Opinion

JEFF JACOBY

Voter ID laws aren’t worth fighting over

In this Nov. 8, 2016, photo, a voter fills out his ballot at the Wilson School House in unincorporated Wilson, Idaho. Donald Trump’s victory came as a surprise to many Americans, the nation’s pollsters most of all. Heading into Election Day, most national surveys overstated what will likely be a narrow popular vote advantage for Hillary Clinton and led many to believe she was a shoo-in to win the Electoral College. (AP Photo/Otto Kitsinger)
Otto Kitsinger/AP/file 2016

Democratic and liberal activists have been railing for the last few years against voter ID laws, under which citizens must produce some form of official identification before they can cast a ballot.

Such laws, claim the activists, amount to voter suppression because they disenfranchise blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities, who are less likely to possess the necessary photo ID. The New York Times last summer listed Alabama’s photo identification requirement as its first example of how lawmakers “limit the right to vote.” Stacey Abrams, the Georgia Democrat who narrowly lost a high-profile race for governor, insists that voter suppression is “the crisis of our day” and described her state’s voter ID law as “designed to . . . scare people out of voting.” The NAACP recently filed a federal lawsuit in North Carolina, alleging that the state’s new law requiring voters to show a photo ID before casting a ballot is “a brazen effort” to “legislate voter suppression” and “suppress the votes of people of color.”

Yet for all the sound and fury, the campaign to demonize voter ID laws has proved singularly ineffective. There is good reason for that, as a sweeping new study by scholars at Harvard Business School and the University of Bologna confirms.

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Opinion polls consistently find strong support across the board for making voters show identification before voting. In a 2016 Pew poll, 77 percent of registered voters — including majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and independents — backed a voter ID prerequisite. A Gallup poll found even broader support: 80 percent of respondents favored ID laws, with nonwhites virtually as strong in their support as whites.

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The scaremongers’ charge that photo ID laws are racist ploys to suppress Democratic and minority votes have fallen on deaf ears even among most Democratic and minority voters. Why? Perhaps because they know perfectly well that Election Day ID rules haven’t suppressed their votes. Far from it.

In last November’s midterm elections, exit polls showed that nonwhite voters were 29 percent of the electorate, the highest share ever recorded. “Black Voters Propelled Blue Wave,” a Roll Call headline pithily observed. Black turnout has been climbing almost everywhere, including in heavily Republican states. In Georgia, for example, minorities last fall accounted for a record 40 percent of the turnout, belying Abrams’s accusation that black voters were suppressed.

In short, minority voting has not been infringed, even as voter ID laws have grown increasingly common. Which is just what researchers Vincent Pons and Enrico Cantoni found when they analyzed the impact, across multiple states and election cycles, of enacting rules requiring citizens to show ID before voting.

The effects of voter ID laws are “mostly null,” they conclude in a paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research. “Strict ID laws have no significant negative effect on registration or turnout, overall or for any subgroup defined by age, gender, race, or party affiliation. Most importantly, they do not decrease the participation of ethnic minorities relative to whites. The laws’ overall effects remain close to zero.”

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At the same time, Pons and Cantoni found no evidence that voter ID requirements have a significant impact on voter fraud or on public confidence in the integrity of elections. In states where ID laws have been adopted, there has been no increase in either the number of fraud cases or their likelihood of being reported. Nor has there been any perceptible increase in other kinds of political participation.

If these findings are accurate, they suggest that Americans are wise not to give much credence to the accusations of voter suppression flogged by activists on the left. They suggest as well that suspicions of rampant voter fraud pushed by activists on the right are mostly a bugaboo. This isn’t to say our democracy is pristine — legitimate problems include “vote harvesting” scams, unbearable lines at polling places,and cyberattacks on state voting systems. But on the whole, American voting is fairer and more open than it has ever been before.

The denial of voting rights was once widespread in this country; rampant voter fraud was, too. But citizens today who wish to participate in elections have little trouble doing so. The cynics and alarmists on both sides ought to chill out. There are serious issues worth fighting over. Voter ID laws aren’t among them.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.