Brief Note on Voter ID Laws and the 2012 Election

Earlier this week, the Los Angeles Times published a helpful round-up of how voter ID provisions are faring across the country. I have heard a number of political analysts suggest that these provisions would have an enormous impact on turnout, yet reporter David Savage suggests otherwise:

Earlier this year, voting rights advocates foresaw a cloud over this year’s election because new voting laws in Republican-led states tightened the rules for casting ballots and reduced the time for early voting.

But with the election less than a month away, it’s now clear those laws will have little impact. A series of rulings has blocked or weakened the laws as judges — both Republicansand Democrats — stopped measures that threatened to bar legally registered voters from polling places in the November election.

These rulings have been in my view fairly measured and responsible:

None of the rulings this year conclude that photo ID laws are unconstitutional. Rather, the judges said that if states plan to enforce such a new rule, they must ensure that people legally registered to vote — including those who are old and do not drive — can easily obtain the identification they need.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which has three elected Republicans and three Democrats, said it would allow “no voter disenfranchisement” under the state’s new voter ID law. And on that basis, a state judge decided last week that it could not be enforced this year. The court was told that hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania’s registered voters did not have the kind of photo ID card that would allow them to vote.

This seems fair enough: give state and local governments the time they need to help all eligible voters acquire identification. 

What is true, however, is that Florida’s profoundly flawed effort to purge its voter rolls of individuals who are not in fact eligible to vote may have had a a small but decidedly negative impact.

Back in July, before the recent Pennsylvania court ruling, Nate Silver of the New York Times predicted that voter ID laws would have a fairly small impact on turnout:

[A]lthough I do think these laws will have some detrimental effect on Democratic turnout, it is unlikely to be as large as some Democrats fear or as some news media reports imply — and they can also serve as a rallying point for the party bases. So although the direct effects of these laws are likely negative for Democrats, it wouldn’t take that much in terms of increased base voter engagement — and increased voter conscientiousness about their registration status — to mitigate them.

Given that the most stringent ID requirements have been suspended, it is reasonable to assume that the impact will be negligible.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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