vote because of” the voter-ID law have been “disenfranchised.” But that it is not what the survey found. According to the press release from the study, “Most of the people who said they did not vote because they lacked ID actually possessed a qualifying form of ID.” This crucial finding was omitted in many of the media reports on the survey.

It appears that most of those who were deterred from voting actually could have voted.

If the survey results are representative, then it is possible that the state or the candidates should have done more to educate people about the law. Maybe the laws’ opponents could have toned down their overblown rhetoric claiming that the law disenfranchised massive numbers of voters. But it is odd to say that voters were deterred by an obstacle to voting that did not exist. The most this survey can claim to prove is that the administration of the law could have been improved or that the candidates could have run better ground games.

The authors state that “the burdens of voter ID” — such as they are – “fell disproportionately on low-income and minority populations.” The actual results are not so clear. The study included two questions on reasons for not voting. One question allowed people to cite multiple reasons for not voting, while the second asked people for their main reason for not voting. While blacks and low-income persons were more likely to cite a lack of voter ID as one of the reasons they did not vote, there was no statistically significant difference between those respondents and others with respect to voter ID as the main reason for not voting.

There are other problems. The low response rates call into question whether the respondents were representative of the larger population, and surveys asking people about their voting behavior are always problematic: Respondents tend to give answers that excuse their failure to vote.

Like everyone else, members of the media are prone to motivated reasoning. When a survey comes out that is in accord with their prevailing notion that Republicans work to suppress voter turnout among minorities and the poor, they tend to read it for all it’s worth and then a bit more. This survey was much ado about nothing, but that didn’t prevent a concerted effort to make it something that it is not.


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